Leading Culture: The Relationship Tennis Game

“Suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable or from neglecting what is within our power.”


Relationships are your connections to those around you. When these connections are strong, life is good …at both home and work.

I often say, “A relationship is like a tennis game, only the rules are a bit different. There is no net …and the object of the game is to keep the ball in motion.

Two parts of this metaphor really worth noting are:

  1. You can’t control how the other person hits the ball to you or how s/he positions him/herself to receive the ball. You can only control yourself.
  2. You CAN influence the other person by how you hit the ball to them and where you position the ball on their court.

This means that your influence over others comes from how you control yourself on the court. We all share the responsibility of leading our culture at home or at work through the contribution of our behaviour.

Just so we’re clear on what’s what:

Hitting the ball = Sending a message (writing/speaking/body language/voice tone)

Receiving the ball = Receiving a message (reading/watching/listening/interpreting)

It’s important, for the sake of the game (relationship), that you focus upon what you can control – namely your behaviour, and let go of trying to control the other person’s behaviour. 

Now, if the object of the game (relationship) is to keep the ball (communication) moving back and forth, it makes sense to hit the ball in a way that makes it easy for others to hit it back to you. 

Naturally, this is where the skill of the game comes into play. In the workplace, these are often called “soft skills” but I think it’s far more effective to call these “people skills” / “relationship skills” / “communication skills” / “listening skills” and there is nothing “soft” about the results they produce and how they effectively add to a company’s bottom line.

A QUICK TIP: When getting on the court (ready to communicate) with someone, set the intention to understand them from their point of view and seek to make them feel heard and understood before seeking to be heard and understood by them. This is something you have control over through asking questions and getting feedback on whether your interpretation of their message is correct. Once a person feels heard and understood by you, their desire to listen and care about what you say goes way up. This simple act of self-control positions others favourably on the court and makes for a great game. So, when things aren’t going as well as you’d like in a relationship, ask yourself, “How am I hitting the ball to this person?” and change your game.

For more on enhancing the quality of your influence and team culture, please visit newayz.ca/fst and check out The Foundation of Successful Teams™ training system. We’re helping teams to consistently improve culture, engagement, and proficiency over time.

(Written by Trent Janisch)