Key Takeaways:

  • To build productive connections with others, start by being clear on your own self-interests.
  • Then learn the other person’s self-interests as thoroughly as you can.
  • Look for areas of alignment, or ways that you can help that will prompt the person to return the favor.

Success and fulfillment, in both the financial and personal areas of our lives, are often tied directly to our relationships—the amount of connectedness we have with other people around us.

Consider, for example, one group of people who tend to be superior at generating millions (sometimes even billions) of dollars in net worth: entrepreneurs.

In nearly all the cases we have seen (personally and in research), business owners’ accomplishments can be traced back to their business relationships. Yes, some entrepreneurs have industry-disrupting ideas. And yes, some entrepreneurs’ sheer brilliance supersedes everything else. However, in extensively researching, observing and working with very successful ultra-wealthy entrepreneurs over two decades, we have discovered that their accomplishments can largely be credited to the quality of their business relationships.

We observe a similar dynamic among non-entrepreneurs, too. Individuals and families who achieve their goals—big and small—tend to do so due in large part to the connections they have developed with other people both personally and professionally. Here again, a handful of people might be able to do it all themselves. And some people will simply steamroll over others to grab their brass ring. But overall, we find that it’s the relationships that power the results.

The good news is that there is a process that virtually anyone can use to connect with others to build productive relationships, enhance them over time and optimize them so that everyone who is part of the relationship comes away from a given situation feeling like a winner.

Here’s how to start making it happen.

A four-step process

Developing and enhancing connections that are specifically made to get results involves a concerted effort to understand another person’s self-interests deeply, so that you can determine whether they share some or all of your own self-interests. If you can identify such alignment, you can start to craft a relationship where each of you can benefit by helping the other person get what he or she wants.

For example, say you do contract work for a midsize company. You want more work and more money from that company, while the company wants to keep growing. By building a deep relationship with the business owners, you will do more work for them—helping them grow. As they expand and need more work done, they’ll look to you for help with the additional projects—and potentially pay you more over time.

There is a four-step process that can help you execute on this aligned-self-interests approach (see Exhibit 2).

Step 1: Identify your self-interests

You must start by being very clear about your most important goals, issues and concerns. You need to know what “winning” in a given situation or environment means to you—what those outcomes look like in detail. Armed with that clarity, you can determine what you are looking for from your relationships—which, in turn, will enable you to identify areas of direct alignment or ways to deliver value. 

Step 2: Understand their self-interests

Identifying what the other person or persons want and need is a key step in building connection.Determining what’s extremely important (as well as what is not important) to someone else can be very easy if they’re willing to open up to you. That said, this can be challenging when the other people aren’t forthcoming. For example, it’s quite common for entrepreneurs and high-level executives to hide their goals and perspectives from those they see as “the other side.”

People who are truly great at forging productive connections are generally adept at unearthing what is positively meaningful (e.g., aspirations) and negatively meaningful (e.g., fears) to the people they’re dealing with. Typically, they accomplish this by employing three related methodologies that work together:

  • Tuning in. You need to convey by your presence that you’re interested and concerned. Listen—and look them in the eyes when you do. Be authentic.
  • Discovery. You cannot give to get until you artfully use questions and probes to get insight into what really matters as well as what causes them concern.
  • Empathy. Empathy is intertwined with discovery. You need to sincerely understand other people from their vantage point and know what it’s like to “walk in their shoes.” You also need to make sure they understand that you possess this deep insight about them.

Once you start a conversation with someone you want to connect with for results, you should use all three methodologies (see Exhibit 3). You will tune in and engage in discovery. As you collect information, you will employ empathy to determine whether you are interpreting the information correctly and to communicate to those involved that you understand them.

Step 3: Appeal to their self-interests

There are two basic approaches you can take to help other people achieve their self-interests: direct alignment and added value.

With direct alignment, as noted above, you concentrate on the overlap between your self-interests and the self-interests of those with whom you are dealing. The more overlap that exists and the more your respective actions further your shared goals, the easier it is to reach agreement and move forward to pursue mutual success by supporting each other. We refer to this as ensuring everybody’s enlightened self-interests.

Delivering added value is an approach to use when you determine there is little to no direct alignment of interests. In these instances, you use your capabilities, insights and connections to help other people achieve goals and agendas that differ from or are not directly connected to yours. This enables you to tap into the so-called Law of Reciprocity. More a social norm than an actual law, it’s that internal pressure that causes people to want to help those who have helped them in the past.

Important: Appealing to people’s self-interests isn’t about trying to persuade or convince them that an opportunity exists or that you can substantially help them achieve their agendas. It’s about accentuating the opportunities for success that actually do exist in a situation. It’s about making determined efforts to help other people accomplish their objectives.

Step 4: Track results

When you track results, you can accelerate your success.Highly successful people in all areas of life may value good intentions, but they want to see those intentions accompanied by good results. Good intentions without meaningful results are ultimately just nice thoughts—and nice thoughts don’t create highly successful companies or build significant personal wealth.

The only way you will know if your actions have helped others achieve their self-interests is if you track results. Likewise, you need to track results to see if your efforts to help others have translated into their helping you attain better outcomes for you.

By tracking results—yours and those of people in your relationships—you can determine where to best focus your efforts to maximize your future success. For example, you might decide to optimize other business relationships. You might choose to refine the added value you’re providing to a peer. It all depends on how the situations are playing out—and, of course, you can’t know how they’re playing out if you’re not paying attention.


Ultimately, this process is aimed at empowering you to help other people reach their goals so they’ll help you achieve yours. By harnessing the concepts of enlightened self-interest and added value, you can change the entire game by creating significant business possibilities for everyone.

What’s more, you can create these types of connections with practically anyone—in a wide variety of professional and personal situations. Help other people get what they seek and you’ll find them taking actions that will make you a winner as you define it.

So for every person with whom you want to enhance or optimize the connection and the relationship, ask yourself if you really understand their self-interests. Then explore how you can help them achieve their self-interests so that they’ll in turn help you.

VFO Inner Circle Special Report
By John J. Bowen Jr.
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