Meet Anwar, my Uber driver. I was in his car heading to the Amtrak train station in Washington DC on my way home from doing some great work. In 26 hours, I had engaged deeply with two different teams, one executive coaching client, and a good friend. Needless to say, there wasn’t much gas in my tank left to talk and listen more. I was head down on my phone while he was making small talk.
At first, I kept working. And then, despite being tired, a little voice inside my head had me put my phone down, be present, and engage. He turned out to be fascinating: the former advisor to President Karzai of Afghanistan, he had stories of Camp David during talks he attended as the President’s right-hand advisor. The diplomat to the US for Afghanistan, he engaged in peace talks, and had been a special translator for US generals.
While all that was interesting and impressive, what struck me most about Anwar was his ability to ask questions and listen. He asked me if I had been to the Spy Museum, and I answered honestly by disclosing a medical issue my daughter had 8+ years ago which prevented us from visiting the museum. He asked questions, listened and appeared genuinely curious and caring about her well-being. He wanted me to send her his regards and wished her well, which felt real and not superficial, as it does in so many other conversations (“How are you?” “Fine. How are you? Good, thank you” – this is a habit, not a connection!) I asked him if I could take and share his picture as a reminder of our conversation, to which he said “fantastic! Please share it with your daughter so she knows someone cares about her in Washington” (with tons of laughter).
I am glad I made the conscious decision to connect instead of caving into my desire to “gsd” (get stuff done) instead. While I would have gotten 10 more minutes of email done, I would I have missed so much more: getting to know a snippet of this fascinating man, being surprised by this warm, human connection, getting a needed break in the day that inspired me and, in turn, energized me to be more productive than I otherwise would have been the next few hours on the train. Connection filled my energetic gas tank back up, in a matter of minutes.
What the Research Shows
We crave human connection and cannot thrive or even function without it. One landmark study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. As Dr. Emela Dr. Emma Seppala reports from her research at Stanford “people who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.” She also points out that it’s not how many friends you have, it’s how connected you feel from within. Which explains why I felt so uplifted after my brief conversation with Anwar.
Connection in Teams
This played out today in a team I was working with, as it does in every team session. Team members can be new to one another or work together for years and can still operate in mostly Stage 1 Forming relationships where they know each other as colleagues with little authenticity or vulnerability at play. Within moments of the meeting’s opening, one team member shared something authentic about feeling like part of the “out group” when others who knew each other well were part of the “in group” and … we were off. Her willingness to be vulnerable opened up the opportunity for us to peel back the curtain. Members started engaging and revealing what was on their minds: being afraid to speak up, be directive, react when they had a different point of view from the leader … key team issues emerged before the first break. They were like thirsty people in a desert craving a glass of water. They were thirsty for authentic dialogue where it was safe to speak up about what they were thinking and feeling, what they were wanting and requests they had of each other and the leader. We engaged for only 4 hours and the team was in a noticeably different place than when we started. They were all craving that connection and openness with each other and didn’t know how to create it.
We humans crave – and are scared of – real talk with each other. When we create the environments to solicit, listen and determine clear next steps, team members bring more of their full selves and unlock the true potential of the team.
As I reflect on the Uber ride, the team and individual meetings over the last 26 hours, there are several reminders:
- Choose to engage. As the team member did who opened the entire conversation for the team by being authentic and open, or by my putting my phone down, we consciously chose “in”. Unless you overcome the inertia of business as usual, work as usual, dinner as you always have it, etc., you might miss the opportunity. I miss engaging “for real” when I am stressed, busy, focused on getting things done, and unconsciously running. It takes a conscious effort to go against the tide, and it is worth it every time.
- Practice “Real Talk”. Life is too short to be wasted engaging in mediocre banter. The more you reveal of yourself, the more you’ll get out of the relationship, and the more you will feel like you “brought your full self” to work, the dinner party, the kitchen table, or the Uber ride. One of the consistent responses to “what do you want most?” in my research Challenges Women Leaders Face is “the ability to bring my full self to work”. To bring your full self, you must first choose to engage and then speak honestly – it has to start with you.
- Listening shows you care. Anwar could have spoken about the riveting stories he had and it would have been fascinating, and all about him. By hitting the metaphorical tennis ball back over the net, he demonstrated the most important element of trust – Caring. If you are interested in more about the elements of trust, check out my article Building & Sustaining Trust. When you ask and listen, you send a message that you care, which makes people feel seen, which makes them feel good, and ultimately that they can trust you. Listen 10% more than you ordinarily would, and see what happens.
- How would people around me describe me? Engaging? Connected? Dismissive? Inaccessible? Bonus points – ask some of them, or double bonus: ask your kids. (They will certainly tell you the raw truth).
- What is the extent to which I practice “real talk” and engage in transparent, authentic conversation? What would it take for me to be 10% more courageous?
- Whom could I benefit listening 10% more to? What is it costing me for how I am engaging today?
If you would like to have a discovery call to discuss how you could increase connection and transparency in your team, please do not hesitate to reach out.
I look forward to hearing your reactions, input and stories.
Yours in practice,
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