EI’s Most Challenging Relationships

Friends that sometimes make you want to scream!

I had the opportunity to speak recently to a group of senior level staff and leaders from various organizations. My topic was “E.I. for the Job Seeker.” And it took the basic tenets of EI/EQ and applied them to those in a career transition.

The speech was well-received. (At least I think it was.) Questions and answer times at the end of any presentation can be challenging for the presenter. You never know what someone will ask. And there is always that one person in the audience that wants to play “Stump the Band.” All the folks born after the 30 year run of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show ended in 1992 may need to look up the “Stump the Band” reference.

Up, Down, Sideways

One of the questions posed can be paraphrased as such: “What relationship is hardest to manage — with your boss, with your staff, or with your peers?”

It did not take me long to respond that it is the peer relationships that can be the most challenging in most environments. Here is why.

Upward Facing Relationships – These are defined by my desire to understand and to satisfy the requirements established by my boss. The more I understand them, the clearer they are to me, and the higher my chances of succeeding because of that understanding and clarity.

Downward Facing Relationships – These are defined by my desire to communicate the goals and objectives that I have received through the upward facing relationship. Once communicated and understood, I can establish accountability and checkpoints along the way that will gauge our success.

Sideways Relationships – Here is where the difficulty arises for so many. Because they are peer relationships, they often lack the structure and lines of accountability that exist in the other two relationships. The lack thereof can sometimes lead to behaviors that would be tolerated or even considered in the other two relationships. And that is why they can be so difficult.

How do we define these “sideways” relationships?

For want of a better term, these peer relationships exist in some sort of friendship “ether.” They may taste or smell differently depending on several defining factors. But they are a type of friendship.

I am a guy and I see things through that lens. Some of my research has pointed me toward Geoffrey Greif’s book Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. In this book, he identifies four categories of friendships:

Must friend: This is a best friend. You will have a limited number. And they are a member of your inner circle. They are a person you can count on when something big happens in your life. They will bail you out of jail.

Trust friend: This is a friend from the next layer or circle. They are a person who shows integrity, someone you feel comfortable with, that you’re always glad to see, but not in your inmost circle. The fact that they are not a “Must friend” may not be reflective of how either of you feels. It just may be a function of time and energy. They are perhaps someone you’d like to be closer to if you had the time, energy, or opportunity to develop the relationship.

Rust friend: This is a person that you’ve known for a long, maybe a very long time. You may have had a different friend relationship a long time ago. But, it is not so today. You’re probably not going to get any closer to that person again unless something changes. But they are still a part of your life.

Just friends: This is a person you see — You see them at a weekly poker game, at your child’s school. They are enjoyable to be around, but you have no desire to socialize outside a specific context or to get to know that person better. They are really an acquaintance with no intimacy and deep shared experiences.

What is the emotionally intelligent way to manage these relationships?

The emotionally intelligent way to handle these friend relationships is to stay focused on the category and to realize that there can and will be movement from one to another.

Our deepest hurts will come from the “Must friends.” It is because they are the closest to us that they can strike us emotionally in the most vulnerable places. Our choice will always be whether or not to dedicate the emotional resources to maintain that level of friendship or let the relationship move into the “Rust” or “Just” categories.

However, it is important to note that the greatest source of relationships that can be “Must friends” is the “Just friends” category. One of my closest friends to this day moved from the “Just” to “Must” category in fairly short order. Our friendship began in the bleachers watching his son play baseball. We were in the bleachers because our daughter wanted to watch their son play ball.  Thus began a typical “Just” friendship. But, as time progressed and we determined how much we had in common and how much our wives enjoyed being together, we began a relationship that is going on for almost 16 years.  He is definitely a “Must” friend.

What do your sideways or friend relationships look like? Are you investing in maintaining? Or are you cultivating new ones? Both are worthy ways to spend your emotional energy.

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I am the husband of a beautiful and wonderful woman. I am the father of two of the greatest kids on the planet. I am a father-in-law to a great young woman. And I am Papa to three very special grandchildren. In my spare time I am an active blogger and writer. And if there is any time left over, I work with small non-profit organizations and churches on the topics of change management, crisis intervention and leadership development.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.