The Lost Art of Connecting
It’s become clear to me, these days, that we’ve lost the art of connecting- both in business and in our personal lives. What I mean by “connecting,” is the ability to listen to other people’s feelings, understand their importance to them, and create a direct and impactful link, that shows that you care about them; not simply their problems. Connecting is the art of getting beyond task management and problem resolution, to the establishment of a relationship, quickly and deeply.
I’ve had two experiences lately that reinforced my belief that connecting has gone out of style. The first involved a hotel stay at a Midwestern property where I was doing some presentations. I had encountered a couple of problems during my stay, and had indicated so on the electronic evaluation sent to me. My remarks had obviously been passed on to the hotel assistant manager, since I received an email asking me to call her, to discuss my troubled experience.
I called her; she answered; and there was silence on the line (after I had introduced myself and told her that I was calling in response to her email about my survey responses). She said nothing to connect with me, or segue off of her inquiry or my remarks. I had to literally lead the conversation, or it would have not gone anywhere. Her responses to the problems I had encountered (keys that didn’t work, and my room vibrating for five or ten minutes) were without emotion, and mechanical at best. I had to volunteer the explanations I was given, at the time, and she responded with a tepid apology and a certificate for a free night. She had no particular response to the hotel’s dryer shaking rooms all the way up to the third floor, or to the supposed dynamiting at a local quarry, about a half mile from the hotel (the engineer’s explanation). We could just as easily been talking about the absence of a newspaper at my room door in the morning.
It was clear that the only goal she had was to end the conversation, “solve the problem,” and get rid of me. She could have empathized with how weird it must have felt to have the whole room vibrating (the TV almost hopped off of its stand); or how frustrating it must have been to check into the hotel at midnight, schlep all my stuff up to my room, and be standing in the hallway not being able to get in. She did neither. She had no interest in my feelings, or in salvaging a relationship that was bruised and battered.
The second interaction involved a staff person at the fitness center I use. I went to the office of the center to renew my membership and to cancel Arleah’s. I sat down at one of the desks and got a shallow, barely audible “hello” and then, nothing. I waited a few seconds and then, when it was apparent that the staff person wasn’t going to say anything, I told her that I was there to renew one membership and cancel the other one. She said nothing in response to my statement, and pulled out a pad of paper and started writing. I asked her if she was going to ask me any questions, like which membership I was renewing, and which one I was canceling. She didn’t like my question, got quite defensive, and the rest of our interaction was infused with a cool, awkward politeness. She never thanked me for renewing my membership, and she handled the whole interaction with the impersonal-ness of buying gum at a convenient store.
I had the polar opposite experience at another hotel where I had a meeting scheduled with the general manager (part of a consulting project with a new client). While I was waiting, at the front desk, for the GM to come over, a young lady behind the counter, asked me what I had around my neck. (I wear a device that controls the volume and programs for my hearing aids, and links them to my cell phone. It’s hard not to notice it, although very few people ask me about it.) Her question lead to a discussion and interaction that was full of information, spontaneity, and shared feelings. In literally minutes, she had engaged me in a dialogue that felt genuine, caring, and reciprocal.
What’s the difference? Curiosity and risk. No connectedness occurs without either one. The problem is that we rarely recruit for curiosity, or reward for risk. Remember, that the greatest risks we take are not financial or physical. They involve being honest, direct, and unplanned in relating to others.
I was at a political fundraiser a few days ago and was introduced to a couple that had just arrived. The man was almost immediately pulled away by the candidate. I had noticed that neither the man nor the woman was wearing a wedding ring, so I asked her if they were a “couple.” She could have told me, right there and then, to buzz off and mind my own business. Instead, my question lead to a rather involved conversation about how difficult it was for middle-aged folks to have a committed relationship, without being married, given the tax implications, the social mores, family pressures, etc. The man joined us shortly, and we all had a fascinating conversation about aging, intimacy, and the changing culture we live in.
As we parted, both of them said that this had been one of the most interesting conversations they had had in years, and the gentleman asked if I had a business card.
When you’re developing yourself or others, the primary question to always be asking, is – “Am I willing to take the risk of truly engaging with others, and what would happen to me if I offend someone?”