I was at a birthday party for my nephew this past weekend. It was mostly family, but my brother had also invited Simon & Carol, friends that we grew up with in the old neighborhood. I had been very close with Carol for many years, but we grew apart over the last several years and I barely see her anymore. I hugged her hello and made the usual “it’s so good to see you!” small talk. Literally, we talked about nothing of consequence. Pretty quickly, however, the conversation deteriorated to good natured ribbing. Then it turned not-so-good natured.
Don’t get me wrong, we used to rip on each other quite liberally. Twelve years ago, at the height of our friendship, I would have thought Carol’s comments were hilarious. But I didn’t find it funny this weekend. Quite the opposite in fact. It made me NOT want to be around her at all.
So I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Why did it bother me? What changed in the ensuing years that we haven’t talked much? And then it hit me. It’s something I learned in my coaching certification coursework.
You have to earn the right to advance.
Earning the right is when you do the right things in a relationship to earn the privilege to ask for or expect something from someone else.
Comedians know this. A stand-up comic won’t pick on someone from the audience until they make some cracks about themselves. Self-deprecating humor sets the stage, so they can advance to picking on the audience. If you’ve ever seen a comedian fall flat, it’s usually because they violate that rule.
So it goes in other relationships. Tentative forays into various areas, trying to figure out the boundaries. Can I tell a suggestive joke now? Can I hold her hand now? Can I snap her bra strap? Can I mention the parsley in his teeth? We figure things out before we advance. We do it from birth; first with our parents, then our friends, eventually our colleagues.
In coaching, it’s one of the foundational ethics. You can’t challenge a new client if you haven’t established a relationship with them first.
Carol violated this relationship maxim. She started “burning” me without earning the right. Relationships are dynamic. They ebb and flow. A few years ago, when our relationship was flowing, I would have given as good as I got. But we are in an ebbing time; the tide is out with Carol and she still tried to dock the boat. To mix metaphors, it fell flat with me.
Next time one of your relationships is in conflict or even just doesn’t feel “right”, ask yourself if one of you is trying to advance without earning the right. If it’s you – STOP IT! For the sake of your relationships, check out this article 8 Ways to Earn the Right.
If it’s not you, take the high road as I did this weekend. I didn’t engage. I knew our relationship wasn’t in a place where that was acceptable. This not only applies to friendships, it’s equally important in business. Learn to gauge where the relationship stands. Your customers, suppliers, peers, subordinates and superiors will all thank you.