I am reading Brené Brown’s latest book, “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.” In the book she says: “Right now we are neither recognizing nor celebrating our inextricable connection. We are divided from others in almost every area of our lives. We are not showing up with one another in a way that acknowledges our connection. Cynicism and distrust have a stranglehold on our hearts.”
This quote from Brown reminded me of an experience I had a couple of years ago at a dinner party. Our hosts had the perfect plan for dinner. They invited an interesting mix of couples and prepared a perfect meal. They even matched the wines with each course to enhance our enjoyment. During the meal there was one woman who began to offer opinions regarding how evil, greedy and irresponsible CEOs are. My ears perked up, and I felt her comments were directed at me since I coach CEOs. She went on a 45-minute rant on American business leaders and asked me how was I able to work with these thieves.” I did not know this woman well, but she triggered me. I slammed my hands on the table and told her dinner was over and that she was a miserable person. You can imagine the impact my actions had on the rest of the evening.
I’ve thought about this event for some time and know that I acted in a way that eliminated any connection I might have had with this woman. First, I lacked curiosity. I was not curious enough to ask her questions as to why she felt the way she did. In my experience as a coach, I have found there are usually reasons why people behave the way they do. I allowed myself to be triggered by an opinion. It is hard not to like people if you know more about them. My lack of curiosity killed any chance we had to connect.
She lacked civility, but I responded in kind. In business, politics and life, we need to act in a civil manner. She went on a rant, and I responded by lobbing my version of a nuclear bomb in her direction. I work with CEOs every day on the positive impact of constructive conflict in their companies. I missed the chance to have constructive conflict and instead stepped into a war zone. Civility is a must if we are going to hear each other. I stopped hearing her, and it ended the conversation.
Finally, we need to have compassion. When I calmed down and became curious regarding the “why” behind her behavior, I found that her son had recently been fired from a long-time executive position. He had no savings, and the woman was supporting her son and his family. This is a very emotional issue for any family. This woman owned her own business and was a successful entrepreneur. She felt the company that fired her son not only took away his livelihood but they figuratively “called her baby ugly.” I missed the opportunity to see her pain and the “why” behind her behavior. I could have connected and shown compassion; instead, all I showed was anger.
The lessons I learned are simple but important:
1) Be curious. It is difficult to dislike people in who you are curious and interested.
2) Be civil. I love constructive conflict. All-out war and not listening is no fun for anyone and not productive.
3) Have compassion. We are dealing with human beings. They can be messy and difficult. We do not have to agree, but we do have to be open to seeing each other’s pain.
For me this encounter was a learning experience. I lost the chance to know someone who might have added to my life. Intimacy and connection are things that every human being looks for. We want to be in enriching relationships. Be open to really seeing who people are and connect with them. Your life will be richer.