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Designing Alliances

Designing alliances—to borrow a term from the coaching world—is a fantastic tool for defining the perimeters of a given relationship, clarifying expectations, and establishing a strong channel for communication. As an agreement that two parties voluntarily opt into, the designed alliance builds an active living container that changes over time as the needs of the relationship change. It ultimately helps both parties to get what they want and need from the relationship.

Benefits of Designing an Alliance

All relationships can benefit from a designed alliance. A designed alliance makes explicit the implicit ways a relationship works and how it feels to be engaged with it. It encourages both parties to share from a place of honesty and transparency their respective perspectives, hopes, and fears for the partnership. When strong alliances are designed early on, both parties have a chance to share upfront their desires for the relationship, creating a comfortable space in which to communicate any conflict or violation of the designed alliance that may arise over time.

While our culture insists that somehow productive relationships (familial, romantic, professional) should happen effortlessly and without explicit design, I believe that intentionally discussing the expectations and rhythms of a relationship produces the most healthy and productive long-term success. When you’re in a relationship—be it a marriage, a business partnership, or even a short-term relationship with a new consultant, coworker, or friend—designing alliances can be an invaluable part of taking responsibility for creating the conditions you want to see in your life.

Components of a Designed Alliance

• Both parties share honest and open feedback.

• The designed alliance is continuous and ongoing.

• Both parties agree to adhere to the terms of the new alliance.

How to Design an Alliance

At first, designing alliances can be a bit awkward—it takes courage to plant a stake in the ground. What are you willing to risk for the sake of making the relationship better? Find a way to propose a conversation that makes sense for your audience. Maybe it’s an informal check in, a discussion about expectation setting, or a conversation about a shared vision for the present or the future.

1. Plant a stake in the ground. When you propose a conversation to design an alliance, set aside dedicated time that is pre-scheduled and free of distractions.

2. Lay the groundwork. Begin the conversation by communicating that you care about the success of the relationship/partnership, and, in an effort to make sure the relationship works well for both of you, you want to have a conversation about the desires each of you has for the relationship. The conversation is an opportunity to share expectations and hopes, and to build a shared vision for your partnership.

3. Prompts help open the conversation. Start by sharing how you want the relationship to function in qualitative terms, and move to specific expectations or tools that will help you. Use “I” statements and share from your perspective, leading with the positive parts of what you experience and/or hope for in the relationship. Then turn it to the other person to fill in his or her perspective.

Sample prompts/guiding questions:

  • How do you want this relationship to feel? How much time do you want to dedicate to it? How does it fit in with the rest of your life? What do you love about it?

  • What about how we are together works well for you now? What could be better?

  • What unarticulated expectations do you have for this partnership? What rhythms and patterns and regular touch points will you need, or do you think will be helpful? What mechanisms for communication work well for you now?

  • What do you know about your triggers? Where do you anticipate you will get derailed? What do you know about how you resolve conflict and how you’d like to have conflict handled in this relationship?

  • What core values do we share? What parts of who we are together are most important to you as a person?

As you close the conversation, you can both agree to the terms of the (re)designed alliance and make clear that the conversation is open and ongoing. You may want to articulate when you will next check in on the alliance, or put in place a mechanism for communicating when the alliance needs some tending to.

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