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What is the Connection? Find Commonalities for Better Conversations

Conversations bring people together or drive people apart based on our perceived commonality or differences. All humans are 99% alike from a DNA perspective. What is missing from the equation for harmony is just the perception of similarity. Luckily, our perceptions can be changed. With a bit of intention and effort, we can perceive others as similar to us and increase the chances we can get along.

I invite you to experiment with two methods for finding connections and improving interpersonal interactions. The first is discovery of similarity and the second is reminder of humanity.

Discovery of Similarity

We can find surface-level commonality with people we meet, such as a hobby or an element of our work. Taking it on as a discovery process can be fun. Austin, Nevada City, San Francisco, Tampa – what is the connection? Places I’ve travelled in the past month and met people just like me. They might be a different gender, from a different culture, or their skin might be a different color, but we can still find commonalities. Meeting new people, what comes to my mind first is:  What do I have I common with this person?  I discover connections by asking questions: ‘where are you from?’  ‘what do you do for fun/work/hobbies?’  ‘how was your weekend?’  These small talk methods are simple ways to find connections. Typically, conversations will proceed at a surface level with these types of connection creators until we find something in common. Then we tend to dive deeper into that topic, be it food, kids, sport, music, books, or recent movies. Generally, it feels good to be connected, but that is not always how it goes.

Reminder of Humanity

Sometimes initial interactions seem to bring up differences rather than commonalities.  They may reveal a difference in culture or political leanings. In these cases, we may feel separation and perceive that the ‘other’ is not like us.  It is in these times when we can remind ourselves of all being human – that we are 99% like each other.  As humans, we have more in common than we have as differences. The exercise here is to repeat the phrase ‘just like me’ and follow it by a basic human condition:  ‘just like me this person wants to be understood,’ ‘just like me this person is forming their opinions based on information they have received,’ ‘just like me they want to be healthy, happy, and loved.’ In really challenging situations it is helpful to drop to an even more basic level: ‘this person has a beating heart and their lungs are filling with oxygen, just like me,’ ‘this person is somebody’s daughter/son, just like me.’

Human commonalities are so much more significant than a political opinion, religious practice, or social norm. When we see this reality of sameness as more significant than difference, our perspective changes. With that internal perspective shift comes a subconscious change in body language – facial expressions and stance – that others perceive. It often also leads to a shift in our language to be more inclusive and accepting. The result is the other person feels more accepted and is more inclined toward getting along.

For example, in a recent interaction someone used the term ‘God fearing’ frequently in conversation. At first, I was put off by the term as it reminded me of the judgment I felt from some religious people having grown up Catholic. That brought up difference instead of sameness in my mind. Then I remembered that we were both human and I made a conscious choice to listen for commonalities from this person. I heard common values of family and integrity and dedication. With that I was able to shift my perception toward sameness and I could hear the term ‘God fearing’ to mean trusting in and leaning on a belief in times of uncertainty. We had in common the human desire to feel a sense of security.  

This skill of seeing commonality takes time to develop, and it can be helpful to practice on strangers with whom we are not interacting. Airports are a perfect practicing ground. Particularly with people for whom our initial reaction is irritation or judgement. I practice the ‘just like me’ exercise and seek to find a commonality. I see that the person standing in the wrong line has a kid in tow and I remember what it was like to travel with young ones. I hear that the person talking loudly on the phone next to me is appeasing an upset boss and I connect with the feeling of being stressed and striving to meet high expectations. Once I find something in common, I am amazed at how quickly my perspective and attitude toward them changes. I also enjoy this free ‘Just Like Me’ meditation.

The start of every good conversation begins with a connection between people. When we find that connection it changes our perspective and likely our language and approach to interacting with that person, bringing us together instead of driving us apart. 

A 5-Minute Primer on Compassion in Leadership

Compassion in leadership is an emerging concept in corporate management, brought to the forefront by LinkedIn in CEO, Jeff Weiner.  But for most of us, the concept may be a bit fuzzy and theoretical. I was interested in learning more because I teach Leadership Communication at San Francisco State University.  At the recent Compassion in Leadership Summit at the Computer History Museum, I gained a much clearer understanding, so here I have captured 10 hours of content for you to read in the next 5 minutes.  The key takeaway is that leaders need to develop three core compassion skills and organizations need to develop systems that foster compassion.

Compassion = Empathy + Action

Put simply, compassion is where empathy meets action.  Empathy is feeling what another person is feeling, while compassion is putting yourself in the shoes of another for the purpose of alleviating suffering.  As Jeff Weiner explains, if you see somebody being crushed by a boulder, empathy is feeling the crushing feeling in your chest as they suffer. Compassion is understanding their suffering based on a past painful experience you had and then finding a way to get the boulder off them. 

The 3 Skills of a Compassionate Leader: Awareness, Mindset, Action

Scott Shute, Head of Mindfulness and Compassion, LinkedIn defines compassionate leaders as having the capacity for awareness of others, a mindset of wishing the best for others, and the courage to take action.  Lori Schwanbeck, Co-founder of Mindfulness Therapy Associates, reminds us that humans are wired for compassion, but the environment in which we are raised activates different levels of capacity. The good news is that we can all expand our capacity for compassion. In each of the three leadership skill areas, there are items that limit or expand our capacity for compassion.

3 Skills of the Compassionate Leader

Awareness of others means being present to what is happening for the other people in our environment. Capacity for awareness can be limited by our propensity as humans to orient to ourselves as a matter of survival and by the overactivity of our sympathetic nervous system.  We may incorrectly perceive what is happening around us as a ‘flight or fight’ situation, activating the sympathetic nervous system and limiting our brain’s executive functioning.  Capacity for awareness can be expanded by self-regulation of emotions, a sense of curiosity, and through the practice of noticing others. 

Our mindset affects how we act and how we treat other people.  Because as humans we are always pattern matching and connecting new information to what is already in our brains, we tend to relate to people as if they are actually the story that we’ve created about them in our head.  If they are wearing a business suit our story may be that they are ambitious. If they are in tattered clothes, our story may be that they are disadvantaged.  Depending our story, we will treat that person more or less compassionately. Therefore, a mindset of wishing well for others is an important skill for compassion in leadership.  The mindset of wishing well for others can be limited by fear, competition, lack of trust, and differencing through ‘not-like-me’ thoughts. Our capacity for wishing well for others can be expanded by seeing others as ‘like-me’ with common humanity, through gratitude, and by celebrating other’s success and happiness. 

The courage to take action means being willing to be uncomfortable, to step into another’s shoes, see things from a different perspective, and possibly acknowledge our own weaknesses.  This courage can be limited by overwhelm, apathy, self-promotion, and time pressures. We’ve all been in situations where we see a coworker who might need help but are in too much of a hurry to meet our own project deadline to stop and help. That is time pressure limiting the courage to take compassionate action.  The courage to take action can be expanded by setting intentions, taking small steps, and connecting with an accountability buddy.  An example is setting the intention to ask a coworker how they are doing and then deeply listen to their answer.  With that intention we will gain the courage to take that action, even when we are rushed. 

During the conference we practiced exercises in noticing, connecting, and thinking of actions to take as a means of building up our Compassion Quotient (CQ).  As Scott Shute said, “A few breaths put us in the performance zone and opens our aperture to other people.”

Organizational Systems can Foster Compassion

“Smart companies know that doing well and doing good go hand and hand, and as our CEO says, ‘the business of business is to improve the state of the world’,” Ebony Beckwith, EVP & Chief Philanthropy Officer, Salesforce

“Investing in others’ success is investing in your success and the organization’s success,” Jeff Weiner, CEO, LinkedIn.

A business that is both doing well and doing good, and also highlighting the importance of individual success for overall organizational success, is likely to have systems in place that foster compassion. Christina Hall, SVP and Chief People Officer at LinkedIn commented that it is not just the typical Silicon Valley perks that are part of the company’s effort to treat employees compassionately.  It also includes things like long leave times with counseling and building inter-work relationships. LinkedIn uses Glint to survey employees and hear directly what they want and don’t want. The answer to a question about what people wanted to see in the manager one-on-one meetings was phones off and laptops closed. That led to a new system for meetings, a system that increased compassion and employee engagement and supported one of LinkedIn’s codified values: Relationships Matter. 

Ebony Beckwith of Salesforce also mentioned the significance of relationships, particularly the importance of leaders being clear with people – clear about goals, expectation, what is working and what is not.  “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.  Being a compassionate leader is having the courage to be clear with people,” she commented.  Open communication is a common theme of many systems that foster compassion in organizations.  “When you share, it opens up others to share,” Ebony added.

Another interesting organizational system, that we might not associate with building compassion, is business success measurement.  Mohak Shroff, SVP of Engineering at LinkedIn told a story about a change in the system of success measurement.  The original measurement system tracked and maximized productivity. Productivity went up, but people complained.  The new system of measurement maximized for happiness.  Happiness, productivity, retention, and recruiting all went up and complaining went down.

Other system ideas shared included starting meetings with team members sharing one thing they appreciated about each other and having a section of all-hands meetings focused on recognizing compassionate actions of leaders and employees.

Hopefully this short summary of the Compassion in Leadership Summit made the concept clear and sparked ideas for implementation.  As the conference host Soren Gordhamer said, “Wisdom and compassion are two wings of one bird.”