Want a Better Relationship? Try a Scope of Work

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Last October, I sat down for one the most difficult conversations of my life. The kind of conversation, I now realize, that saved a friendship.

I arrived at the restaurant first with a pit in my stomach. And as I nuzzled into the painfully cherry millennial pink banquet, I rehearsed what I was going to say, silently, so the tone was right and the message clear. I pictured her storming away from the table. Or crying. Or hating me forever. I’ve experienced a devolving friendship before and it isn’t pretty: A relationship once positive and loving can quickly become awkward and unresolved. A few years ago, you laughed until you cried together; last week you bumped into each other at a mutual friend’s birthday party and say the requisite, “How are you’s?” before uncomfortably heading to the bar. I love this friend too much for that.

When my friend arrived, I hugged her tightly, looked into her eyes, and said, “I have an idea.” I proceeded to hash out the terms of our relationship, in the same way that I’d hire a contractor to build a kitchen.

I’ve come to believe that most of our interpersonal problems are the result of lack of clarity and failed expectations.

My proposal: Will she join me in defining — what’s known in the consulting world — as a Scope of Work? Except instead of building her a website, we are establishing the terms of our next six months or so of friendship. It may sound overly formal or cold, as friendships aren’t work exactly, but I’ve come to believe that most of our interpersonal problems are the result of lack of clarity and failed expectations. And the way to avoid them is to define our capacities and mutually accept them. What I like about a SOW is that, by defining the goal at hand and the commitment it will take to see it through, we can avoid uncomfortable dynamics and establish a tremendous amount of trust.

I’ve had success applying a SOW to my personal life before. Last year, my son’s school asked (out of desperation) for me to be “class parent.” I am not the ideal candidate (five kids, two businesses). Instead of agreeing out of guilt, I decided to build a SOW. I asked the head of the PTA for an exact breakdown of what was expected of me. She listed the deliverables on her end and we went through them one by one. Yes, I could send out weekly reminders, but no, I would not be able to help set up school activities or lead Teacher Appreciation Week. I ended up agreeing to take on the role because I knew I could deliver without that horrible hangover of resentment.

I’ve found that reframing personal situations into a concrete process has helped me shed a lot of ambiguity and guilt.

Coming off of the successful PTA SOW, it was time to try it in a more personal context, and that’s how I found myself negotiating the terms of a friendship over split-pea hummus and roasted cauliflower. We followed the SOW structure pretty closely. My objective: to help her through the worst time of her life. Hers: to feel supported but not overly needy and burdensome.

It’s been about six months and I’m happy to report that my friend is indeed thriving. Our relationship is not only intact, but a treasure to us both because our expectations of one another are clear and there is no awkward energy in the slightest. I’ve applied SOWs to other situations, and it’s made me a better friend, partner, and, surprisingly, parent. I’ve found that reframing personal situations into a concrete process has helped me shed a lot of ambiguity and guilt. In saying “no” in a way that feels thoughtful and empathetic, when I say “yes,” I’m able to give more. And to think — a conversation I anticipated to be painful and challenging ended up creating so much trust and joy.

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