Relationship Design: Maximize Strengths and Avoid Unintentional Conflict

by Kathi Antonson

Have you ever been on a team of talented individuals but noticed that as a group, the team is not quite performing? When was the last time you were in a meeting that wasn’t working and no one in the group said anything about the obvious?


We often come into partnerships and teams with assumed roles, responsibilities, and ways of treating each other, yet we may not take time to openly name, negotiate and agree to them before diving into the depths of a project or initiative.


While getting started quickly on ‘the work’ can give us a rush of positive “We’re doing it!” feelings, inevitably the unspoken expectations and preferences catch up with us leading to untapped strengths at best and toxic behaviours at worst. By diving into the tasks without agreeing to ways of working together, we miss the opportunity to proactively design how this unique team will work best within these unique circumstances.


Designing the Relationship, or DTR for short, is a conversation that helps to make those implicit agreements, expectations, and assumptions more explicit, thereby giving everyone more awareness and choice about the team system and culture they are building.

 . . . a conversation that helps to make those implicit agreements, expectations, and assumptions more explicit.
– Designing the Relationship

Ideally, DTR conversations happen at the beginning of a new partnership or group collaboration and are revisited as the team’s circumstances and preferences evolve. It is also a natural next step after a feedback discussion or team retrospective.


We often think of it as a loop:


  • Initial DTR conversation
  • Feedback discussion
  • Revisit the DTR
  • A team member is added to the team
  • Revisit the DTR
  • And so on


With practice, a DTR can start to feel like a natural part of our approach to relationships, rather than just a step or tool.

Got it. Now give me the agenda.


There is no single correct method for laying out and agreeing to ways of working together for your relationships. And in some ways, the scalability and adaptability of this approach is part of what makes it a useful tool.


As a foundation for getting started, we recommend that you focus on discussing both how you and the other person(s) want to be in a particular working relationship, and what key things you want to do in this relationship to help it stay clear and open.


Beyond the broad strokes of balancing being and doing within your relationships design, we point our clients to three critical areas to explore with a work partner or teammates:

of impact across different tangible benefits from executive coaching:



What kind of atmosphere do we want for our partnership (or team)?
How will that atmosphere support the goal of this project?
How we will each contribute to that (e.g. qualities or mindsets we will bring)?


What roles will we hold? (Decide whether you want to discuss preferred roles, necessary roles, etc.)



What tone or style of communication do we want to aim for?


What methods of communication work well for us?
How often will we check-in?



What qualities do we want to lean on when conflicts arise or things go off course?


What actions or behaviours will be helpful for us when a conflict arises or things go off course?

What if the DTR conversation reveals opposing views?


Congratulations, you have done it right! Thank goodness you have proactively identified opposition and misaligned assumptions. You now have the opportunity to explore the healthy tension and collectively align around how you would like to work with what you have identified.


By openly talking about that variation in your approaches or values, there can be greater understanding and acknowledgement of how those differences show up from members of the team. It also lets you align around how you will work with that variation within a partnership or team.


And guess what, it does not need to be a perfect solution from the start. We notice that teams that are regularly revisiting and refining their relationship designs display a strong team dynamic and work outcome.


At its core, a DTR conversation is about shifting toward seeing relationships as joint ventures, not as one person’s responsibility.


These conversations help us realise that each person in the relationship affects and is affected by the relationship dynamic and that we can all work towards being more explicit about how we work best and what we want from our colleagues.

Are you ready to start designing your relationships?

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