Choosing Your Inner Circle: Who to Include (and Exclude) and Why

I recently gave a talk where one of the two actionable steps was being more intentional about who you let into your inner circle. Because, as I wrote back in 2011, who surrounds us affects us

I asked the audience, ‘how many of you have an ally at work?’. Then, I asked, do you have 2?’.  How about 3? By 3, most of the hands were down. Research says we are shaped by the five people closest to us. It’s our five closest people who shape our mood and our health but they also shape whether our ideas are incubated and scaled. I encouraged everyone to find at least 5 people who can help you learn, cheerlead you, coach you, hold space for you, and support you as you become who you are becoming. 

It matters who you let into your inner circle. Why? Because we are social beings. None of us (despite all the hype of “self-made people”) do anything big all by ourselves. It is the social constructs that create the needed “safe” space to first belong fully, as oneself. So, until we can belong, we cannot bring our fullest ideas to the table. 

I was reminded of what I said in that session by an Instagram post of someone who was there.

The writer was recounting that she tends to muddle through life, but wants to get better at finding those five allies. And so @fashionnom, this post is for you (and anyone who has a similar question). Here’s a draft* checklist of who you want (and who you absolutely don’t) in your inner circle and why. 

Who You Want In Your Inner Circle

So who do you want in your inner circle?

LEARNING ENABLER. The friend who asks “Hey, you want to do this visioning workshop together?” is the friend who is saying she wants you to grow. It’s hard to set new aspirations for ourselves, to clarify our purpose, to live our dreams. Having people in our lives who want you to keep growing and learning are the people who help you set sail for your own blue waters. A relatively new friend once showed up to an event with a set of books discreetly packaged about a topic she knew I was struggling with. These books have helped me, she said, and so maybe they’ll help you. I’ve never forgotten how this relative stranger (at the time) wanted to help me work through my challenge.  Of course, you will ultimately be the one deciding if and where you want to learn and grow, not them.

CHEERLEADER or ROOTER. This is the person who celebrates the progress, not just the outcome; the person who knows how hard you worked on something and says, “Hey there, congratulations on showing up to the game of life.” A friend dropped off a gift package the other night on my porch. One of the things she was celebrating was that ‘Onlyness’ got trademarked. It was something very few people know (and no one really cares about) but it’s something I care about in developing this idea. And her seeing me make progress made the progress all that much more relevant.  Of course, you don’t want the sycophant who cheerleads everyone and just about everything; that’s ingratiating behavior by someone who wants something in return.

COACH, ADVISOR or TEACHER. We all need people to challenge our thinking but also create solutions. For example, they may say, “That idea is weak, read this, and then let me introduce you to this leader I know who is an expert.” They could be the person who says “Have you thought about it this way?” or  a person who has a skill you need to develop and offers to work with you for a bit as you ramp up your experience.  Please note, I’m not talking about paid work, where the relationship can feel like you’re “friends” but where every interaction is a for-fee model. I’m all for hiring people who are great in their field and you are lucky to know each other, but that’s not what I mean by coach here.

SPOTTER. There are people who can see us and help us see ourselves better. Having someone who sees your Invisibles is more important than it looks. We’re unable to see for ourselves who we are. Not in full, anyways. It would be like asking a puzzle piece to self-describe. Or a diamond to see all of its own facets. So having a friend (or friends) say, “This seems to be what you care about,” or “This feels like it’s building on x and y of the past,” gives you perspective on your own passions and through lines.

CONFIDANT. Not who you’ve been, but who you are becoming. Deep support is being with those who can see beyond whatever role, job, or project you have at any moment. Not what you’ve done and are doing, but who you are, and even who you are becoming. It is that person who offfers that safe space to explore emerging ideas, who can really say, “I believe in you,” even as circumstances change. This deep support is what lets you take risks, which is the precondition for any time of growth — both personal and business. I have a friend whom I regularly text with things as they are happening to process how to think about things. Sometimes it’s to share the thing that just worked, or sometimes it’s to process a challenge, to ask, “how can I think about this”. 

Ok. 

Now, I wouldn’t be creating a good list if I didn’t also draft* who shouldn’t be in your inner circle and why.  

WHO YOU ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY DON’T WANT IN YOUR INNER CIRCLE

THEIR WAY OR NOT AT ALL. A professional friend and I were talking about whether we could work together and I was finally in a place where it made sense. Yes, I said, as long as we could do a 6-month engagement rather than a 6 week one. Then I got a proposal that was a 6-week engagement. He wanted to use me for revenues, I wanted a mutual partnership. Now, he’s certainly entitled to work the way he wants to work, but the problem is he’s not hearing me. Or maybe I should say — he’s not listening to me. I don’t want to convince him to do it a certain way, to spend time to justify my needs and preferences.  And if he couldn’t hear me when I was offering to hire him, he wasn’t going to hear me when we were working together. I wrote him back, we should work together if both our needs are met, in mutuality.

SELF-CENTERED. Another professional friend was kind yet always needy. No matter the context (large venues, professional conferences, 1:1s), the conversation would pivot to why her boyfriend from 5 years ago left her. Despite my sitting in front of her and loving her, she was telling herself (and anyone within earshot) a story of being unloved, a victim. Even when she wasn’t in the room–if friends-in-common gathered together–you could guarantee she’d text or email each of us and say things like, “Remember, I introduced you,” as if laying claim to what we create together and centering herself in the relationship. One day, as I was editing who I was following on Twitter and Instagram to create a better experience, she wrote me a ’how dare you not follow me’ text. And with that, I was done. Not because I don’t wish her peace, but because I deserve peace, too. Self-centered people need something to fill that hole in their heart, but friendship isn’t it. Self-centered people make it near impossible for everyone to be centered in their onlyness; they suck all the energy towards themselves.

ALWAYS RIGHT. I had offered to help a professional friend to give a signature talk based on her onlyness. I shared with her how I had a 3 step process that worked and kept it manageable for me. After a short while, she wasn’t using my process, and there were other people giving her competing advice. I disagreed with the direction the talk was taking, and she agreed it wasn’t at all about her onlyness anymore. I wanted out. But she wanted me to continue. I kept going for a while but finally, it was becoming egregious. It was taking up many cycles and wasn’t at all what I signed up for. Finally, I said I had to stop. As in STOP. Now I wish I had managed it better, but, well, I did the best I could at the time. Four months after all this went down, she wrote to me. She didn’t start with, “Hey I’m sorry how that thing fell apart at the end and for my part in it.” Instead, she wrote a chastising note about how I bailed on her. I asked, “Was I not clear about my needs, my process?” “Yep,” she wrote back, I was clear. But she was right. And then she continued to chastise me. What the Always Right folks can’t see is their perspective oppresses others’ onlyness so they can feel superior. 

DEFENSIVE TEAMMATE. A project started out with good intentions, but it quickly became something different. One person’s needs were being served, and other people weren’t getting much. When the issue was raised, the response wasn’t, “What can I do to make it right?” but “No one knew what would happen down the road,” and blah blah blah. Defensive responses are natural; it’s someone wanting to believe they are a good/fair person vs. someone who is not watching after the team’s interest. But by their defensive posture, they keep their (emotional) needs centered, and choose not to solve the problem being raised.  This means the problem stays the problem and your role changes to be “the one complaining” about it. This shifts your role involuntarily from partner and peer to being the one with the problem. By their response, they have changed your role at the table, and decentered what needs attention. 

UNPROTECTED. Recently, some private texts I had shared with one person were shared with a large listserv. It was clearly against the rules. And, at first, there might have been some question if I had given permission for the texts to be shared. So I clarified that it was a violation. Despite that, the listserv managers who are paid to manage the community didn’t kick out the person who had violated the rules. And so I left. Not because I can’t defend myself against people who leak notes, nor because I can’t change the conversation back to what matters… but because I don’t want to be in communities where the codes of conduct meant to protect people aren’t managed. I shouldn’t have to ask if I am deserving of the rules being applied to me. I shouldn’t have to ask people to do the right thing. And by having to ask and still be denied, I learned I mattered less than others, less than the money they earned by keeping that other person. 

YOUR CIRCLE AFFECTS YOUR OUTCOMES

Create a circle of trust in which you can grow and feel supported.

These are always weird human moments in any relationship. Mistakes are made. Boundaries are crossed. Negotiations of interests. No one does it “right”. Then we have to figure out where we caused hurt and how to repair the social fabric. But these snippets show us — it’s not just one moment but the accumulation of moments when you know the relationship doesn’t work for you. These stories point to what has taken me a long time to understand: you need to create a circle of trust in which you can grow and feel supported.

You become who you’re with. So do your ideas.

Also, to be intentional about what you accept. We (sheepishly raises hand) sometimes accept conditions that deprive us of what we need. And it takes intentionally to create a social space that works. And we need to do this; because we are shaped by the people we let close. We deserve people who want to work with us in a way that works for us. We deserve to be with people who don’t make everything about themselves. And to have other people protect your interests; not because you insist on it, but because they want to create a social space where we can all thrive. 

The other day, I met someone who was new to the idea of Onlyness and she first equated it to branding. I said, “No, no.” I told her what I wrote in chapter four: The central challenge in branding is to define your value; the central challenge in onlyness is relational. 

To relate based on your onlyness is different than relating in unequal ways. 

You do not want to relate in subordination to others like the self-centered, do it their way, or always right person demands. 

You do not want to relate in a dysfunctional construct as defensive and unprotected relations create. 

You want to relate as yourself. When we can ask for and build relationships that are mutual, enabling, safe, we can also build the constructs that let us be fully ourselves. And bring our fullest ideas forward. 

NEXT/DO/ACT/NOW

*I called this a draft list of who you want, and who you don’t in that inner circle.

This draft list is not meant to impose the social structures that work for me to work for you. It is to invite you to create your own requirements for who enlivens you and invites you to bring your fullest set of ideas to the table. 

Add thoughts of how you select or will select your Five Allies below.

8 Responses:

  1. Mukesh Gupta. September 5, 2019 at 7:19 pm  

    This is a great reminder to prune in our lives.. Just like we need to prune our gardens so they can be healthy and beautiful, we need to prune the people we let in our lives so that we can be healthy and beautiful as well..

    Thanks for sharing this insight with us..

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 6, 2019 at 10:55 am  

      glad you valued it. I actually felt quite awkward writing it out but it also reminded me how the pruning pays off. Those other people can still be a part of one’s larger circle but not the inner one, the one where you are becoming.

      Reply
  2. Mr Perry Timms. September 6, 2019 at 11:44 pm  

    Something that SO needs to be said and shared – thank you Nilofer.

    In the Social Era, we appear to be collecting people as connections like baseball cards or in the UK’s case, football stickers. We just want them all; as many as we can get. Whatever the reason, it seems to have a stack of connections is the desirable thing. In amongst them are clearly some nice people, some warm and friendly people and some wasters and charlatans.

    From being at school, to my first few workplace situations, to even my beginnings a lone-wolf freelancer, having a big network and connection of ‘friends’ was super important to me. Then you realise that it’s not about quantity it’s the quality that counts. Yet it goes in cycles. People almost seem to have ‘peak’ times when they’re your inner circle. They – or you – move into different areas of interest, geography, working arenas and then that closeness either drifts and ceases, continues but at less high-frequency and regularity, or it remains unaffected. In my experience, less of the latter – having people closer to you appears to be situational to a number of factors not the least, that other person’s propensity to regard you in the same way you regard them.

    It’s only now – after being exhausted by such a massive circle of social media, real-life, working and other friends that I decided enough was enough and I was going to focus down on those who mattered the most. In a bizarre coincidence many of your categories matched perfectly how I came to that decision (and tried to keep it very human and not at all clinical).

    It’s funny how we’ve always known about the inner circle and the larger, outer one. Yet for some reason, we’ve almost coerced each other into wanting or needing a much bigger inner one, which totally defeats the point.

    Whether it’s what you call your bench; inner circle or otherwise, this tighter, more intimate, sincere group is definitely the one that matters and these outlines and archetypes are a helpful way to see if you’re well stocked or overstocked.

    I hope others take heed from this and stop the exhausting – and frankly quite debilitating – attempts at being attached to so many people many of whom turn out to be fakers, takers and drainers.

    Thank you for calling this out and sharing a strategy.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 18, 2019 at 10:59 am  

      Perry, yes, for those of us who are good at enabling other people, you can get exhausted so easily by people who say they want “help” but really they want to suck you dry. Being able to tell who is going to advance the work in a meaningful way vs. those who are simply pleading for attention is where life experience and wisdom step in.

      Reply
  3. Lynne Lucas. September 7, 2019 at 12:58 pm  

    This is good. And by good, I mean helpful in a very introspective way. It’s prompted me to ponder (and I do mean seriously question) who I have allowed in my circle, and why. It’s also making me question who I am in the circle, and what I bring forth. Thank you so much for this – I’ve shared with a few folks I value and groups where I spend time. And thanks for seeing me.

    Reply
  4. Lynne Lucas. September 7, 2019 at 1:06 pm  

    Thank you for this. This is good. Really good. And by good, I mean helpful in ways that produce introspective thoughts as well as prompt actions. I’m seriously questioning who I allowed into my trusted circle, and why. I’m also questioning who I AM in those circles, which are probably an even more effective way to take further action. Thank you for sharing this and tagging me. And thank you for seeing me – sometimes the Onlyness gets me so far into my own head – I need to be prompted to get out of it. It’s good to be seen (and acknowledged).

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 7, 2019 at 1:59 pm  

      I’m glad. And also thanks for pointing out this is also who we can be to each other. I will share one (more) story that might be helpful. A few years ago, I reached out to someone and said, hey I want to be closer friends to / with you. She is a person of faith, someone who is a great parent, someone who is strong at learning, etc, and I’ve known her for a long time. She basically turned me down. She deflected the question and I walked away thinking, um, okay you don’t want the closer relationship. I have to admit I felt like maybe something was wrong with me or I had asked wrong or …well, something. A year (!) later, she told me (thru tears, of course), that she didn’t feel worthy of being in that closer relationship. We both cried at that point and now she and I are very close. It takes something to be an ally, on both sides of the equation. I hope you find/build/create that tribe that helps you thrive. And remember, it’s like a plant. Put it in the right setting, it grows, and in the wrong one, it starts to die off. Just like it’s not a judgment to move the plant so it is set up to thrive, it’s not a judgment to choose who is in your inner circle.

      Reply
  5. Nilofer Merchant. September 18, 2019 at 11:24 am  

    A member of this community wrote me privately about the people who need to be out of your inner circle… “aren’t you cutting off people unnecessarily”.

    Such a great question.

    So let me first clarify that this post was clearly about who was in your inner trusted circle, that group you can turn to to share first glimpses of ideas, where you can be afraid and seeking and shaping something new…and know it’s safe. So, we’re talking about the five friends whom you can text or call when you have a situation. You might need to say “hey I feel like I’m being bullied” in this work dynamic, and they can help you process what you’re experiencing (is it bullying, etc etc) and maybe also help you navigate it. If the “wrong” person is in that inner circle and you text them “hey I feel like I’m being bullied” and they say “you know I was bullied yesterday, too and blah blah, blah” and then turns the conversation away from you to get attention for themselves, that person isn’t helping your progress, therefore your work.

    What I’m describing in this “wrong” person scenario of turning the topic towards themselves is what I called the self-centered person in the original blog post . That attention-seeking-self-centered personal will nearly ALWAYS find a way to make the situation about themselves. And while I’m ALL for caring about my friends in mutuality, that particular dynamic in relationship is like a vortex of crappy behavior. And so I’m clear; she can still be out there in the world; she just can’t be in *my* circles of people I trust. I can still know of her, and wish her all the goodness but she can’t for the love of God be in my circle because she can’t be trusted for her response to think beyond her own interests 99% of the time. If that same person could say “hey listen I can’t be helpful right now, cause I’m dealing with my own shit” then maybe she can stay. Because that would be owning her shit and not making her shit your shit when you’ve already got enough of your own.

    So getting back to your question, maybe I should add, ask yourself some questions before cutting someone out of the inner circle:

    1. Are you clear about what you need and why?
    2. Is the other person capable of being there for you? Can they? Will They?
    3. Is the relationship serving both of you in a way that is healthy and supportive?
    4. Are your larger interests aligned? So that your success toward your work is also a success in their work?
    5. Are you being there for them? Are you giving and getting in a fair way?

    hope that’s helpful,
    And of course open to other advice from the community here whose wisdom goes far too untapped.
    N

    Reply

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