Have you ever been taken by total surprise by the departure of a valued employee? Did you scratch your head in bewilderment when you later found out that the person was dissatisfied for a long time, for a variety of reasons?

Or perhaps this person is or was you at some point?
Did you leave a job and leave your boss shocked that you were moving on?

I was reminded of this “taken by surprise” phenomenon just this week when I ran into an old acquaintance while quickly stopping for coffee in the morning. He lived in our former neighborhood, and my husband and I would occasionally run into him and his wife on our evening walks, connecting and stopping to chat when we did. We also spotted them and their children often when we were out and about in the local area. My husband and I often remarked about how positive they both were and how happy they looked together every time we saw them.

This encounter in the coffee shop was the first I had seen him (I’ll call him Bob), since we had moved to a new neighborhood about three years ago. After exchanging the typical niceties, I asked Bob how his wife and children were doing. His face grew white and his expression was distressed.

“She left me,” he began.

“I had no idea she was unhappy. She just suddenly moved out and filed for divorce. I was devastated of course, as I did not see it coming at all.” He went on to describe how angry he was, but also how much he regretted not being “more tuned in.”

The conversation haunted me for the rest of the day. It had me think about how we can be around people every day, whether we live with them or work with them, and not be really connected or tuned into them at a deeper level. And then suddenly we feel betrayed by them when we learn they were unhappy with the quality of the relationship, and they tell us they had given up hope trying to improve or change things. They feel that they had tried to tell us what they needed from the relationship, but were dismissed or weren’t being heard—so they disconnected and eventually moved on.

Perhaps you have been on either or both ends of this scenario yourself at work? Has a valued employee left your company suddenly, and you only find out from the HR exit interviews how unhappy the person was?

You may be thinking that you cannot be responsible for the happiness of others, that you can’t please everyone, and that some people are always unhappy about everything. Relationships are two-way streets.

I’m totally with you on all of those points and agree.

But what I think we can all pause and think about is– how tuned in are we to the people we are in relationship with?

The reality is, our employees happen to be some of those people. We are in relationship with our employees.

How much daily effort are you exerting in nurturing these interpersonal relationships?

In our busy lives, “to-do” lists take over, and our relationships both at home and at work risk becoming a series of transactions. Deeper conversations disappear, and we tune out to the deeper needs and lose the connection, attention, and deep understanding that sustain and feed the relationship. We lose the human element to a day-to-day routine focused on execution without being “seen”. And when a valued person feels continuously disconnected and invisible, we are surprised when they leave, looking for a place and new relationship where they can connect and be “seen” and understood.

Here are three simple questions to ask yourself if you want to stay “tuned in” to others.

1. Are most of my interactions predominately transactional?
We get so task focused and busy that our days run together and become a series of efficient conversations and transactions. In the flurry, we barely have time to breathe, much less take the time to ask someone how they are doing, how they are feeling, and get in touch with their mental state. Our transactional approach may seem efficient, but it comes at a much greater cost to the interpersonal relationships that make up human systems, including the organizations we are in. Spending 10-15 minutes to sincerely connect on a human level is a small investment to make in nurturing the human relationships that our organizations depend on.

2. How often do I ask questions and really listen?
If you are constantly in transmit mode—either communicating information or talking about yourself, it is hard to become attuned to others and what they think and need. Do you know what the person aspires to? Do you ask them questions about what they think and feel about things and how to improve things? Do you show that you are listening to them by giving your full attention and allowing them to take risks? Often we think we are listening, but in reality we often only listen to the pieces of the conversation that fulfill a transaction. Bernard Ferrari’s practical book, “Power Listening”, describes listening as the most powerful skill a businessperson can possess. If you’re looking to improve your skills in this area, it’s worthwhile read.

3. Do I show genuine appreciation to this person on a regular basis?
Most of us are quick to point out things people do wrong or things that need improvement. Do we spend equal time pointing out what is going right?
At the end of leadership cohort programs, I often do an exercise where I ask people to give the other participants feedback on what they appreciated about them and their contribution to the program. It is always an incredibly powerful exercise. The thing that everyone always points out is that how uncomfortable they are receiving the feedback, not because they don’t like it—but because they rarely receive appreciation! When you appreciate someone, even the little things they do, take time to point it out to them. It is amazing the transformative power regular appreciation can have on relationships.

How about giving your relationships, both at work and at home, a tune-up this week?

Slow down. Tune into other people more. Check in with them. Spend the time to ask some deeper questions. And tell them what they are doing right and what you appreciate them for.

As always—I love hearing your comments and experiences so please keep sending them to me!