7 Relationship-Building Skills Every Leader Needs Now

worm's-eye view of two buildings

Whether you are championing innovation and positive change in your organization, trying to negotiate a fair deal with a collaborator, or dealing with a dispute with your spouse or child, your success and fulfillment will be a function of your ability to apply the art of connection. – Michael Gelb

I felt like I’ve just read a hundred books under one title. In fact, there are 20 pages for the bibliography section. That would be equivalent to connecting with a hundred experts, thanks to Michael Gelb.

The subtitle suggests that the skills are for every leader, and indeed they are. But I’d highly recommend every person to learn them and become an artist of connection in all areas of life.

As we’ve learned time and again, the illusion of separation, that is separation from God, from ourselves and others, is humanity’s greatest affliction. Of course, it’s easier to believe this illusory state. We can’t see God. We have bodies that separate us. Even our own minds are in conflict. This is where The Art of Connection plays an important role in rebuilding these relationships.

The world needs it now more than ever! Earth without art is just “Eh,” eh?

Here are the 7 skills for bridging the gap:

  1. Embrace Humility
  2. Be a Glowworm
  3. Achieve the Three Liberations
  4. Transcend Fixations
  5. Balance Energy Exchange
  6. Be a RARE Listener
  7. Turn Friction into Momentum

Defining Leadership

…in every organization where the atmosphere is infused with positive energy, the leaders are skilled in relationship building. As you improve your skills in connecting with others, you’re more likely to be recognized as a leader… In companies, schools, nonprofit organizations, and at home, leaders set the example of connection and take responsibility for the quality of relationships, which determines the quality of energy.

Michael defines leadership as a process of social influence that optimizes the energy of others to realize a vision, execute a strategy, or achieve a goal. In short, it’s about building relationships.

In other words, leadership is the art of connection.

He also busts the three common myths about leadership:

  1. Leadership is a function of position, title, or seniority. Leadership skills are for everyone regardless of position or title.
  2. Leadership requires charisma and extroversion. Yes, they’re useful but not necessary. What’s necessary is self-awareness and openness to change.
  3. Leaders are born, not made. Leaders are not special people. They’re people who learned special skills, skills available to everyone else.

Michael also cites Level Three Leadership by James Clawson, the level at which The Art of Connection is made. Level 3 is where people you lead are influenced by a sense of higher purpose, where people care deeply about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

Conjungere ad Solvendum

I’ve discovered that the most powerful catalyst for inspiring creative breakthroughs and translating those breakthroughs into sustainable innovations is to guide people to connect with one another first, before trying to solve a problem. When people connect, when they are simpatico, on the same wavelength, attuned, in rapport, they are much better at generating and implementing new ideas.

It’s Latin for The Art of Connection’s motto: “Connect before solving.”

It somehow echoes a line from Holstee Manifesto: “Life is about the people you meet, and the things you create with them.”

Michael, who also specializes in creativity and innovation, says connection facilitates creativity in all domains.

The Art of Connection is our greatest point of leverage for building relationships, resolving conflicts, and making creative dreams come true.


We create ourselves through connection with others, and we deepen our capacity to connect with others through the work we do to connect with ourselves.

Making relationships a priority is at the heart of The Art of Connection.

But we must be aware of the type of relationship we’re making. Based on the works of philosopher Martin Buber, there are two.

Is it an “I-It,” wherein we view others as object? Or an “I-Thou,” in which we view others as fellow humans, with whom we share the same essence?

Buber says that it’s in I-Thou encounters where we experience real connection. He asserts that we come into our full aliveness, discover our true nature, and relate to the Divine through our I-Thou encounters with others.

So Michael counsels us to strive for I-Thou encounters as much as we can, as often as possible. We must invest in one-on-one, face-to-face relationships with people who are most important to us.

Where does I-Thou begin with? It begins with “I.” It begins with your relationship with yourself.

The Soul of Leadership

What’s the single greatest problem in communication? The illusion that it has taken place successfully! The illusion is pandemic. Misunderstanding, predicated on inaccurate assumptions, is the default setting in human relationships.

Instead of assuming that you have effectively understood someone else or been understood yourself, you can minimize misunderstanding and build relationships more effectively by embracing humility.

While relationship is the heart, the soul of The Art of Connection is humility.

Humility is embracing the unknown. It means giving up the assumption that you know everything, particularly what others are thinking and feeling.

Michael describes it as the catalyst of curiosity, which is the driver of continuous learning. When we are humble, we’ll be more curious and open to learning – the key to developing the relationship-building skills.

How does humility manifests in the context of leadership? The key elements are:

  • encouraging dialogue instead of debate
  • modeling curiosity by asking questions
  • welcoming feedback

More than just a virtue, the research team for “Expressed Humility in Organizations” suggests that humility is a critical key to high performance and effective leadership. It implies:

  • a manifested willingness to view oneself accurately
  • a displayed appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, and
  • teachability

Be a Glowworm

And the most important point of leverage for this essential element of leadership is to contemplate and, if necessary, adjust the expectation you have for yourself. This is the greatest point of leverage, because to make changes in your milieu, to “eliminate the deadbeats,” to constructively stalk positive role models, to devote your time and energy to studying the lives and lessons of great leaders, and to generate more connection and inspiration in others, you’ve got to believe, or at least act as though you believe, in yourself. You can change your life by changing the way you think about yourself and your potential.

When it comes to changing the way you think about yourself so that you can bring out your best and then the best in others, remember that connection with your own soul is the only reliable source of self-worth. Real self-esteem isn’t a condition of the ego; it’s a connection with something greater.

Michael correlates different underlying principles – the Pygmalion effect and the Rosenthal effect – for learning to be a glowworm, an essential leadership skill, and that is:

Expectations become reality. Positive expectations yield positive results; negative expectations lead to negative outcomes.

Another way to put it is we find in people, both ourselves and others, what we expect from them.

The lesson here is to always look for the best in yourself and others.

What you see is what you get.


Marshall Arts

“Marshall Arts” is my playful name for nonviolent communication (NVC), a system of language and communication skills that reinforces the three liberations and allows us to stay connected with our own true nature and the true nature of others, even in difficult circumstances.

NVC is predicated on the idea that humans share the same fundamental needs, but that we may differ in our strategies for expressing and fulfilling them. NVC is the art of articulating our needs in a way that inspires compassion in and connection with others, while attuning to the needs of others, so that we may experience more compassion for and connection with them.

NVC – “non-violent communication” – Michael borrows the concept from psychotherapist Marshall Rosenberg to describe the means of communicating for The Art of Connection.

It’s based on the three liberations:

  1. Freedom from Like and Dislike – being “Unfuckwithable” as Vishen puts it in his book, CodEx; distinguishing observation (nonjudgmental awareness) from evaluation (judgment)
  2. Freedom from Taking Things Personally – the second of The Four Agreements; what people say has nothing to do with you. They are a projection of their beliefs.
  3. Freedom from Blaming and Complaining – in Michael’s words, “We liberate ourselves from blame and make it possible to find creative ways to connect when we remember that, although it may not always be apparent, other people are doing their best to meet their human needs and express their VABEs (values, assumptions, beliefs, expectations) in any given moment.”

The objective with NVC is to come up with a method of communication that can provide a deeper connection with yourself and others.


SMART feedback and PRAISE are important skills that leaders need to balance energy exchange. Mutual otherishness works when we are continually improving our ability to understand and meet one another’s needs, and sharing feedback constructively helps us do that more efficiently and effectively. As you learn to seek feedback, you sharpen your ability to meet other people ’s needs. As you learn to give it, you support others in meeting your needs with greater efficiency and effectiveness. This positive loop of feedback builds trust, alignment, and connection.

In balancing energy exchange, the 5th skill in the Art of Connection, Michael refers to the give-and-take relationship as “otherishness.”

How do we cultivate it? By giving and taking SMART feedback and PRAISE, which stand for:

S Specific – being specific is more constructive; this ties in with making observation rather than evaluation. (Check out “Neutral Observation” from Remembering the Light Within)

M Monitored – changes in behavior of the feedback’s recipient measures your effectiveness in giving feedback

A Actionable – does the feedback inspire people to take action? Remind them that change is possible and they have the power to do so

R Respectful – people are much more receptive to feedback when it comes with sincerity, trust, and respect

T Timely – feedbacks are most useful when given promptly. They must be well-timed and appropriate. Have a feedback session if it helps.

And to generate positive connection,

P Precise – be detailed-oriented when giving compliments. Example, how did you come up with the conclusion that a person did a great job?

R Relevant – make it relevant to the situation. Is it in a social or professional setting?

A Amiable – celebrate another person’s accomplishment, achievement, or effort

I Inspiring – always look for the best in others and acknowledge it

S Sincere – figuratively, Michael writes “people can discern the difference between organic honey and high-fructose corn syrup.” Ha! Don’t sugarcoat.

E Encouraging – encouragement is almost always well received. “I believe in you.” Or “You can do it.”

RARE Listening

Cultivating the ability to be silent is the cornerstone of the art of connection, with oneself and with others. Stillness awakens our ability to tune in to our own feelings and needs and to the feelings and needs of others.

Real empathy emerges from the inside… Sometimes we communicate more with our presence in silence than we do by anything we say.

Are you an empath?

A great deal of the book talks about listening and empathy, both essential to the art of connection.

And because we often confuse them with mere hearing and sympathy, Michael lists down the RARE practices of real listening and empathy:

R Receive – let go of preconceptions; be fully present; no agenda; quiet your mind and open your heart so you can understand non-verbal language behind the words

A Appreciate – recognize the value in people; make them feel that what they have to say is important

R Reflect – reflect back what was shared; mirror the feelings and needs behind the words

E Enquire – after you verified what you’ve heard, ask: “Have I understood what you said?” “Is there anything else?”

Michael also reminds us of the empath’s anagram for RARE listening by rearranging the word listen:

Resolving Conflict

When we accept that conflict is a natural part of life and develop our ability to assess conflict situations accurately, we can begin to respond in more creative and productive ways. Conflicts are much easier to manage and resolve when we see them as creative challenges.

To resolve conflict, first, we need to understand it. Michael tells us that the way we think about conflicts determines how we respond to them.

He suggests 3 perspectives:

  • Conflict is a normal and natural aspect of life.
  • Conflict is essential to the creative process.
  • Conflict isn’t a contest.

And offers an approach to resolving them:

R Remember to pause – pause, and affirm your intention toward conflict resolution

E Exhale – exhale fully; slow and deep breaths deactivate your fight-or-flight response

S Smile – a genuine smile also shifts you out of the fight-or-flight state and sends a disarming message

O Observe – stick to the objective facts; don’t take anything personally

L Lengthen your spine – straighten up! An upright posture also counters fight-or-flight system

V Visualize – view yourself as free and open; fight-or-flight tends to narrow your mind

E Expand and empathize – expand your energy; check in with your feelings so you can attune to others too

The Way of Harmonious Energy

Skill in preventing, managing, or resolving conflict with others requires a continuing process of preventing, managing, or resolving our internal conflicts. The greatest point of leverage for resolving conflict internally, and externally, is to cultivate the ability to organize your nervous system, and to reorganize quickly when you feel threatened or stressed.

When you are centered and present, you are able to connect, and when you connect, you can blend and lead.

FYI: Michael is a fifth-degree black belt in Aikido. Don’t worry, he has no intention to kick ass. Quite the opposite of what aikido is: the “Way of Harmonious Energy.”

The Ai in Aikido translates as “harmony.” It’s based on the idea that we are all connected through a fundamental universal harmony and that the task of the martial artist is to view any attack as an opportunity to restore harmony.

Michael draws two principles from aikido that we can apply in the Art of Connection: Center and Blend.

Centering is the ability to bring your full attention to the present moment with alertness and relaxation. It’s about maintaining your poise, having grace under pressure, so to speak.

Blending, on the other hand, is the key to implementing centering. Rather than confronting an attack, to blend means to avoid and redirect the force so it harmlessly dissipates.

It’s well put in the classic line by MLK: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Founder of Aikido, O-Sensei (“Great Teacher”) Morihei Ueshiba, says: “the source of Budo (martial arts) is God’s love.”

So center in love, blend in darkness with light, and then kick ass!

The Art of Connection: 7 Relationship-Building Skills Every Leader Needs Now


MICHAEL GELB is a pioneer in the fields of creative thinking, executive coaching, and innovative leadership. His clients include DuPont, Nike, Emerson, Genentech, Merck, Microsoft, and the Young President’s Organization. Michael codirects the acclaimed Leading Innovation Seminar at the Darden Graduate School of Business and also leads seminars for London Business School, the Institute for Management Studies, and Shiv Nadar University in India. Visit him at www.michaelgelb.com

Other Books by Michael Gelb

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day
Creativity On Demand: How to Ignite and Sustain the Fire of Genius

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