A connection, or point of contact, in a relationship can take many forms. It might be your voice in my ear, my words before you on screen, or a simple pat on the back from a loved one just when you need it the most. Connections are really important, and very ancient, tools that biological life of all types uses to stay connected with its surrounding environment in a productive and safe way.

Connections are Different than Relationships

I used to use the words connection and relationshipinterchangeably. Let me explain why I don’t anymore because I think it sheds some light on how relationships form over time.

Connection is the point of contact in a relationship.

A connection, or point of contact, in a relationship can take many forms. It might be your voice in my ear, my words before you on screen, or a simple pat on the back from aConnection and Relationshiploved one just when you need it the most. Compelling speeches, amusing emails, and irritating phone calls are all forms of connection; contact between you and someone who has – or wants to have – a relationship with you.

Secret Handshake

One way you might think about the difference between a connection and a relationship is to picture it like network mappers do. In a typical network graph you’ll see lots of dots (or “nodes” as they’re known to people who are really into networks), and these dots will be connected to each other by lots of lines. The lines represent the relationships between the dots, that is to say, the things in the network. So, for example, in the picture below you’ll see a line connecting person “A” and person “B.” That line is their relationship.

Standard Relationship Graph

Figure 1. Traditional view of a relationship

When I say “connection is the point of contact in a relationship” what I’m really doing is modifying that picture a bit to look like this:

Connection Graph

Figure 2. Relationship with the connection exposed

That red square in the middle is the point of contact, the connection between person “A” and person “B.” Think of picture 2 as a snapshot in time of a zoomed in version of Figure 1. It’s a zoomed-in picture because it’s not meant to replace the simplicity or truth of seeing relationships as pictured in Figure 1. It’s just a closer look at what’s really going on here. The connection represented by the red square moves us a half step from the fuzzy world of relationships to the more concrete world of connections and what that contact between A and B actually looks like. It’s hard to visualize a relationship, but it’s easy to see connections. Connections look like action – action that puts people in contact with each other. It might be you answering the door when I knock, your boss texting you to come in on the weekend, or me talking with my son about his PE class before bedtime.

One way to think of connections is as a kind of handshake between two parties. Both parties must extend a hand in order to make contact. The connection has a beginning and an end and these are usually pretty close to each other in time. In the early stages of a relationship, the connection can frequently involve some sort of exchange, even if it may take a little creativity to see what’s being swapped. In this sense, connections can be said to be transactional. I might connect briefly with a bank teller to deposit a check, but we don’t really need a relationship to get that done. Swapping my check for a deposit receipt is obviously a transaction, but you can also see how your reading this post has that transactional feel too; I write and post it, you click and read it and in the process we’ve exchanged my writing for your attention. Figure 2 even looks like two nodes reaching out to each other with a handshake. That’s intentional.

Connections are really important, and very ancient, tools that biological life of all types uses to stay connected with its surrounding environment in a productive and safe way. We’ll get into this idea some more in future posts because it’s one of my favorite topics. For now, let’s just say that each of us (and even the organizations we work in) have boundaries that define who and what we are and that they enable us to interact with other autonomous entities without merging with them. That’s what a connection does.

While connections are about doing and action and are usually time-constrained, relationships are about being and the experience of connecting with someone over an extended period of time. I say that Figure 2 represents a slice in time because it shows the exact moment when a particular connection happens between two people; whether that’s making a phone call, whispering goodnight or shouting someone’s name to their window from the street below. All those actions are little flashes of connection that happen over time. Imagine seeing them in time-lapsed photography so that they blur together in a way that looks like the simple relationship line from Figure 1.

This is another way of saying that relationships emerge over time with repeated connections between people. The first few times I go in for my haircut, it’s all about my hair. Eventually, the barber and I may form a relationship though, and begin to actually care about the answers we give each other about our lives. Our connection matures; it becomes less transactional and more relational. But more about that in future posts…

Not all connections lead to relationships.

It takes two to tango and two for a relationship. Not every attempt to connect results in a relationship – just ask any telemarketer who makes cold calls for a living. You can connect with someone without them necessarily wanting it, but it’s hard to do that with a relationship. I might be able to get you to pick up the phone, answer the door or open my email but I can’t force you to have a relationship with me. In fact, there’s a word for having a relationship with someone who doesn’t have one with you; it’s called stalking.

Connections can dead-end and fail to blossom into relationships for a number of reasons. One of the main flame retardants to kindling a relationship happens early on when connections are still transactional and one party simply isn’t providing much value in the exchange. Send me a bunch of boring email newsletters full of stuff I don’t care about and I’ll cut you off by clicking the “unsubscribe link.” When I dominate the conversation so you don’t feel heard or important, you probably won’t be seeking me out at the next get-together.

Turning connections into relationships is an essential part of “engagement” and we’ll be covering that (a lot) in future posts. In the end, what it really comes down to is practicing much of what we’ve been taught since we were kids. Engagement and building relationships are about “meeting people halfway” – and that’s exactly what Figure 2 shows as well. Both sides have to reach out in order to meet each other. It’s a given-and-get world and the sooner we center ourselves in this relating, the happier and more effective we are – both as individuals and as organizations.


Lots of related ideas at The Vital Edge.


  1. Nice post. This completely resonates. Relationships are the container in which connections happen. Organizations often have a plan for the relationship and design a series of connections they hope will get develop the relationship as desired. Do individuals have a similar plan when they connect with orgs? Having recently unsubscribed from numerous email lists, I was often asked why I unsubscribed. Perhaps a better question would be something like “How can we meet you where you want to meet us?” I think orgs need to be more nuanced about the kind of relationships they want and the methods they have for developing those relationships. Most orgs seem to have an email list and a major donor program. If those don’t work for you, the relationship won’t develop.

    • Thanks Steve. Yeah, it’s tough getting this stuff right. Working in an organization, it’s easy to lose track and move into this auto-pilot mode where you’re just firing communications off at people without thinking about the relationship. The first wave of email blasting technology didn’t help on that front. But the relationship database tools now available create a window to change those dynamics again. That’s why your work is so important.

      • Steve, I have also unsubscribed from many newsletters over the past 6-months just to clear my head a bit. The amazing thing to me has been how few .orgs I have actually have asked why I unsubscribed. To me, there may well be no better litmus test to whether an org sees their electronic connections with me as being part of or leading to a true relationship than if they notice when the person they are talking at walks away.

        • Yeah, doesn’t even have to take much time to ask – especially when it’s baked into your unsubscribe process. I must confess that I too have done a little trimming of late…

  2. Thank you for this post Gideon, and Steve for your comment taking it to an organizational level. It’s very timely for our work at SVP Seattle, where one of our key priorities is increasing “connectedness” in our network of engaged philanthropists and nonprofit grantees. Connectedness is closely related to your post. It means a network where there are lots and lots of these connections going on among members of the network as well as less frequent, but important, connections to influential people who are not formally part of the network.

    To a large degree historically SVP staff have played the role of making connections in our network. Example: Paul Shoemaker sends an email introduction to two people who previously didn’t know each other but share a common philanthropic interest (in network geek speak – “closing triangles” http://www.networkweaving.com/blog/2006/06/network-weaving-101.html).

    To expand on this and create much more activity of connections, we’re looking for more ways that our partners can be making connections themselves. We have lots of ways to encourage transactional connections in person at SVP, but I’m definitely interested in learning about successes using other tools like social media where lots of people, loosely connected, can share and receive information around common interests, and from time to time instigate new projects together. And also how in-person and online connections can be successfully woven together.

    • Thanks for the comments, Sofia. SVP continues to do an amazing job at leading the world of philanthropy into a networked age. The closing triangles approach has worked extremely well there and is at the heart of what I think makes the organization thrive.

      In some later posts I plan to get into how lighter-weight connections and the lighter-weight relationships that they entail really do work well for scaling out to reach lots of people. The plan idea is that those kinds of connections tend to form the base of an engagement pyramid, with the deeper relationships – the kinds that you can ask a lot of – sitting at the top of the pyramid.

      Not all organizations are going to need to know how to scale these two extremes, but certainly for a large number of organizations going forward one of the most critical keys to success is going to be having the ability to handle both types of relationships and being able to move people up the engagement pyramid.

      Thanks again for the note. You all are doing amazing work.

  3. it is good to see you cranking out some content on your current thinking about networks. Although I’m a little torn by the path that you’re taking this down I’m interested in seeing where you ultimately get.

    two thoughts…

    1. Advocacy networks are not social networks. Social engagement and civic engagement are different beast entirely. If you invest in social networks you get social outcomes. Some social outcomes can be leveraged for advocacy. However, it is totally appropriate for people who have no social ties with each other no more any relationship with each other to be able to work together on social agenda. There are people who want to work on climate change that I will never like nor would I ever want to sit down at the dinner table with them. There are family members of mine that I love and die and bleed for but we do not see eye to eye on a single social issue. Turning connections to relationships then to engagement might not be the right path. Seeking engagement that is based on connection is the opportunity of our time.

    2. I am really interested in the idea that both engagement and relationships are scaling virtually.

    I forget where I was reading it but it was the idea that human beings ideally people that can make up arbitrary symbols and give them value. things like art, currency, neighborhoods, brand names, even the concept of the tribe or nation. We make these up. We make them real. They all evolved from something real and tangible.

    Just as if you went back to an early silk trader and offered them some google stock or money deposited into a bank they would think that we were not offering them anything real . Today, I think there is a similar disconnect of relationship with the symbol of relationship. While this seems like a ripoff to those of us that are used to trading silk. it may open up new opportunities to scale relationship and connection to numbers and across borders as never before. we see just the beginning of that now. It may take anther decade or more before we really understand what it means I may take another 10 decades before people actually believe you can be connected to 1 million people do something successful them. However, I don’t see the trend reversing and I feel a lot of optimism about a more connected humanity.

    I look forward to more of your writing.

    We moved each of these to some kind of scale they continued to make sense and then we moved many of these concepts into a digital space where they could scale as never before.

    • Leave it to you, Marty, to spot the part in this post that is off. I kid you not that just twenty minutes before seeing your comment, I was planning to re-edit that very paragraph and lose the “Turning connections into relationships is the essence of “engagement” part. You’re right. That’s not right.

      I’m in the midst of another piece that lays some framework for what I mean by engagement and was going back to look at what I’d written in this earlier post and that sentence stuck out like a sore thumb. I’ve just modified it to read “Turning connections into relationships is an essential part of “engagement” – and I hope you’ll bear with me as I explain what I mean by that in the next post.

      As for your other points, I like where you’re going with the first one. Social networks and advocacy networks are not the same thing. You can do some socializing in a advocacy network and you can do some advocacy in a social network, but neither are designed to perform the functions of the other. It’s a good point. Part of what I’m trying to do in this post that you’re referring to is to start to lay a distinction between a relationship and a connection. And that’s precisely because you don’t need to have a relationship in order to connect and get some work done together. Deeper relationships allow deeper work, but sometimes you don’t need deep work. Sometimes you just need lots of light connections and action to happen in a well-timed way.

      I need to mull the symbols of relationship idea a bit more I think.

      Thanks for the thoughts. Much appreciated, as always.
      – Gideon