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The No. 1 rule of business relationships

(MoneyWatch) There's a weird zeitgeist going on right now. Many of the people around me are having relationship problems -- personal, family and professional. Not sure if my corner of the universe is different from yours, but either way, it's time we got one thing straight.

There is one thing you need to do, and one thing you insist others around you do, to keep business relationships vibrant: Communicate in real time.

If something bothers you, say it while it's fresh. If you like something, say it. Unexpressed communication sinks into people like industrial dumping sinks into the dirt. It leeches into the groundwater, makes plants die and children get sick. Unexpressed communication withers relationships, builds up hostilities and finally erupts, often in a way that is almost never helpful.

There's a process I call the "communication cleanse" that even the klutziest person can learn. Here it is:

Person #1 says, "I need to tell you something, please just listen to it."

Person #2 agrees. Do not move forward until the agreement is set.

Person #1 dumps. Person #2 listens, takes it in. They don't agree, disagree or anything else. Listen.

Person #2 asks if there's anything else. Process continues until person #1 says she's done.

Now reverse roles. Person #2 reacts, perhaps with an apology if that's warranted, or with a gripe. Person #1 listens.

If it's a simple situation, this is a two-minute conversation. If you're not in the habit of using the communication cleanse, then one issue will likely bring up other things to talk about, so this may take more time.

My company just finished its biannual planning meeting. We used a group version of this process called the "oil change" that keeps business relationships fresh and vital. You can read about our oil change process here.

If you don't follow the communication cleanse or oil changes for groups and "tribes," the relational death spiral almost always begins. Here's how it goes. Unexpressed communication starts finding other unexpressed communication, all within the person's mind. He decides that the other is a certain way. Our mental patterns both reveal and conceal. They reveal evidence that supports the belief and conceal anything to the contrary.

It's tragic to see this death spiral of relationships happen. A person gets mad, but doesn't express it. The anger sinks into them and festers. A narrative takes shape in his mind that the other person is bad, mean, intolerant, egocentric, and that their energy is negative. This narrative finds more evidence, and soon the weight of it is overwhelming. In the mind of the person who doesn't communicate in real time, the other is tried, found guilty and convicted -- sentence is then passed, all without the other knowing anything is going on. She is bad and should never be trusted, and it's best to warn others. And since narratives love to find even more evidence, gossip sets in. The other is now tried and convicted within a family or work group.

When the inevitable explosion happens, it's usually too late. The narrative is now like a creature with a survival instinct. It denies conflicting evidence, claws to hold onto its "facts." It holds to patterns and judgments the way a survivor of a shipwreck, alone on the vast ocean, clings to anything that floats.

When people defend themselves against a narrative -- by, for example, bringing up other evidence or saying how it looked from their side -- the person whose mind has condemned the other for multiple crimes effectively changes the topic. Sure, maybe in that single case there's a reason you can explain yourself, but what about this? And the other? You're seeing the narrative fight for its survival.

Overturning the sentence of a death spiral, and recognizing that the narrative is partial at best, is like trying to get an innocent person off death row. Most people stick to their narrative about the other even when facts contradict it.

A lot of executive coaching amounts to trying to undo the damage of the death spiral. In one of the great ironies of communication, all of this usually started because the person wanted a good relationship with the other. He actually liked the other person. If they followed the rule of the communication cleanse, it all would have been worked out in real time.

The truth is that as human beings, we are so bad at communication that the longer relationships last, the more likely they are to sour. Because we don't follow rule #1 and communicate in real time, we fall victim to our own narratives, cast others into the relational death spiral, and end up resigned about people in general. Relationships that could have produced great results, world-changing innovation and vitality to an organization turn into corporate divorces. People take sides, silos form and the company itself sinks into mediocrity.

August is a great time to make resolutions. It's slow and hot. A lot of people are on vacation. Want to be a leader in one minute? Then start doing this yourself. Email this blog, or the upshot of it, to the people in your work life. There are some caveats to rule #1 -- which are required to not become a jerk or weirdo in the process.

Up for giving it a try? If so, I hope you'll post a comment below about how it goes.

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