7 Ways to Build Relational Intelligence

Published April 28, 2020

Currently our country is on the brink of one of our greatest recessions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pressure of this crisis will require the best from our leadership. While you’ll no doubt have to make some very difficult decisions, I encourage you to stay attuned to your relational intelligence as a leader… encourage, connect, build trust and show compassion.

Every relational connection you make gives you greater opportunity to lead.

During a business trip several years ago, a meeting with a client had gone long and my colleague and I needed to leave as soon as possible to catch our flight.

As the meeting wrapped up, I gathered our things and was hurrying out the door only to discover that my colleague wasn’t with me. I impatiently waited for a few minutes. Then with growing exasperation, went to look for her. To my dismay, she was still in the conference room talking with our client. Giving her the evil eye to express our need to get moving didn’t seem to speed her up. She finished the conversation, shook hands, gave hugs and swapped phone numbers like they were best friends. The client loved her. He hardly noticed me. As I peeled out of the parking lot, anxious to get us to the airport, she exuberantly shared that the client had committed to our project. Those last five minutes she spent with him had sealed the deal. I was both excited and irritated.

My colleague was aware that an extra few relational minutes would get us our desired result. While I was stressing out over a potential missed flight, she was more concerned about taking care of the client.

Every relational connection you make gives you greater opportunity to lead.


My colleague had a skill in which I was severely lacking: Relational Intelligence.

Stoic. Stone cold. Heartless. We’ve all experienced leaders who seem to lack any ounce of emotion. Some environments, especially for marketplace leaders, encourage us to leave our hearts at home when we go to work. In an attempt to be professional and respected, we close off our hearts from engaging with those around us. We don’t want to be perceived as “soft” or emotional, so we wall off our hearts.

But leading without engaging our hearts leaves our leadership cold and lifeless. We inadvertently leave the people around us feeling nonhuman or guilty for having emotions of their own.

When we lead from the heart, we earn influence with others through relationship rather than authority.

  • Relational leaders realize that title and position only get you so far but the places you can take a team with relational influence are endless.
  • Relational leaders understand that people follow leaders not for the leader but for themselves.


Here are seven ways to grow your relational intelligence. 

1. Encourage

Leaders who encourage well are skilled at praising the positive and coaching for improvement. Encouragement is an intentional action by the leader to provide feedback that seeks to develop the best in others. Relational leaders take ownership for the development of those they lead and seek opportunities to speak into them in every interaction.


2. Connect

Connecting is one of the most important tasks of leadership. In order to lead others to new ideas, goals and action, leaders must first be able to connect with them. Great leaders communicate to their staff that they want to know them not just for what they contribute to the organization, but for what makes them thrive, what inspires them and what motivates them. They speak to their hearts by communicating that who they are matters.


3. Earn Influence

Extraordinary leaders recognize that every relational connection with those they lead has the potential to increase their influence. Influence is earned over time with consistent engagement and faithful action. Leadership coach and consultant, Dan Rockwell, observes, “People are influenced by those who understand them. Permission to lead is given by those who feel known, appreciated, affirmed and respected. When people feel you understand their talents, drives, hopes and fears you earn their consent to lead.”

The heart of leadership is the start of leadership. When we connect with the heart, we earn influence to lead.

4. Build Trust

In Stephen M.R. Covey’s New York Times bestseller, The Speed of Trust, Covey asserts that trust is the one thing that changes everything.  He claims it is the “one thing which, if removed, will destroy the most powerful government, the most successful business, the most thriving economy, the most influential leadership, the greatest friendship, the strongest character, the deepest love. On the other hand, if developed and leveraged, that one thing (trust) has the potential to create unparalleled success and prosperity in every dimension of life.”


5. Create a Healthy Environment

Leaders are keepers of culture. They know that great team cultures require deliberate effort. Teams will work better with one another, they’ll go above and beyond the call of duty, they’ll invest themselves personally and they’ll own their wins and their losses more honestly when they are a part of a healthy environment. Healthy environments are of course characterized by leaders of integrity; intolerance for discrimination; strong systems, policies and procedures; and an organizational alignment that promotes shared goals and achievable results.


6. Love Your Team

Love your team. As leaders, we are entrusted with the amazing responsibility of stewarding the gifts and talents of our staff. Every employee deserves to know they are a vital part of the team. They need to understand how his or her gifts contribute to the organization. We must seek ways to remind them of the significance of their work.


7. Show Compassion

Relational leaders demonstrate compassion. Compassionate leaders are more concerned about providing care than taking credit. When compassion drives us, it makes way for humility to lead us. Often the demands of leadership can disconnect us from what first inspired us to pursue the ministries or careers in which we are leaders. We must find ways to stay connected to that heart of compassion from which we started.

The heart of leadership is the start of leadership. When we connect with the heart, we earn influence to lead.

As you face the decisions ahead of you, consider your relational leadership influence: How are you connecting with those you lead? Do they know you’re for them and that you value them? Do they know how their work affects the entire team? Do you know their stories and what inspires them and motivates them? Every relational connection you make gives you greater opportunity to lead.


Excerpts of this post are taken from Jenni’s book The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership (2015, Nelson Books)

About the Author
Jenni Catron

Jenni Catron

Writer, Speaker & Leadership Expert

The 4Sight Group

Jenni Catron is a writer, speaker and leadership expert committed to helping others lead from their extraordinary best. A leader who loves “putting feet to vision,” she has served on the executive leadership teams of Menlo Church in Menlo Park, CA, and Cross Point Church in Nashville, TN. Outreach Magazine has recognized Jenni as one of the 30 emerging influencers reshaping church leadership. She is the author of several books, including her latest The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership.