Design the relationship

During my leadership or coaching training sessions, I often get asked the question: ‘How far can I go in asking someone questions about their private life?’ And I always say: ‘As far as you’ve both agreed to go’. As a coach or manager, it can feel uncomfortable, sensitive or even undesirable to ask questions about someone’s private situation. On the other hand, you might have the feeling that the person would enjoy being allowed to tell their story, finally. Whatever the reason for asking or not asking the question, rather than you making the judgement (whether based on how you would like to be approached yourself or not), the best option is to get the problem out into the open.

Design the relationship

Question: when was the last time you consciously ‘designed’ the relationship with an employee or coachee? By this I mean that both of you actually took the time to explore and identify each other’s way of thinking, discussing your way of collaboration and making agreements about it. By doing this, you enhance mutual understanding, amongst other things, and you both work on increasing mutual trust–a fundamental condition for a respectful collaboration.

Topics that you might discuss in such a ‘design talk’ include:

  • what expectations do we have about our collaboration?
  • which important values are important for you and me?
  • how do we intend to remind ourselves of the agreements we’ve made?
  • what behaviour irritates you and what behaviour irritates me, and is it getting in our way?
  • how do we bring difficult topics out into the open?
  • how often shall we meet on a 1-to-1 basis?
  • do we talk about our private lives and do we make an agreement about that?

This list contains just a fraction of what you might discuss and what you can make agreements about. The essence of the message is: keep the relationship with your employee or coachee open to discussion and design it in such a way that this results in added value for the both of you. Want to see what it looks like having an open and honest ralationship? Take a look at this video.


Take up the following challenge. Think of a relationship with an employee or coachee that you failed to design explicitly, and which has led to you operating (wholly or partially) on the basis of assumptions about what he/she is thinking. This coming week, make an appointment with that person to exchange views about your relationship quietly and calmly for at least 30 minutes, and if appropriate, design/re-design that relationship. At the end of your discussion, evaluate what it has brought you both. By the way… this is a mutual responsibility. Which means that your employee or coachee is also free to take the initiative.

I wish you a rewarding discussion!

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