The “Art” in Building Relationships

Since May 10th I have been in four different cities. Orlando, Chicago, Toronto, Raleigh. Each trip was for a different purpose: a professional convention, weightlifting competition (social event for me this time), visiting friends and family, and then back to where I live now. To those who travel regularly for work this might seem like a pretty tame schedule, but I haven’t traveled this much since I played college baseball.

I guess what was most interesting to me over the last couple of weeks was the variety and types of relationships I’ve managed to keep from each of these circles. Fellow strength coaches and weightlifters, friends and family, and then my work circle and neighbors when I returned to North Carolina. I have relationships with people in each of these groups of varying lengths and strengths, and they are all unique.

Friends and family I have known for most or all of my life. Strength coaches and weightlifters I’ve known for anywhere between two to four years, and most of my work circle I’ve known for 5 or more. In almost every case, I made new relationships as well. Some people I interacted with I’d only ever known by reputation or through social media. Time will tell how long any of those new connections might last.

One thing remains constant throughout the course of these experiences though. Some of those relationships are built on common ground and experience, while some are initiated simply on an interest in the perceived potential affordances that a relationship may hold. For example, I caught up with a friend of mine that I haven’t seen since 2011. We played baseball together in New York and only for about 3 months, but because we shared that time and those experiences, we were able to pick up exactly where we left off.

may12

Other friends I caught up with I’ve only known for two years or so, and we see each other maybe twice a year. Still, the people-focused relationships built on common time and experiences shared tend to last longer and stay stronger than others.

bean

On the other hand, there are also relationships built between people of greatly different status and experience. In my opinion, it is these relationships which tend not to last as long or stay as strong. While I was in Orlando, I met Leo Totten and even trained with him a little bit. He is one of the most influential coaches in American weightlifting history having been involved with Pan Am, Olympic, and World Championship teams. We met briefly (I knew exactly who he was, but can’t say the same is true the other way around) and he offered some help with my technique via video analysis while training.

totten

What I’m trying to say here is that some of the friends and relationships I have built and maintained are very concrete and tangible. They exist between people who know, remember, and understand each other. Some relationships are a little more superficial in the sense that there isn’t really any ‘glue’ that holds them together. I’m not saying that I didn’t appreciate an opportunity to interact and train with Totten. I’m just saying that we probably won’t be in regular contact even though we run in some of the same circles.

In art, there is what’s referred to as ‘negative space’. This is commonly just empty space, like unpainted area on a canvas or a meaningful moment of silence in a song. By definition, it is the space around and between the subject(s) or focal point(s) of the piece, not the subject(s) or focal point(s) themselves. In similar fashion, I think of the way in which relationships (professional or otherwise) are forged between people. Some relationships are centered around the subjects themselves (the people involved) and some are centered around the negative or blank space between or around those subjects. Granted, negative space can add a great deal of value to music or a piece of visual art but eventually the lasting impression is going to be left by what occupied the positive space.

negative space

A painting I did which uses negative space.

In other words, a relationship focused on the people involved will leave you with lasting memories of that person’s nature, habits, or your shared experiences. A relationship built on negative space may leave you with some details about a person’s biographical information, but little more. Of course, some solid relationships begin with nothing more than negative space as common ground, but they don’t always flourish.

So what’s the point of all this? We all need to build relationships in order to keep our social, professional, and personal lives on track. The types of company we keep can also tell us a lot about ourselves if we are observant enough. Identifying common characteristics between people in each of those compartments of your life can help you understand what traits or characteristics you habitually seek out in others. It may also be a reflection of yourself in some cases.

Naturally, we will be forced to try and forge relationships on any grounds possible in order to break into a field or social circle. If you actually belong, you’ll probably be successful and some of those relationships will become meaningful. If you don’t however, you may find that those relationships are exhausting to maintain because they just don’t feel natural or don’t have any substance.

My advice (and experience) in this case then, is simple. If you allow yourself to be caught up in seeking relationships that emphasize the negative space of prestige, power or status then it’s very possible you will find yourself lonely in times of need. On the other hand, if you seek out relationships that emphasize the positive space or the actual people involved you will rarely find yourself empty handed or without someone willing to help. As I’ve grown into the work force and seen what can happen to people and their professional situations, I’ve realized how important positive-space relationships can be. Negative-space relationships can make for cool stories and name-dropping purposes, but can rarely be counted on for a favor.

Think about what types of relationships you build, and how or if you could depend on those people the way you’d like to. Further, think about the types of relationships you intend to build in the future, and whether or not those could conceivably be mutually rewarding situations.