Be authentic. Be fully present.
This fourth core principle of relationship-based networking is easy to say, and very challenging to do on a consistent basis. I wanted to put myself to the test in a real life experiment and report back to you via this blog. I chose a travel day for my experiment in being fully present. The experiment lasted more than 12 hours and had three plus parts to it. If you are up for an interesting if not bizarre story, please read on. [Caution: there are some adult themes to this blog post that may not be suitable for young children.]
The day began with an early morning Sunday breakfast with friends of my client who are considering relocating to South Carolina. Although we were strangers when we met, we became fast friends, and conversation flowed very easily and naturally. I made sure to maintain good eye connection, to not interrupt them, to ask a lot of questions, to listen more than talk (that was hard for me), and to stay off my smartphone. This breakfast turned out to be the easiest part of my day-long experiment in being fully present and authentic.
The next part of my experiment involved keeping my cool as my Delta flight was delayed for a few hours, and my connection flight had to be changed. I was flying in one day ahead of my work commitment so all was well. This gave me time to do a few more things on the way to the airport. One of those things was having a prolonged conversation with a friend who spontaneously began to tell me her life story. As I stood there on the tarmac of her long driveway, with the sun beating down on my face, I found myself wiggling, shifting my body weight, and at times dancing in place. It was so hard to listen for such a long period of time. All the while I was wondering how we even got on to this topic. I suddenly worried about missing my rescheduled flight. But in the spirit of being fully present, I hung in there, listening actively with compassion and without interrupting. At last I did have to interject and pivot, “Is it already 11am? I need to get to the airport or I’ll miss my rescheduled flight.” It was a natural and acceptable end to our conversation (to be continued, no doubt).
By the time I got to the airport, I was pretty tired from listening to other people’s stories. I just wanted to read and be by myself, maybe even sleep for an hour or so on the plane. I had purchased a copy of the May 2018 issue of Oprah Magazine which featured an interesting series of articles entitled, “What can we agree on?” I hoped to gain some new insights that might be useful in my training and coaching practice for communication and networking skills.
I hadn’t expected this article to be addressing the great political divide that is currently facing the United States of America. How truth and lies, deeply held beliefs, and political affiliations are tearing apart families, communities, and friendships. One of the featured guests shared tips on how to suspend judgement and to be curious about other people’s experiences, perspectives, and beliefs (without arguing about them).
This article was particularly timely, as my country had just suffered another mass shooting at a high school – this one in Sante Fe, Texas on May 18th. I was feeling very emotional from this recent tragedy. Quite frankly I am angry at my country’s inability to solve this “public health problem.” Other countries – like Japan and Australia – have managed to reduce mass shootings through sensible gun control measures. Why can’t America?
As I got myself a bit worked up on this issue, a man walked down the plane aisle to take the seat next to me. He was a big, burly, muscly man in his 40’s, adorned wit tattoos. My first thought was “Oh no.” He quickly began flirting with the flight attendant, talking about his dog who was suffering from a rare disease (gaining her sympathy). He then proclaimed that he was going to have 10 drinks and get drunk. I thought “Oh dear….”
He fell asleep shortly after the plane took off. I had hoped that his slumber would continue well past the in-flight beverage service. But he magically awoke as his favorite flight attendant came by. She comp’d him a beer and a vodka. Now I’m thinking, “How do I get reassigned to a new seat?”
After a brief conversation about his dog and the problems his pup had endured, he turned and asked me point blank: “So are you a Republican or a Democrat?”
Rather than talking about partisan affiliation, I told him what I believe in: women’s rights, social justice, free speech, elimination of institutional racism, civil rights, pay equity, protection of our environment, diplomacy and peace, the right to love who you love, safety for kids attending school, and sensible gun control.
We then got into a deep discussion about gun control, gun ownership, second amendment and all that is wrapped around that hot issue. I tried to remember what I had learned in the Oprah Magazine about having a respectful civil discourse even about topics we might disagree on. I tried to be curious and learn from my fellow passenger about how he views the world.
He then shared with me that he manages a night club for a living. And that he had been involved in an active shooter situation. He told me if he hadn’t had a firearm with him then his staff, some customers, and he himself would have been killed that night.
Thankfully I have never been in an active shooter situation. Such a situation would no doubt deeply affect a person and their views on gun ownership.
He then told me that he owned five guns, including two that were outdated and had no safety features at all. I asked him why he needed weapons that had no safety features and he told me that he got them at a great price and that they are rare. He said he had them locked up in two safes – one at home and one at work.
Trying to be fully present and practice my “listening without judgement” skills, I asked him what he liked about owning guns. Was it for sport, for competition, for self-defense, as a collector, or just a hobby? He said he just likes guns. Period.
He asked me why I thought there was an increase in school shootings these last few years. He believed it was because video games were so violent. I shared my view that there are just too many guns in America. I referenced an article by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times that shared statistics on gun ownership in America and had a fresh new idea on how to reduce gun shootings in America. Kristof suggests that we treat death by guns as a public health issue, just as we had done to reduce automobiles deaths by implementing sensible precautions such as seat belts, child car seats, speed limits, drivers’ licenses, auto insurance, airbags, etc.
[Check in: is your pulse rising as you read this? Breathe….suspend judgement….see if you can hang in there and read a few more paragraphs without screaming at me through your device.]
At this point in the conversation we were still very civil, respectful, and actively listening to the other’s thoughts and opinions. I reminded myself that my main goal for this day was to practice my listening skills, and to be fully present without judgement, without arguing, and without trying to persuade, influence, sell, or convince other people to see the world as I do.
Then the conversation got really weird. Mind you we were trapped on an airplane. I couldn’t easily get out of this one without being rude. Before I knew it, my attempts at being fully present turned our conversation into a free counseling session.
He confessed to me that it wasn’t really a night club, but rather a strip joint that he managed. And he had a side business selling pornography. (OMG – what have I gotten myself into?). He was dating a 25 year-old young woman who worked at the club (clothing optional). She had betrayed him and began sleeping with his brother. Then he told me that his brother had been fired from his job as a prison guard for threatening to kill a colleague. He told me that his brother had broken into his apartment to steal his money and guns. The girlfriend, under instruction of the brother, had called the police to report she had been raped. The police came, arrested my plane friend and took all of his guns into evidence (after they remarked what an incredibly cool collection of weapons he had.)
As you read this, you must be thinking that I’m either making this up, or I’m really gullible. Who would sit and listen to all of this from a complete stranger? Well, I did because I was challenging myself to practice active listening and being fully present without judging another human being. Do you know what I learned (other than some people really have very different lifestyles)?
Being fully present is hard work!
As we deplaned he asked me if I thought he had been lying to me. I told him that as a general rule, I believe everyone until they prove themselves to be liars. Suddenly he went to hug me and told me that this was the best flight he had ever taken. Standing there in the middle of the airport terminal, I made him promise me two things: 1) he would not date anyone under the age of 35; and 2) she had to have a job that required her to have clothes on the entire time. He smiled, laughed, and swore to follow these two rules. He said he would go one step further: he would not date anyone for six months until he got his life together (unless of course that flight attendant would make time for him tonight).
Lessons Learned from this Experiment
There are a number of insights from this multi-part experiment, all which transpired in less than 12 hours. Here’s what I’m taking away:
- Is it possible for us to have a civil, polite discussion on heated topics that we disagree on and feel very emotional about? YES – it is possible, but it takes a conscious effort to listen, understand, suspend judgement, and respect another person’s view of the world. We don’t have to agree, but we can try our best to listen, to be open minded, and to maintain civility.
- Can we show up as our true selves and be authentic? YES – but it may come at a cost. Not everyone will like you. Some may take advantage of you and your good nature.
- Is there such a thing as “too much information?” or getting “too personal?” YES – and this is the perfect example. Too much, too soon, and to the wrong person.
- Does it take much effort to power down, avoid distraction, and be fully present when you are with other people? YES – it requires a great deal of focus and intention to stay engaged with people as they share their concerns and opinions. You need to be consciously aware of not only what’s happening around you, but what’s going on inside of you. You only have control of those internal buttons. The choices you make on how to show up largely shape your experience with people, places, and issues you care about.
Why not run your own experiment in being authentic and fully present?
How can you leverage the value of your network?
If you have comments or stories of your own to share, please do so on the Facebook page for my book, Networking Ahead: https://www.facebook.com/NetworkingAhead/
Share this blog post on your LinkedIn feed– be sure to add your two cents about how networking has impacted your career, business, and life.
Check back when I share my next blog on Core Principle#5 – Follow Up!