Why--and How--I'm Focusing on Relationships in 2017


Although I do love a good New Year’s resolution, I was intrigued by nonprofit technology maven Beth Kanter’s suggestion for a different approach to kicking off each new year: identifying a theme for the year.

It turns out that pinpointing a theme was the easy part. When I reflected back on the things over the past year that I was proud to accomplish, that brought me joy, that I want to grow and foster, and that I want to improve, a clear through-line emerged: Relationships. I know I’m not alone in wanting to deepen and broaden my connections with family, friends, and colleagues. But this theme feels, on a gut level, more significant in the wake of November’s elections, and in the more divisive social and political environment we are now all navigating.

It was helpful to articulate for myself: Why am I gravitating toward the theme of relationships? And how can I put that theme into action in my personal and professional life as I move forward? My reflections on those questions follow below…


>> Why Am I Choosing Relationships as My Theme for 2017?

Relationships are an antidote to mistrust. In the current political climate, it seems we are encouraged to judge one another on labels and appearances, and to assume the worst of one another’s motives based on demographics and group membership. By consciously creating and nurturing relationships that look beyond the superficial, we can work to undermine this agenda of mistrust. These days, relationship building—particularly the type that seeks out connection and understanding beyond our own echo chambers—feels like a micro-act of civil disobedience. And that’s a good thing.


Relationships are a long-term investment in community. As they say, sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. Relationships are built on trust, which very often must be developed over time. Once that trust is established, however, it allows subsequent collaborations and partnerships to happen quickly and smoothly.

A case in point: Over the past few years, I have come to know the fine folks at the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations (HANO) pretty well, and through many informal conversations we have gradually built relationships of mutual respect and trust in one another’s values and motivations. When an opportunity arose to have colleagues from Hawaii Community Benefit Consultants provide a “Consultant's Corner” at last fall’s HANO conference, the planning and discussions around the idea were easy to navigate and transparent. It’s hard to imagine the same sort of smooth process occurring had my previous relationship with HANO been a purely transactional one.

Relationships remind us of our best selves. Relationships are at the heart of our meaning and purpose. It is within relationships that we allow others to see our vulnerabilities, and to share our humanity with one another. Those who we trust to see us as complete, whole individuals can in turn serve as our mirrors—they can observe what we sometimes have difficulty seeing in ourselves. They can speak to the joy we bring others, the contributions we make, and why they appreciate our love and friendship. And on the days when we are less than our best, being reminded of our strengths can be powerfully reassuring and fortifying.


>> How Will I Turn the Theme of Relationships Into Actions in 2017?

By expressing gratitude. Expressing gratitude forces us to observe and notice others, their actions, and their intentions. Gratitude highlights our interdependence, and allows us to hone our ability to see the good and find connection. I’ve already begun keeping a list of people to whom I plan to send “gratitude notes” this year—just simple expressions of appreciation for the ways they have informed my thinking, shaped my experiences, or otherwise made my corner of the world better and brighter.

By catalyzing connections. While I don’t meet Malcolm Gladwell’s definition of a Connector, I do enjoy connecting people who might not know one another yet who share passions or pursuits. Of course, we are all capable of being connection catalysts, whatever the size of our social circle. When we are engaged in conversation with people who are motivated to effect change on an issue, we can ask ourselves catalytic questions, such as “Who else cares about this? What could they accomplish together that they might not be able to accomplish on their own?” And by bringing these individuals together, we can continuously grow a network of people with a shared sense of urgency to do good.

By leaning into discomfort. For many of us, growing relationships in soil we know to be fertile is easy to do. But taking the risk of planting seeds for new or challenging relationships in unfamiliar terrain can be intimidating. We owe it to ourselves and our communities to lean into the discomfort of exploring new territory, and to cultivate relationships that hold the potential to blossom outside of our existing comfort zones.

This could take shape in many different forms. We might start conversations with people of a different generation than our own, or who grew up in a different part of the world. We might ask to attend a religious service with an acquaintance or colleague whose faith differs from ours. Or, as was the case for me during the holidays, we might reach out to family members with vastly different political beliefs, and work to better understand—without judgment—the values that undergird those beliefs. In our increasingly balkanized world, pushing through discomfort is a powerful way to gain mutual understanding on the other side.


What themes do you see emerging for yourself in the New Year? How will you work to translate those themes into action?