05/10/2010 12:19 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Preventing Misunderstandings in Key Relationships: Create 'Agreements'

Any healthy and productive relationship, business or personal, operates on the basis of certain "agreements." By agreements, I'm not referring to "what" we're doing or working on, but on "how" we do things/work together.

Examples of agreement topics include any ways we operate that may impact others, like:

  • the pace at which we do things (do we tend to jump in and move swiftly? or are we more methodical and process-oriented?)
  • the level of detail we prefer to pay attention to (some of us are big-picture people while some of us are detail people)
  • the type of communication we engage in with other departments, people, customers AND EACH OTHER (do we like to be straightforward and get it all out on the table verbally, or are we more geared toward thinking it through and, if anything, emailing our thoughts), etc.
  • the level of tidy-ness we need in our environment (are we comfortable with piles, or do we need things to be put away or filed in order to concentrate)

The trouble is, we rarely set up these agreements verbally. We simply work together or live together, go along, and are then surprised and upset when we find that we're obviously operating from a different set of agreements ("Why does she do things so slowly?" "Why does he rush in and jump the gun?" "Why does she email everything? I'm right in the next cubicle--she could just talk to me" "Why does he stick his head over my cubicle wall every 5 minutes--it drives me crazy and he could just put it in an email"). Things aren't so bad when we're dealing with someone who is a lot like us, but that's rarely the case. More often than not, we're dealing with people who have different ways of working and living and different assumptions about the right ways to go about things. And if we don't talk about it, and come to some kind of agreement on our agreements, we're leaving ourselves open to frustration, a ball getting dropped somewhere, and the potential for damaged relationships.

How to Create Agreements:

Creating agreements means discussing what we mutually need from one another in terms of how we work or live together. Have a conversation and declare your intention ("My intent in initiating this conversation is to make things easy for us both by making sure we are working and interacting off the same set of "interaction blueprints"), ask for mutual disclosure, and get them to tell you the secrets of interacting well with them. For example, find out (and share):

  • preferred method and timing of communication (for work relationships -- verbal? electronic? immediate? at the end of each day?)
  • how it's best to approach them on challenging issues ("don't beat around the bush- just say it" or "give me some background first so I know what you're talking about")
  • preferred mode of collaboration ("do you like to brainstorm together and think aloud, or do you work better by doing your own thinking first, and then getting together to compare notes?"}
  • what kind of environment they operate in best (level of tidy-ness)
As you discover ways in which your preferred modes differ, discuss how you will handle those differences. Create some give-and-take, and go for fairness.


As part of creating an agreement, also decide together how you will handle the violation of an agreement (we're human -- something will be violated unintentionally at some point). That way you have a game-plan for when things get tricky and go off-track. And since it's a game plan that you've created together, you have a better chance of it working!

Whether you're thinking about a relationship with a co-worker, boss, employee, customer, or a personal relationship, creating agreements is a smart way to make sure things go smoothly and important business or personal relationships are strengthened in the process.