What is the life cycle of a business relationship? And how does neuroscience help us understand it, if at all? I’ve been doing some preparatory work on this question in advance of writing a new book on communications (details to come). Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

I’m imagining the kind of business relationship where one party is the service or product provider and the other party is the client or customer. There’s choice involved; the customer could walk away if he/she/they wanted to, to choose another vendor. There’s some sort of initial set of meetings where ideas are pitched, prices are negotiated, and so forth. A deal is struck, and the work proceeds. The engagement might last a year, more or less. There are ups and downs along the way – communication by its nature involves miscommunication. Those get straightened out, one way or another. Baggage is accumulated, but on the whole the work gets done and the bills get paid and the client is reasonably happy.

If it’s a large contract with lots of players, then there will be individual stories along with the main one about the two teams interacting. People will cycle on and off, leave their jobs, leave town, have children, move to Seattle to take care of an aged parent, and so on.

But what is the life cycle of the main relationship? Neuroscience and my experience suggest that there will be three main stages, followed by a fourth, winding down stage. I think it’s possible for the stages to overlap, and perhaps even re-start, in various ways, but overall they go forward with the arrow of time.

The first stage, pretty clearly, is the relationship-establishing or deal-killing friend-or-foe analysis. In other words, neuroscience tells us, the first thing that people do when they get together is decide do I feel comfortable with this person or not?   Is this person a friend or a foe? Some people rub us the wrong way from the start. Others we click with immediately. Those determinations are largely made by our unconscious minds – and they’re made very quickly.

We can choose to ignore them, or not. We can override them, or not. We can have our individual reaction swallowed up in the team reaction as a whole. Or we can carry the day. There are all sorts of possible outcomes, but basically our unconscious minds are going to decide friend or foe and we can’t stop ourselves from making that fundamental calibration.

It will affect everything that follows. If we decide “friend,” then the relationship is off to a good start and the several stages that follow will have a better chance of working well, too. If we decide “foe,” then everything that follows will become much more difficult. Communication miscues will be far more common, and our enthusiasm for the subsequent stages will diminish, perhaps precipitously.

The next stage is the credibility stage. That’s where we decide, if we’re the client, does this vendor know what he/she/they are talking about? That process can take a little to a lot longer, depending on the cultures involved (how fast people get down to business) and the deliberate opportunities for establishing the same. From the vendor’s point of view, a similar decision is made, but it might be more accurately phrased as, does this person/team have the right power, access, and competencies?

Once the first two phases are accomplished, the work can get underway and the trust phase begins. It’s the longest of the three phases, simply because trust takes time to establish. We want to see how you react under different conditions, and under stress, and so on. We may even test you to see how reliable you are. Do you come through for us under unusual circumstances? And so on.

If the trust is violated or broken at some point, people naturally fall back on competence. We will continue the relationship if the estimation of competence is high enough to overcome the broken trust. If not, the relationship can irrevocably break down.

The final stage is a natural winding down of the relationship. It may be strictly defined by a work calendar, or less precisely by a sense that the goals set at the beginning have been accomplished. If the work has been successful and the personal connections strong, there may even be continued connection long after the basic work is done.

What’s your experience? In your business relationships, have you seen one or another of these phases work more or less well? Have you seen a trust relationship re-established, for example? How long do you spend in each phase?

In further posts, I’ll explore these phases further; neuroscience has some interesting things to say about how to manage each stage better.  I’d welcome your feedback as to what you think matters in each phase.




  1. Years ago, as part of my Peace Corps training, I learned about the 4 stages of groups: forming, storming, norming, performing. The amount of time each one takes varies depending on the nature of the relationship, etc It was – and still is – a helpful social tool. I like the similarities of your ideas offer….from a neurobehavioral perspective. I specifically like the emphasis on communicating within the business cycle. I’m looking forward what’s next.

    1. Thanks, Michelle — I was indeed thinking of that old configuration, and wondered if neuroscience could update it in any way. I’m early in the development, but I like that the new model seems to get at what lies underneath forming, storming, norming, and performing — i.e., why the storming? etc….

  2. Nick,

    Eventual decline is not inevitable. Just like in a business life cycle, renewal stages can begin during the trust phase. These typically involve a scope expansion or deepening of the main client-consultant relationship. A renewal includes some stage 2 elements, but – most importantly – refreshes the trust phase and extends that timeline.

    I look forward to your forthcoming book on this subject.

    Tom Wagner
    Management consultant

    1. Thanks, Tom — great point. I was wondering just that — if the trust stage is strong, can it go on “forever?” Does it require renewal such as you describe? Are there existential limitations, or only practical ones? (i.e., the practicalities of contracts, consultancies, and business turnover….)

  3. It’s eerie, really, how often I’ve taken one look at someone — or been on the phone for ten seconds, tops — and known this person was going to be trouble. I used to fight that feeling, to flog myself for not keeping an open mind or whatever. Now I listen to my intuition, and adjust my moves accordingly.

    What a fun topic to delve into on the show — when it’s time to promote the book, that is!


    P.S. You had me at “friend” immediately. As a new talk show host I was so intimidated by you I botched your introduction. You teased me about that, which put me at ease. Thanks again.

  4. Dear Nick,this is an interesting topic u’ve delved into..communication and forging ahead with people with a view to seeking an agreement on an issue and equally achieving your goal.
    As a foremost practising Emotions Mastery Therapist,I’ve found myself involved in this process often,in interpersonal,business relationship n more often within a social context.Indeed,most people are involved in this,one way or the other,albeit without adequate preparation and competence.The result is that they often end up with less than maximal optimal result!.
    Of course,one can be guided to appreciate when you are on a shoestring,which is what it is,and still obtain,with confidence,attain a win-win result,without substantially sacrificing your goal.
    Finally,Nick,I commend your effort,be assured that I’ll be one of first few to buy your book!

  5. Nick: Very interesting perspective. I do believe that active listening amplifies and solidifies the “being present” component of phase one. It also allows you to arm or stock up insight that can accelerate phase two’s credibility aspect by syncing up your style, jargon and sound bites, etc. and also knowing where some lines are that are out of bounds, etc.

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