Connecting Strategic and Intimate Interactions: The Need for Balance

Sonia M. Nevis, Stephanie Backman, Edwin C. Nevis


In an episode of the once highly popular television program, The West Wing, there is a scene in which the President’s press secretary CJ Craig (played by Allison Janney) holds a conference with the White House press corps.  The exchange starts with CJ presenting a report about the President (played by Martin Sheen) falling off his bicycle and falling again when he tries to remount.  She is open and forthcoming about this event – making it an exchange among fellow journalists - and ends her report by encouraging the reporters to “by all means, have a good time with this one.”  Those present smile or laugh; the mood is warm and friendly.  The interaction is a joining of everyone on a level playing ground.

Almost before CJ finishes her story, a reporter asks a question about a topic that CJ does not want to discuss.  CJ replies by saying, in a decidedly no-nonsense manner: “it’s a light day; let’s not get into that.”  The questioner did not choose to insist on pursuing the matter further and became silent.  The exchange with the press corps moved on to one or two relatively innocuous items before ending.

In this short vignette we see the use of two powerful ways of relating to others.  In talking about the President’s fall CJ shrinks her “psychological size” as the President’s spokesperson in order to achieve closeness with the press corps. The members of the press willingly join with her. The interaction achieves a brief moment of mutuality and intimacy between CJ and the reporters.

When CJ starts to close down the press conference, and the reporter asks a question, CJ adopts a hierarchical stance, increases her “psychological size,” and deflects the question.  The reporter allows the deflection and acquiesces in ending the discussion.  The press conference shifts from an intimate to a strategic mode. This is a strategic interaction in which hierarchy prevails.

This paper presents a model for understanding and using these two basic modes in which people relate to each other, which we call Intimate Interactions and Strategic Interactions.  Intimate Interactions are those that bring us closer to each other through caring about what each person is thinking or feeling. The intent is to enhance connectedness as a desirable goal in its own right.   The behavior is used as a way of being together in a mutually powerful way, whether the context is a couple, a family, or an organizational relationship.

Strategic Interactions are the ways in which individuals exchange influence when the goal is to accomplish a specific task.  Here, the intent is to use hierarchical power and to be less concerned with equality.  Achieving the goal is of first importance and, though connectedness is still desired, mutuality gives way to getting something done. Hierarchy is maintained by a willingness to lead and a willingness to follow.

To understand these different ways of behaving it is important to grasp two essential notions:

•    Intimate and strategic interactions seek to maintain a connection among the parties involved.  They are both ways of supporting ongoing relationship, but they are different ways of defining the quality of any given interaction.  Intimate interactions are supported by feelings of mutual identification and empathy concerning the needs of the parties involved.  Strategic interactions are supported by an acceptance of difference in accountability and authority with respect to getting tasks accomplished.

•    Though an interaction may be viewed in terms of an initiator and a respondent, a more useful perspective is to look at an exchange as a system in which there are unspoken assumptions and agreements as to how we will interact with each other. When CJ acts strategically, the reporters present know and accept the fact that she has the power to act as she did.  They accept this power differential; otherwise they would continue to confront her with their questions.  Likewise, when the reporters and CJ joke about the President’s fall they are acting on an unspoken agreement that they are “comrades” trying to achieve mutual objectives.  Lacking this, they are likely to be very cautious in joining with her in a playful way.

An Integrative Perspective

Our thesis is fairly easy to comprehend, yet profound in its implications. Stated simply:

  • Systems designed primarily to bring people closer together (sometimes referred to as “intimate alliances”), such as couples and families, need the support of strategic behaviors if they are to be effective and nourishing.  A highly loving family that cannot manage hierarchical differences is often dysfunctional: mismanaging child rearing, children, finances, etc.  Similarly, task relationships that focus too heavily on the achievement of interpersonal closeness, trying to achieve strong intimate alliances, will have trouble in getting work done effectively, particularly in making difficult decisions.
  • Systems designed primarily to accomplish work, such as business organizations and schools, cannot be effective without the presence of intimate behaviors.  Effective strategic systems rely on exchanges of thoughts, ideas, information, and feelings.  On the other side, a family that is highly effective in getting work accomplished but lacking in emotional closeness – acting too much like a work system – is likely to fail in fulfilling its purpose of providing emotional nourishment and profound connection.
  • To be fully effective as a couple, family, or work system requires the presence of both intimate and strategic interactions. By moving in a rhythm from one to the other there will be a balance or a “seamless braid.” Competent alliances can flexibly and appropriately switch from the intimate to the strategic and back again over time.  They look seamless as they switch back in forth.  When used appropriately over time, trust is built and alliances become stronger and stronger.
  • Difficulties in human relationships may be the result of an imbalanced or inappropriate use of one or both two sets of interaction. Inappropriate intimate interaction makes it difficult to achieve a high level of productivity and satisfaction in work tasks. Inappropriate strategic interaction makes for cold and distancing environments, often resulting in a loss of creativity in the work.  Both lead to dissatisfaction and can lead people a desire to move to a more nourishing environment.

Building Business Relationships Using Intimate and Strategic Interaction Skills

The two types of business relationships are intimate and strategic. More specifically:

  • An intimate relationship is about connecting with another person, getting to know another person.  It’s slow moving and in the moment.

  • A strategic relationship is about getting things done, working to get someplace.  It’s action-oriented and future-oriented.

An ideal blend of ‘intimate interactions’ and ‘strategic interactions’ is necessary for all relationships to function optimally.  Work relationships are strategic relationships.

Relationships built solely on strategic interactions are not as productive, respectful or satisfying as a relationship that is a blend of strategic interactions and intimate interactions.  Strategic relationships do not last over the long term.

When things are not going well in a strategic relationship what might be under-developed are intimacy skills.  And when things are not going well in an intimate relationship, what might be under-developed are strategic skills.  To create and function effectively in business relationships, ‘intimate’ and ‘strategic’ interaction skills are both necessary.

Intimate Interaction Skills

  • Knowing when to speak and when not to speak.  This involves not only having a developed sense of others, but also of context and timing.

  • Willingness to get interested and maintain an interest in the other person.

  • An openness to experimenting – thinking and doing things differently

  • An ability to bear and manage disappointment and to bear and manage disappointing.  This involves the ability to saying and hearing “no”

  • A commitment not to blame self or others

  • A sense of humor

  • The ability to influence and be influenced

  • A capacity to manage conflict to talk about it and resolve it

  • The ability to be spontaneous

  • The ability to appreciate the other person

Strategic Interaction Skills

  • Selective sharing in the interest of a desirable outcome.

  • An ability to keep moving in the face of disappointing outcomes.

  • An emphasis on economy of time and/or energy

  • Holding on to a goal without being deflected by one’s own feelings

  • Saying something that people might not like; being abrupt or intrusive

  • A willingness to be authoritative

  • A willingness to be thoughtful and deliberate vs. spontaneous

  • A willingness to stay action oriented

  • A willingness to keep to a time frame