Taking off the mask

Imagine you’re in a large room full of people you don’t know. You feel slightly awkward, unsure where to start, as you continue to look for familiar faces. Then, amidst an attempt to make small talk with someone, you discover you have something in common, and you grab onto it like a rope connecting the two of you.

Maybe you shared a small thing, like where you were born or went to school or that you have children of the same age. Or maybe it’s something you experienced, like losing someone to a disease, or suffering from one yourself. That exchange, that bond, can fundamentally change how you relate to each other. 

Now imagine that room is actually your company, full of thousands of people from across the world. 

The mask we wear

“The fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets.” wrote Haruki Murakami. But at work, most of us feel compelled to hide behind a mask of cool professionalism. As a result, our “greatest asset” is reduced to an impersonal sameness, and the chances for human connection are greatly reduced.

You needn’t wear all your personal information on your sleeve or announce it in every meeting. You just have to be your whole self, willing and open to offer what makes you you. When you feel you can do that, you experience what neuroscientists might call an “internal resonance” or “coherence.” producing a sense of confidence and clarity.

You've almost certainly felt the negative effects of "putting on a good face" at work, despite what was happening around you and inside you.

A simple example at work

I wrote recently about a workshop with 550 engineers. We formed them into 110 groups of five people, and this time we tried something different: we started by asking them to list 10 facts about themselves. I offered my own example.

“Your facts can include things that describe you. For example, I live in New York City. I have five children. My wife is Japanese. I’m a vegetarian. My grandparents emigrated from Italy.
They can also be things you’ve experienced, both pleasant and unpleasant. I had a wonderful holiday in Provence. I was laid off. My mother was a diabetic.
List ten things that make you you.”

After a short period of reflection and list-making, we asked them to share some of their facts within their small groups, looking for connections and things they found remarkable. The energy in the room changed. It was no longer 550 engineers with specific titles in a big company. It was 550 human beings, each with their own story. The trust and interaction flowed more freely, more naturally.

There’s a longer version of this exercise in Week 5 of a Working Out Loud Circle. It’s called “So much to offer!” It’s there to help people experience that it’s okay to be yourself at work, that sharing who you are can be a kind of contribution, and the basis of a meaningful connection with someone.

We don’t need to shed our individuality when we come to the office. “People are our greatest asset” only if we let them be real people, only if we let ourselves be our true selves.

"Mask" by Henry Moore

"Mask" by Henry Moore

What to do when you’re in a room full of strangers

How do you feel when you’re about to go to a conference or a party and realize you may not know anyone there? What do you do?

Recently, someone sent me a LinkedIn message saying she was stressed about going to an event because “a lot of networking is expected” and she didn’t know what to do.

We had the following exchange:

Me: “Here’s a pro tip: Imagine that everyone in that conference has a story, one that makes them human and interesting and special. Now imagine it's your job to discover that in each person.” 
She: “My biggest issue is that I have nothing to offer those people except my attention, appreciation and huge interest.”
Me: “Nothing to offer except...the most precious things we all want!!!! The problem isn't that you don't have enough. It's that you don't know the value of what you already have.”

I can relate to how she feels, though. Just yesterday I went to an event in a foreign country with hundreds of people I didn't know. Everyone was talking (in another language) and laughing, and I was sitting by myself. I felt like a small child alone on the playground.

Then I remembered my own advice. I began asking more questions. Not the usual smalltalk but something that showed I was genuinely interested. Not “What do you do?” but “What’s the thing you’re most excited about now?” If they happened to mention they had come from another city, I asked about where they grew up, what they missed, and what they liked about their new place. If they mentioned children, I asked their ages and we would talk about parenting. 

All I had to offer was my attention and a bit of vulnerability as I asked questions that were more personal. It led to them asking me more questions too.  It changed my experience of the event from potentially stressful to positively lovely.

A few days after that LinkedIn exchange, I got an update.

“It was great and your tip worked very well. The idea that I am actually discovering another person rather than networking or building connections made me more relaxed and I think even more natural. I got rid of the feeling that I have to entertain the other person… I feel very good!!”

“Discovering another person” is a beautiful way to put it. You’re not networking to get something, but to discover something, and that makes all the difference.

Accelerated intimacy at work (without a call from HR)

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

A strange & beautiful dinnerAfter 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.

Accelerated intimacy at work (without a call from HR)

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

A strange & beautiful dinnerAfter 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.