Build Better Relationships By Keeping Things Close

Milos Raonic by David Kenas

If you want to build better relationships you need to have a high level of emotional intelligence. This post will highlight how you can build better relationships by keeping things close.

Fresh from an 11 day trip to the US Open in New York, the first thing I did after returning to San Francisco was text my fellow unemployed friend to play tennis. After you've watched tennis 10 hours a day, all you want to do is whack some balls!

I had gained a few pounds from eating one too many pastrami sandwiches and chocolate babkas. Zabar's on the Upper West Side is a dangerous place. It was time to go on a healthy detox regiment of water, lettuce, protein shakes, and hours upon hours of running around the court!

The Epic Battle And The Desire To Build Better Relationships

In San Francisco, when the temperature breaks 80 degrees, I have a rule to try and kill myself exercising outdoors for as long as possible. After all, we only average 64 degrees year around. It's good training for future difficult matches when the body just wants to give up. Somewhat surprisingly, my friend, and older gentleman who always wears sweat pants, agreed to come out and play in the heat.

Not only did we play on a shadeless court, we went for three hours and 15 minutes in an epic battle. After he beat me in the second set 7-5, he started going on and on about how I was doomed. He told me that I'd double fault to help his way along to victory. Boy, was he talking a lot of trash! I couldn't believe he was still standing after two hours.

To give some history, before this three hour match I had beaten him seven times in a row. Yes, I should probably find a better partner, but how many 4.5 or 5.0 players are there who can play at 10am or 2pm during weekdays? So few! Less than 5% of USTA players are rated 5.0 or higher.

Kept Things Close

Even though my opponent ended up losing our recent match 4-6, 7-5, 5-7 he was emboldened. For the first time ever, he had finally taken a set off me and had just barely lost in 93 degree heat.

What was the logical step after a match that almost broke our bones? To play again two days later of course!

I was pretty disappointed with my play because I just ran out of energy. Being 15 pounds over fighting-weight is extremely frustrating. Losing weight takes time, so I had to find a mental edge! Solution: I downloaded “Winning Ugly,” by Brad Gilbert on my iPhone and read it while doing some light exercise in the off day before our rematch.

The book provided me with incredible strategic tips, and I ended up beating my same opponent 6-2, 6-0 in an hour! Given we had played two hours longer two days earlier, I asked if he'd like to play a third set.

He said, “No. No thank you.”

I asked him, “Why not? We've got so much time left and neither of us have anywhere to go.”

He responded, “I feel demoralized.”

Since that match two weeks ago, I haven't heard from him. He no longer wants to play, and I'm left trying to figure out other activities to get myself back down to 160 lbs from 170lbs. It's very hard to find other good players who are free to play during the weekdays.

Ego Gets In The Way Of Better Relationships

After beating him seven times in a row, it shouldn't matter if I lose a set or lose a match. But it bothered me so greatly that I couldn't put him away in straight sets that I wanted to beat his ass so bad the next time around so he'd realize the 3.15 hour match was just a fluke.

Unfortunately, I may have just lost a regular tennis partner because my pride got in the way. It's not like I'm playing for money or glory. This is completely recreational tennis! I love playing tennis with people from all levels, especially doubles. I just couldn't control my competitive desire to conquer.

This incident got me thinking about other things I've written about in the past as it relates to personal finance.

Keys To Getting Ahead In Finance And With Friends

1) Never tell anybody how much money you make. Even if you are older, and s/he is your friend, never give an exact amount! About 10 years ago, I lost a good friend because I finally told him how much I made after he begged me to tell him so he could better negotiate his compensation package. He become so envious of my income that he no longer wanted to hang out.  It didn't matter that he worked at a smaller bank, was three years younger, and didn't have his MBA. All he thought about was how it wasn't fair I made more.

2) Be smart enough to act dumb enough to get ahead. In a competitive work environment, it's important to not stand out too much because people will cut you down. Jealousy is an unavoidable human trait. Nobody is a saint or monk at work. The same thing goes for building your own business while talking to competitors. Be nice, and certainly don't act like a know it all. The world has a great way of cutting people back down to size.

3) Keep the majority of your wealth hidden. After you've promised yourself never to tell anybody, except your spouse, how much money you exactly make, it's even more imperative you also hide your true total net worth from others as well. There's all sorts of bitterness towards people who have higher than average net worth figures. If people can hide their net worth from the all-knowing IRS, you can surely keep some of your net worth hidden from your friends and acquaintances. The easiest way to appear more normal is to avoid showing up in a fancy car.

4) You will always be views as arrogant if you have more. Enough said.

Play Client Tennis Or “Business Development” Tennis

Anybody who plays sports has an innate competitiveness that's sometimes hard to control. Thus, if you want to build better relationships, assuming you're the better player, it's important to never beat your opponent so badly that hopes are crushed.

Instead, try to play “client tennis,” which is the act of keeping a match close. Client tennis involves dumping some points into the net, or hitting some shots way out wide. Maybe throw in some double faults and let your opponent hit some great shots for winners. Frequently praise your opponent for good play. You can still win, but just keep it close.

Finally, performing good client tennis is a great way to keep your ego in check. If performed well, your opponents won't even know you're letting them win. And when they do win, you can test out your humility by congratulating them on a job well done.

I can always tell when someone is performing client tennis on me. But I don't let them know I know. I thank them, and try and hit with them again, which is exactly what both parties want! Client tennis can be applied to work, building a business, and in your various relationships.

And when I say “client tennis,” I mean just keep things competitive in whatever activity you partake in with someone you respect. You will build better relationships over time if you do!


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27 thoughts on “Build Better Relationships By Keeping Things Close”

  1. Bryan @ Just One More Year

    I have only played “client golf” in my working career. We tried to play in an environment where each person is trying to play at his or her best level. At no time would anyone “sandbag their game” to make the other person feel better. It was more about the experience of enjoying the course and the time together.

    Regarding point #3: “Keep the majority of your wealth hidden”. Your stealth wealth post is still one of my favorites. We have to be careful what we share with our friends or family, otherwise we face a potential change in the relationship going forward.

  2. BRILLIANT! Client comedy! I will be more cognizant of that if I ever go back to a client facing role. Maybe I practiced “client comedy” all those years, and never realized it.

  3. Not my client, I am fully up to the task when a company is parading as a do gooder while monetizing surreptitious data.

  4. Keeping things close is important. But even more important is respecting other people deeply and truly listening to them, that can’t be faked so when you come across as genuine people aren’t put off.

    On the tennis front, playing a close game for the sake of maintaining a relationship is a double edged sword. I’ve done that in the past with other chess players and it just made me a poorer player. The key to getting better is to play tougher opponents.

    Sam, you’ve gotta start looking for better players. Try those that are 10 – 20 years younger than you and that should open up the field a bit.


  5. Point 1 is crucial.

    I’ve been on both sides of this. Going through a difficult time, I was making good money but quit a job that I hated, taking a contract-to-hire position at a 20% income hit. A friend of mine got a salary increase above me, and was so excited about it he emphasized how he had “hit six figures” and that he was now part of that club. Because I had given up a high wage to quit something I hated, admittedly, it rubbed me the wrong way. He asked me what I made, and I refused to tell him.

    He got laid off within a few months after that. I got hired with an enormous salary increase.

    I probably said too much, but when my friend asked me I just said that I got a large pay increase. Never gave an actual figure. I prided myself as the non-jealous type, but the emotions I felt when my friend told me how much he made created an unexpected resentment within me. It’s difficult to realize, sometimes, how sometimes subtle things can affect how people react to what you say. A friend making more than you shouldn’t make you resent them. You should be happy. Or maybe, they aren’t such a good friend anyway.

    It’s probably worth re-reading “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. I’ve read it 3 times already over the years, and I think I still need to read it at least one more time.

    1. Indeed. It is practically impossible to keep resentment, jealous, envy and all those natural emotions at bay when it comes to money. Hence, better to keep mum, don’t ask, don’t tell.

  6. I’ve worked really hard over the years to maintain a sense of humility in the workplace. And I’ve never revealed to any co-workers how much I make. Even if they read my blog (and I’m fairly certain they don’t) it would be tough to figure out because I have income coming from a few different places. Jealousy is definitely a tricky thing.

  7. “Remember to remember, that the man is the better wrestler. Not the better man.” – Marcus Aurelius

    One thought for those who practice “client tennis”…don’t throw points. It’s obnoxious, and the ‘fun’ of tennis is hitting the balls (not picking them up). Just keep the ball in play, don’t use passing shots or kill shots from the net. Aim for the “T” (even the best players will be surprised at their own inability to hit close consistently) and you will both have fun while getting something out of it. Same for golf, poker, etc.

    Sorry to hear about this situation with your practice partner, FS. Some people conflate ability with value as a person, and it sounds like it got a little personal, from both sides. One thing I learned regarding “tennis friends” is that if your basis for friendship is mainly tennis, then it will be finite for all the usual reasons; a big gap in performance is one of those reasons. As for being ultra-competitive, I would take another look at that quality. When your opponent said he was “demoralized” I think that was exactly what you were going for, whether you know it or not. If you truly value this relationship, one solution might be to invite him to “hit”. Match play, exclusively, isn’t good for anybody’s game, and you can hit 3X as many balls in 30 minutes as 90 minutes of match play. And it is OK to talk with him about it, let him know you read a book and mentally prepared for the rubber-match; it will explain a lot to him, and it is actually a very good example of how to make the most of court-time.

    I’ve had many things like this happen to me, and they are stressful just remembering them. Years back, a “new guy” at work was strutting around telling anyone who would listen about his tri-athalons, his workout regime, and his college tennis exploits as a D1 singles champion. He approached me to play after work, I agreed in the hopes of making a new friend out of my colleague, and he immediately began to prep the battlefield with mind games. He was a dick about it. I beat him 6-0, 6-0 straight points in under 40 minutes. For those who don’t play, that is 48 points in a row. He asked me not to tell anyone at work. He asked me about my tennis background, and was surprised to learn it; it had never occurred to him to even ask, out of politeness. Bottom line, I enjoyed “demoralizing” him, but it pointed out to me that my own enjoyment of the game had reached the tipping point.

    P.S. – I had a ‘brush with greatness’ involving Brad Gilbert at an NCAA tournament in at his home courts at Pepperdine in Malibu because our teams were in the same league, literally (but not figuratively). He was on his way off the court after his match, and I was on my way onto that same court. He passed through the gate, and our shoulders accidentally grazed; hence, my ‘brush with greatness’.:-)

    P.P.S. – If you enjoyed Gilbert’s book, his coach at Pepperdine, Dr. Allen Fox PhD, is a clinical psychologist and champion player himself, and is the one who taught Gilbert to coach. His books on sports competition and mental toughness are remarkably insightful. Here is a short YouTube clip of him discussing the stress of competition, and the emotional temptation to escape the stress overriding the logical goal to win.

    1. Ha! Excellent story. There is something about these guys that are more bravado that they just have a blindside or appropriate respect for an opponent (no matter the skill level of the person). I learned early on never to underestimate someone to the point where you screw up and they arent so feeble they cant take advantage of a gift (thinking wrestling here). You also learn its better to be understated and let the opponents do the disservice to themselves, to your favor, theres almost an art in it. It is incredibly satisfying to see shock and disbelief when you’ve obviously come from left field to someones perception of your abilities…but thats only ok with real competition, you cant go crushing family and friends mercilessly and expect anyone to have fun or enjoy being around you. I dont even understand why that would be fun.

      My wife is a D1 scholarshipped tennis player, and she was kind enough to tutor me along to where I can consistently keep the ball in play and she has a good time and workout. Every now and then Im doing great, maybe even steal a few games, and bam! Whole other level pops out and she kills me, which reminds me how reasonable she is 99% of the time so we can both enjoy the time. She knows I’ll get her back on the bike anyways, as our roles reverse.

      I think the real difficulty is not sports where its somewhat obvious, but work and real life. I feel like I’ve spent so much time hiding ability and intellect for safety (would not go over where I grew up) and friendly reasons that its held me back at times where making yourself stand out is expected and you’re rewarded for it, its just not my nature. Its too bad but work will only speak so much for itself (guess it depends on the work), and its not terrible to smartly call some attention to your abilities, but its indeed an interesting line.

    2. Tell me more! Beating anybody 6-0, 6-0 is a huge accomplishment, especially if he was a D1 singles champion!

      You are right in that I savored the straight set victory over him two days later after coming THIS close to losing in three tight sets. The feeling is so great because there is a CORRELATION WITH EFFORT.

      Correlation with effort and reward is all I’ve ever wanted. It’s one of the main reasons I left finance b/c I was working harder, maintaining a solid business when everything else was declining, and I was getting paid less. Screw that. Punish me when I do crap work and vice versa.

      I shared my story w/ Brad over Twitter and it was neat of him to respond. Will check out the other book recommendation!

      1. @Z, thanks! Yeah, the guy was setting me up; something he said made me realize that he had told a lot of people at work, and was looking forward to telling them all how he dominated me. It made me quite emotional, and I thought I made my point. btw, I don’t believe his stories, and think he was just another guy on the team. Saw him years later, and he was wearing his U of Washington letterman jacket (at age 40). Irritating just thinking about this guy (he found another passive-aggressive way to undermine me at work, still competing with me in a game I had no idea was even underway), and I am going to stop giving him power. Ugh. But we all know the type. Bottom line, nobody cares off the court and it is good to remember for the reasons you stated above. Congrats on landing your great wife, she sounds like a winner in every way.

        FS, not much to tell, though I am remembering that incredible team on which Gilbert was #1, and all six went on to professional endeavors. Coach Fox was someone to really look up to, and he molded men as well as players (like John Wooden). My own record was spotty, with crazy wins and embarrassing losses, never mastering the “mental game.” A thought to find practice partners. Write a boilerplate e and send to men’s tennis coaches at colleges, JCs, and high schools, explain your situation and your preferred hours of availability. Coach can put you in touch with players interested in hitting with you after practice (for a financial consideration), and if you are tuning up for something you might be allowed to practice with the team (for a financial consideration). When I was in school, the coach allowed rehabbing pro players to come practice and get in those needed hours. But I feel you, at 5.0 your travel options have to become wider and you might have to play at undesirable times. You are a victim of your own success.:-) And maybe you can net-zero the play by working Uber to-and-from.

        1. Aiming for the T is a great idea. That is what this one fella, who won the 2000 NCAA singles championship and who played Agassi in the first round of the US Open did to me when we got together. So fun!

          I’ve been playing at a lot of public courts lately b/c nobody who doesn’t work is a member of my club, and they all live south of the city. It’s an interesting phenomena.

  8. Having young children helps you learn and remember life’s basic skills. They say it like it is and they have no false pretenses or wisdom from age. It’s just so matter of fact with them. I hear it from them all the time- kids quickly realize who are the braggers and they end up ostracizing them from their groups. I agree with you about “client tennis”, in life you just have to play some things down. Great post as usual.

    1. You are so right about the no filter. I had an open house once and the parents were nice, but the daughter was like, “that’s it?!” Clearly, the house was too small for what they were used to.

  9. Ali @ Anything You Want

    I’ve never thought of this as “client play,” but I think I have definitely done this in the past. I probably do it most with finances. I can specifically recall several discussions in college about student loans and the cost of school, where I just politely nodded along and pretended I knew what my friends were talking about even though I don’t have any student loans. It would have made things awkward for me to share that I don’t have loans, and just generally wouldn’t have helped the situation. At times like that, I think it is best to keep your mouth shut and play along, because the only thing that will be achieved by speaking out is that others will be made to feel uncomfortable.

  10. Thanks for the great article.
    I was invited to some competitive basketball to be the ringer.
    I was to play with his team to help hold the court. I got sucked into ultra competitive mode and ended up landing on the clients foot while clearing a rebound. Kept the client but broke his foot. Not good so now I swim and hold a tight rein on the inner competitive streak!
    Ray H.

  11. I must say that’s amazing that book helped your game improve so much! Bummer that your tennis partner didn’t take it well though. I hear what you’re saying about “client” tennis or client anything. Sometimes we have to pull back when we’re so much better than other people. This reminds me of the scene in the Incredibles movie where the son who had super speed wanted to win his track meets at top speed so badly, but he held himself back to keep things close during the race and then win by just enough in the end.

    I’ve definitely lost interest in things like playing sports or betting with friends when I have no chance of winning after many repeat beatdowns. However, good sportsmanship should also motivate defeated players like me to appreciate their opponents and learn from them.

    Hopefully your tennis partner will come around soon. If he loves the sport as much as you do, which seems to be the case, his desire to get out and hit should return!

  12. It stinks you lost a recreational tennis playing partner, especially since your goal was exercise and not skill improvement. It sounds like your inner competitiveness (a good thing) took over. It’s hard to play “client” anything but it’s sometimes important to remember the true goal and work hard towards that, rather then the goal of the game.

  13. Thias @It Pays Dividends

    I am normally the one who people play actual client-tennis with – mainly because I am terrible at it :)

    But in general terms, sometimes I will do it in other aspects of life to keep harmony just because you don’t want to come off in a way as overly confident and cocky. There is a balance of being good at something and showing off just how good you are at it that you need to figure out to be a good partner in whatever you do.

  14. Dee @ Color Me Frugal

    I am not at all sports inclined! Quite the opposite- I’m kind of a liability in any sporting field. So I can’t really relate to having to play client tennis. However, this explains a lot about why my entire family has learned to hate playing any board game at all with my brother in law! He’s ruthless and will stop at nothing to win. And as a result, no one who knows him well will ever play with him now. It’s not even remotely fun- since he will stop at nothing to win, you know you are going to lose before you even sit down to play. To quote your friend, I guess it’s kind of demoralizing.

    1. Yes, that “ruthlessness” is what is hard to control in sports or ANY competitive situation. I have trouble keeping it under the lid… too much pride. Too much ego.

      There was one time I went on a cruise, and my favorite after dinner and show activity is to play Texas holdem poker. We were having an awesome time and I met 8-10 other regulars. By the third to last day… nobody wanted to play anymore b/c someone kept cleaning up… as in thousands of dollars on a $1/$2 table. That was no fun.

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