the shape of leadership

Connecting to Lead

How relational intelligence can be a great tool for you

Chris Railey on August 17, 2018


Have you ever felt like you just couldn’t find the right thing to say? You stumble over your words or trip over long pauses. Or maybe you find yourself in awkward situations, unsure of whether to just walk away or lean in closer. You feel trapped without a way of escape.

Maybe you’re on the other side. You are never at a loss for a topic of conversation. You don’t know a stranger and can connect freely and easily with anyone. People gravitate toward you and want to be around you.

If we had a choice, we would all want to be in the second category, not the first. For some of us, it comes easy. For others, it’s a lot of work. But whether you are an expert at it or not, you can always grow in your ability to relate to others.

We call this relational intelligence. Somewhat like emotional intelligences, it’s a new way to look at how you lead and how you can maximize that leadership. It’s also a skill you can hone and sharpen.

Steve Saccone has helped so many leaders with this. His book Relational Intelligence is the standard for improving your ability to connect with others, especially those you lead. Here’s how he defines relational intelligence: “Relational intelligence is the ability to learn, understand, and comprehend knowledge as it relates to interpersonal dynamics.”

We need to learn to read others and ourselves and understand how we interact together. We need to understand why we relate to some deeply and others less so. And we need to master those dynamics if we hope to be competent leaders.

Shifting Authority

In the last decade or so, there has been a shift in leadership thought. It used to be that leaders could rely on position alone for authority. Your title dictated who followed you and why. But now titles alone cannot accomplish that. Instead, leaders must rely on a new philosophy of authority.

Today, relationship is much more important than position. Relational authority is the glue that holds teams together, ignites passion across different platforms, and drives vision to completion. If a leader can relate on a high level, he or she stands a chance at creating an organization that will last.

There is a temptation to see this shift as a loss of respect for leaders. In days past, people respected a position before they even met the individual behind the title. Does that mean there is a lack of honor and respect in the world today? Maybe. But there’s more to this shift than just a sliding cultural scale.

Relational authority reverses the equation. Now, the leaders must respect those they lead rather than looking to them for respect. It’s mutually beneficial. And that not only increases the bond between employer and employee, but it also increases trust, productivity, job satisfaction and retention.

Benefits of Great Relations

Relational intelligence has so many other benefits. For one thing, today’s young leaders are not necessarily looking for the highest pay or best title. They want to make a difference. They want to know their gifts are being recognized and leveraged for something better. A leader who is relationally competent can attract the best leaders that way, even if they can’t pay the highest wages.

Leaders with high relational intelligence can read the room when they enter, supply the energy for any conversation, and set the tone in any interaction.

If you want to have more influence, you must be ready to expand your relational intelligence. Just look at evangelism, for instance. It’s long been understood that evangelism based on relationships is more effective.

You can talk to multiple strangers daily about their faith and get doors slammed in your face. Or you can build relationships, develop them as friendships, and introduce people to Christ through simple conversations. Those are the types of conversions that stick, too.

While leadership based on position alone tends to lean on manipulation, relational leadership influences. You can either demand or command respect.

If you expect people to follow you blindly just because of your years of experience or the title on your door, you’ll find it difficult to build followers. After a while, you may find yourself manipulating others to do your bidding, offering them incentives for their loyalty or suggesting threats if they don’t comply.

A leader who is relationally competent, however, can naturally influence others. Their leadership comes directly from the strong bonds they have been building from the start. Rather than trying to talk someone into something, the team works together for a common goal.

Getting Better at It

So, how do you improve your relational intelligence? The first step is assessment. Take a look at your key relationships, both on and off the job. To whom do you best relate? What type of personality seems to click with your own? What are you already doing to bridge the gap with those you find it difficult to relate to?

Assessment takes honesty and vulnerability, two staples of relational intelligence. You have to be honest with yourself and others. Get real about your shortcomings, and don’t avoid tough conversations. It’s the only way you can grow.

Now, take that assessment and apply it in the real world. You can only do that by interacting with others. As you grow in your relational intelligence, you’ll find new ways to relate to others.

Here are a few tips to put relational intelligence to work for you in ministry:

First of all, know and remember other people’s names. We all have our own specific name, and we feel special when others know it. Take the time to ask for, repeat and remember names.

Ask about the other person. It’s OK to get personal, but don’t pry. If someone offers up information, be sure to ask about it later when you see that person again: “Hey, how is your mom doing? I know you said she was heading to the doctor.”

Show interest. Ask people about their interests. Build common ground, but don’t try to force your own opinions or interests into the conversation.

When talking with others, don’t be distracted. Focus and use natural and comfortable eye contact. Never look over someone’s shoulder or scan the room to find someone else to talk to. Treat the person with whom you’re interacting like he or she is the most important person to you at that moment.

Leaders with high relational intelligence can read the room when they enter, supply the energy for any conversation, and set the tone in any interaction. When you, as a leader, do that, you’ll find you won’t struggle to get buy in for vision. And asking others to go the extra mile will become a lot easier. Relational intelligence is a great way to expand your influence.


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