Practising What We Preach: The Rewards and Challenges of Writing CONNECT

How coauthors David Bradford and Carole Robin put into practice the relationship skills they taught for years at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

By David Bradford and Carole Robin

Coauthoring a book is similar to two friends in a start-up. They may agree on a vision and mission, but do they agree on how to carry it out? Decisions about what is essential vs ‘nice to have’ need to be made. External pressures from financial sources and marketplace demands exist. How do entrepreneurs respond when they need to cut out some of their plan’s favorite bells and whistles?

The two of us wanted this book to have the powerful impact that the most popular and iconic course at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business — Interpersonal Dynamics — which students affectionately call “Touchy-Feely” had on students in the larger world. But there is many a step between that noble vision and an actual product. Over the 4 years that it took us to finish the book we had many disagreements — would they derail us, or would they produce a better outcome? We also feared that if these conflicts were major, they would damage our close relationship. Would we be willing to cut out parts of the book we dearly loved when pressured by editors’ or market requirements?

The Touchy-Feely Effect

These issues were challenging because this wasn’t just another book. This was our cause. We wanted to arm people with what they need to build stronger and more meaningful relationships in organizations, in their families and with friends — not just in the United States, but around the world. We had seen profound learning with thousands of students over decades while teaching “Touchy-Feely” at Stanford and wanted to replicate the effects.

Over 85% of Stanford MBAs enroll in this elective and many of them say the experience is transformational. Alumni, even decades later, report they still use what they learned in dealing with bosses and colleagues at work as well as with their partners and children at home. Similar responses come from our international students who applied the course concepts back in their home countries. How could a book provide the same life changing lessons gained in this experiential-based course?

Walking the Talk

We faced a second challenge. Would we practise what we preach? It is one thing to write about being vulnerable, honest, and proactively raising and resolving difficulties, but would we do that as we struggled with what should be in the book and what should be cut? It would have been so easy to fall into the trap of forgetting what we advocate in the pressure of meeting deadlines. We might encourage vulnerability, but would we include our struggles in the book?

Fortunately, we had built a solid relationship having worked together for over 17 years in teaching the Interpersonal Dynamics course. Many times, we had gone to each other with both professional and personal issues. Our relationship had also been tested by a major conflict. David had done something — or more accurately not done something — that deeply disappointed Carole. It almost ended our relationship. But we recovered using the book’s principles, resulting in an even stronger connection.

As Different As Chalk and Cheese

When we started, we discovered we had different writing styles which could have been problematic. David is very much a divergent thinker always generating new ideas. Carole is a convergent thinker — choosing one and getting closure. Each of our approaches could have been extremely frustrating for the other. We avoided this by realizing that as much as we liked our own style, we needed the other. David could have kept coming up with new ideas until the cows came home, but would they really have added to the book? He needed Carole’s desire for closure in saying “enough already.” Likewise, her approach might have kept them from exploring issues as fully as they required. Each of us didn’t just tolerate the other but valued what the other brought. This gave us the patience for yet another revision. (Over the 4 years of steady writing, we totally reorganized the book at least 4 times and rewrote each chapter at least a dozen times. We also cut out almost as much as what ended up in the book.)

We frequently disagreed as we went back and forth in responding to each other’s suggestions. Even though our initial tendency was to defend our positions, we forced ourselves to first fully understand the other’s thinking. Sometimes that led to acceptance, but in more cases, it identified what was of value in each proposal and that produced a superior outcome. And, when we felt fully heard, we found it easier to let our position go.

This doesn’t mean we resolved all disagreements easily. We had some strong differences that we weren’t sure how to handle early on but were saved by a requirement that we first resisted. Our publisher said, “Your writing is too academic, you have to get a style editor.” David was especially concerned because he had had a negative experience with an editor with a previous book who, in David’s words, “dumbed it down.” But we were in a bind, so we searched carefully and found Jenna, who was a godsend, by providing an objective third perspective that helped us resolve our differences and helped tighten the book.

The Ultimate Payoff

Conflicts are inevitable when two people work together, no matter how good their relationship. Did one person drop the ball on something, not respond quickly enough and so forth? These might be small “pinches” but can still be annoying, and we were committed to raising and resolving them early.

Since CONNECT stressed the importance of self-disclosure and vulnerability, we decided to have many of the examples be about us — and not just how we productively used the concepts, but also where we had gone wrong. In fact, one of the best chapters is the last one where we share the major conflict that rocked our relationship while teaching at Stanford. We don’t look particularly good, but it vividly illustrates the concepts.

We believe we held true to our goal of living the book while writing it. The process was all-consuming (as our spouses would attest) but tremendously rewarding. Best of all, we met the six characteristics of an exceptional relationship, including being committed to each other’s growth and development. We challenged and supported each other, and our relationship became even stronger in the process.

David Bradford and Carole Robin taught interpersonal skills to MBA candidates for a combined 75 years in their legendary Stanford Graduate School of Business course, Interpersonal Dynamics, and have coached hundreds of executives for decades. In “Connect”, they demonstrate how to take relationships from shallow to exceptional by cultivating authenticity, vulnerability and honesty, while being willing to ask for help, sharing a commitment to growth, and dealing productively with conflict.

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