Relationship-drift was creeping in. I could feel it, though I didn’t understand it at the time.
The restaurant was silent, save for the Japanese-style elevator music playing softly in the background. The waiter had just left. Our sushi would arrive shortly. Yet between me and the person sitting across the table, the repose of eating felt like an eternity away. How did we get to this point? Was it not just recently that we would sit talking for hours? Why were we now locked into this awkward staring contest?
It was my fault.
There was something I wasn’t telling him. A secret, you could say. It wasn’t major or important, but it was something I didn’t feel like sharing. So I elected not to speak about it. But in not speaking about it, that was the only thing I could think to talk about. The myriad other questions I could ask or points I could stir up were unavailable to me. I could only think about one thing – that which I didn’t want to share.
And there, in that withholding, was a threat. If the situation wasn’t remedied, and soon, we would experience the affliction known as relationship-drift.
Relationship-drift is when two people pull away from each other. Either from not sharing information, resources, or mutual interests. It’s like two rafts at sea who, once together, have begun to move apart. It is preventable, though not always apparent. And its presence is all around us.
Relationship-drift makes for great government strife
Britain wanted what China had. But China didn’t want to share. Thus, the conflict known as the Second Opium War (1856-1860) came to pass. Trade had allowed Britain to grow powerful and advance its technology up till that point. China didn’t yet have that advantage.
Britain inevitably bullied them into submission.1
There’s an old saying that goes, when goods don’t cross borders, troops do.2 When nations keep goods to themselves, animosity forms in the other. They feel rejected. They feel angry and upset. The relationship begins to drift and pull apart. And when the two bodies eventually meet again, it’s no longer as friends but as adversaries. Conflict invariably ensues.
Conversely, when trade flows, wealth flows between the nations. The states become interlocked; they begin to work together for their own mutual interests. And they benefit from it.
This phenomenon exists between individuals just as much as it does between countries.
Sharing runs counter to our nature
As infants, all we do is take. Food, money, attention, we consume it all. And we don’t care that we do it either. It’s natural for us. We cry, we scream, we may even bite the hand that feeds us. We don’t stop until we have what we want. Eventually, we are taught to share, but it’s uncomfortable and takes practice. We don’t like it. It goes against what we’ve known since the very beginning: I am the best, no one else matters, and everything is rightfully mine.
This selfishness slowly gets beaten out of us as we age – either through repeatedly not being invited to the cool kid’s birthday party or by our younger siblings endlessly tattling on us. Yet the lessons take time to learn and some pick it up faster than others.
I’m one of those slow learners, the type who late into his adult years would hold onto his possessions with a strong grip.
A friend once asked to borrow some cologne. I said no. I simply didn’t want to give it to him. In the past, I refused to introduce people to each other. Even if they would have a lot in common. I wanted to keep them, separately, to myself. Yet gradually, I began to learn3 how giving could be an amazing tool. Like trade between nations, when you are closed off or only take, the relationship wears thin and drift occurs. Animosity sets in. And the parties either drift off to other relationships or drift back as enemies.
But giving is a way to get what you want without losing that person to the perils of relationship-drift. It is a way to open the border and share in the vast sums of wealth that is available to each of you.
How to prevent relationship-drift and still get what you want
The opposite of relationship-drift is relationship-interlock. It is an attachment rather than a detachment. Like two rafts securing the knot between their vessels so that they may travel the sea as one. Nations achieve this through trade. Through sharing their wares. On a smaller scale, individuals achieve this by a similar means. Though instead of sharing goods, they more commonly share ideas, friends, and other resources.
With this kind of sharing, the other party sees you as helpful in attaining their selfish aims. And many a time, in recognizing that value, they return the favor by sharing their resources as well. Resources you can use to attain your own selfish aims.
You may not choose to describe this scenario using those words, but that’s what’s happening. Each party benefits from the wealth of the other. And both parties win because of it.
You aren’t only taking. You aren’t closed off. And you aren’t making an enemy. Instead, you are open and giving. You share what you can. And the other appreciates you for it. In doing so, you go from relationship-drift to relationship-interlock and in the process, you get what you want and make an actual friend. Through this giving, your relationships go from ones of taking in which only you benefit, to sharing in which you both benefit – and continue to benefit for long to come.
The practice of relationship-interlock
What does this look like at a tactical level? It’s straightforward and easy to implement. Most of the new relationships I cultivate today begin over email, so I’m going to write from that perspective, though these tactics can easily be translated into verbal communication. When I meet someone new, one of the first questions I ask is:
Do you have any big goals that you’re working towards at the moment? I would love to help out in any way I can.
This immediately shows the person I want to help. It also encourages them to be specific about what projects they are working on. Note: If they respond with something vague or rambly, I ask them to clarify what their main focus is. Normally there’s ever only one or two such items. From there, I ask:
What’s been the most challenging aspect of that goal so far?
This question helps you figure out what they’re struggling with. Once you have their response, it’s time for you to show your hand. As in, it’s time to assemble your resources and give as much as possible. Figure out what you can do to help their cause – either through your connections, ideas you’ve come across, books you think they would appreciate, or anything else you feel they could get value from.
Ask for nothing in return. Just give unconditionally. They may take and never talk to you again and that’s fine. They haven’t learned about relationship-interlock yet. But you have, and so have others – even if they don’t call it by that name. And when you inevitably help the right person, they will ask how they can help you.
When they do, have your answer ready. For instance, right now my big focus is doing keynote speaking events. So when people ask how they can help, I simply say:
If you know of anyone looking for keynote speakers, I’d love if you’d throw my name out there!
That’s it. You help enough people and help inevitably comes back around to you.
Giving helps you get
It’s counterintuitive, but the more you share, the more you get in return. You never know what the reciprocation may look like, or when it may occur, but it happens nonetheless. As soon as I began sharing – ideas, relationships, books, tools, tactics, even money – I saw those resources returned to me and then some.
In the short-term, giving makes you happy (it’s fun once you get started). And in the long-term, it helps you develop real friendships and make the progress you want in life. All to the mutual benefit of those involved.
Moving forward, figure out what you enjoy giving. For instance, I prefer sharing resources over time. I’d rather put you in touch with a friend who’s a marketing expert than teach you how marketing works myself. It’s a preference. And I recommend you figure out yours. Though the best training is often on-the-job so feel free to figure it out as you go. Just pay attention to how you feel when sharing certain resources. It should feel good well before you get anything in return.
And remember, when you feel the pull to withhold and keep your wares to yourself, that’s the time to open up and give. You will benefit from it. And so will they.
- Reference: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang *Note: When China eventually opened its doors to trade, the country rapidly modernized.
- Reference: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
- Specifically, the books How to Be a Power Connector by Judy Robinett and Your Music and People by Derek Sivers.