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Getting intimate

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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 2/2022 vom 26.01.2022


This article will help you to...

• reflect on intimacy and leadership

• think about how to balance the intimacy needs of others

• identify tactics to develop intimacy during professional conversations

Intimacy is rarely discussed when talking about leadership. For many, it suggests something too personal, even unprofessional. This is partly because one definition of “intimate” implies a close, possibly sexual relationship. Yet, “intimacy” has many shades of meaning. “Customer intimacy”, for example, simply implies an in-depth knowledge of a customer’s goals, needs, preferences and context.

The concept of intimacy provokes important questions. How much of ourselves do we wish to reveal? How much of others do we wish to explore? Should we continue to collaborate with relative strangers? Or do we want to encounter people more deeply and as they truly are — complex, fascinating, enlightening and ...

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... sometimes needing our help but fearful to ask?

Task/questions: On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), score your intimacy level and that of key colleagues and stakeholders. Where do you see similarities and differences? How might you manage differences? (See our ideas later in the article.)

2. Understand intimacy domains

There are a number of key intimacy domains. In each domain, it is possible to explore deeply held beliefs and values, personal experiences, feelings and emotions. Doing so can deepen t the sense of shared identity — the “we” — that characterizes intimacy and productive relationships:

Business intimacy: Conversations focus here on topics such as current market trends, company performance, innovation, strategic direction, etc. This is an excellent starting point for people with both low and high intimacy styles to explore, share and reveal their perspectives, professional identity and priorities.

Deepen the sense of shared identity: he “we”

Challenge intimacy: The emphasis here is on developing a deeper connection around daily challenges, concerns and anxieties. This domain blends an emotional focus with a task focus. People can reveal their core values in relation to leadership, collaboration and efficiency, as well as feelings of worry, vulnerability and uncertainty. This allows bonding and intimacy to grow.

Career intimacy: This is another relatively safe area, involving thoughts about one’s career history, current roles and responsibilities that are enjoyable or frustrating, and thoughts about future roles. Conversations can quickly reveal one’s professional and personal motivations, such as financial success or work-life balance. And this can lead to deeper understanding and intimacy.

Social intimacy: Conversations about this domain can lead to enthusiastic and fun discussions about hobbies and passions. While the tone of conversations is often light, care is needed, as people’s free time is often linked to sensitive family obligations or relationship preferences.

Private intimacy: High intimacy topics include things such as relationships, health, conflicts at work, etc. It may be better to wait for others to signal their willingness to step into this zone rather than forcing it by expressing your own experiences.

Questions: Which intimacy domains are you most comfortable with, and why? What questions could you ask to deepen intimacy in each domain? (See also our list of questions on page 39.)

3. Choose the right channels

Work is in a new hybrid phase, in which face-to-face contact is reduced. This may not seem to bode well for intimacy. Contact via virtual platforms tends to be more transactional. Less time is given to personal topics or the unplanned conversations that we associate with creating intimacy.


In Relationship Mastery: A Business Professional’s Guide (David Fraser Publications), Dr David Fraser looks at ways in which you can relate to others more effectively. The ideas in the book will help you to build more intimate relationships and to navigate the conflicts that accompany intimacy.

Some leaders are now organizing events in offices to encourage social connectivity, fun and bonding. Others are discovering that remote communication can have advantages: we don’t need to meet in person to have intimate discussions. Also, leaders can make themselves available remotely much more easily to international team members. They can also have private conversations with team members away from the prying eyes of colleagues in the office. This can also foster intimacy, as can encountering people in their domestic environments with the help of virtual communication.

Questions: How effectively have you used hybrid working to increase the levels of intimacy at work? What more could you do?

4. Take a learning approach

It is difficult to know whether we are working at the optimal level of intimacy. We need to learn as we go. Here are some ques- you can ask yourself to reflect on and adapt your approach:

• What level of intimacy is my counterpart trying to establish with me?

Observe whether others talk about “distant” topics relating to business or about more social and personal topics. Also, observe their communication style. Is it intimate, with warmth, humour and informality, or is it sooner distant, neutral and formal? And how do they respond to your questions? Expansively, adding new information, or more precisely and narrowly?

• Who — if anybody — should adapt their communication?

If you notice a difference in intimacy styles, think about who should adapt to the other person: you, your counterpart or neither of you? Reflect on your preferred level of intimacy and your motivation for that level. How flexible are you in adapting your approach — both the topics to be discussed and your communication style — rather than expecting your counterpart to adapt? It may even be helpful to discuss preferences explicitly with your counterpart and simply acknowledge your different styles and needs.

Techniques to increase intimacy

These three techniques can help to increase intimacy in your relationships if that is what you think is appropriate:

• Offer support. Find ways to help people with their challenges. As people accept help, they expose their vulnerability, needs and fears.

Give feedback. Sensitive, critical feedback in particular can significantly stimulate intimacy. As people sense that you are able to provide useful insights and solutions, they may open themselves more as a route to self-improvement.

Connect people to your network. Sometimes, the most important part of who we are is who we know. Introducing others to useful contacts is a great way to deepen your intimacy with them.


You can listen to an interview with Bob Dignen on Business Spotlight Audio and try our exercises in Business Spotlight Plus. To order, go to www.aboshop. spotlight-verlag.de


Here are some questions you can use to start professional conversations in each of the core domains of intimacy.

Business intimacy

• What are the key developments in your sector?

• How is the company doing right now?

• What strategy are you following?

• Where is your organization looking to innovate?

Challenge intimacy

• What are your main challenges?

• What’s the top priority for you?

• What progress are you making with… ?

• Are you worried that… ?

Career intimacy

• What made you join… ?

• What do you enjoy most about… ?

• What’s the worst thing about… ?

• What’s the next role for you?

Social intimacy

• Have you got any plans for the weekend?

• Do you have your next holiday booked?

• Do you enjoy… ?

• How do you relax?

Private intimacy

• How is the situation with… ?

• Is it difficult to… ?

• Are you OK with that?

• Can I help at all?