Even during some of the worst times in my life, I’ve responded to How are you? with Everything’s great! I thought by showing people that I didn’t need help, that I was always happy, I could somehow make them like me more. It's a mistake I still make. Now though, I know it actually distances people. I’ve seen how the lack of intimacy leads to shallow relationships, to bonds that are easily broken.
Thankfully, I’m gradually learning some ways to get closer to people - and let them get closer to me - at work and in the rest of my life.
A strange & beautiful business dinner
After walking down a long, twisting corridor, through a wine cellar and then an undersized entryway, I stepped into a gorgeous, candlelit private dining room where there was one long table and 16 lavish place settings. Most of the people arriving had never met before, so you can imagine the small talk before dinner. What do you do? Do you live in the city? Such a lovely room.
Like most business dinners, I anticipated leaving with a full stomach but emotionally empty.
At this one event, though, the host wanted us to remember the evening and to genuinely get to know each other. So after a brief introduction about the purpose of the evening, he asked us to talk with our neighbors about something we were struggling with. Then he went first.
He told us how he had recently adopted a teenaged son who was having emotional issues. There had been a problem at the house. Police had to come. He shared how he loved his son but was unsure whether they should continue to live together.
The room was dead silent. No one talked or checked email. We were all focused on our host and his story - and we cared. Then the host again asked us to share our own current struggles with the people sitting next to us. We formed groups of three and started talking about things we’d have never considered sharing just a few minutes earlier.
I’ll never forget that dinner.
Making it safe
The host of that party gave us permission to be vulnerable. He made it okay for us to share a weakness or a struggle. He encouraged us to offer help if we could or at least our full attention if we couldn’t.
That made all the difference. Instead of my usual Everything’s great! I could be myself. Instead of trying to size up the people around me so they fit in neat little boxes, I saw them as real human beings.
Intimacy at work
When Dale Carnegie wrote about how to make people like you, he didn't say Tell them everything is great! or Talk about the same trivial things everyone else talks about. Instead, two of his principles were Become genuinely interested in other people and Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
You needn’t respond to each greeting in the elevator with probing questions or a list of your challenges. But even a slight shift from professional to personal can make work more meaningful and fulfilling.
On an individual level, for example, I try to show that I care more about the person than the role they play. For me, that means I replace What do you do? with
What are you excited about?
What would you love to learn?
What could you use help with?
I'll offer up my own short example so they feel they have permission to share. When I let them know I’m genuinely interested in them, the almost universal reaction is surprise. That's often followed by an intensely personal conversation that forges a connection between us.
In our Working Out Loud Circles, a kind of purposeful peer support group for careers, one of the first things we do is to share an intimate story about ourselves and our goals. In the initial meeting of a new circle just this week, I learned things about friends and strangers in our group that made me care more. That bond will increase our desire to help each other and collaborate throughout the next 11 weeks we'll be working together.
Even on a corporate level, we’ve encouraged intimacy using our enterprise social network. Though the majority of contributions are directly related to work, I’ve shared my own failures and personal challenges so others know they can, too. People from around the world have shared poignant stories about work and family that - amidst all the inhuman trappings of a modern global corporation - help people care about each other. Their stories help us realize we’re not just cogs in a machine but human beings connected by the work we do and potentially much more.
It took me a long time but I've learned that greater intimacy, while not always comfortable or safe, makes work and life better.