Last week, in those glorious days of back-to-normal optimism, I was invited to a dinner party. My immediate reaction was: “I don’t want to go”. It’s not that I don’t like dinner parties. I do. I love a sense of occasion. I love dressing up, relaxing and enjoying myself. I love meeting people, and during lockdown I’ve longed for connection. But right now, I feel as though I don’t belong. I feel like a misfit. I’ve lost confidence in my ability to connect.
It’s easy to see why human connections are often the focus of leadership development and coaching. And it isn’t just a work thing. ALL relationships matter. They’re the most important factor when it comes to life happiness – and a major source of life’s problems. If we believe the theories of psychologist Alfred Adler, all problems are interpersonal.
Which makes it worrying that most of us have been on a 6-month relationship-building deprivation experience. And like muscles that atrophy through immobility, so has our ability to bond with others weakened and wasted. We are flat out of practice. We feel we no longer fit.
From everyday interactions with strangers (the daily commute, the coffee shop), to nodding at an acquaintance at the gym, we seem to have lost the knack. And when it comes to anything more weighty (meeting new people at a business meeting, or worse – a dinner party!), the stakes feel higher and the situation more alien.
Professional people are meant to be good at these things, but we’ve all been shaken. Throughout lockdown, clients have mentioned all sorts of communication problems. How can I secure sponsorship for promotion when even a supermarket conversation feels weird? How do I talk to a difficult team member without the soothing effect of a chat over coffee? Can someone storm out of a Zoom call (and if they do, can I get them back)?
We have all become weirdos. While part of me is relieved (hurrah my inner anarchist cries!), another part knows that this is a source of anxiety and potential danger. (Witness my OTT excitement to see the DHL driver, and fit of rage when interacting with the FedEx call centre).
At least my early warning system is still functioning, but it’s telling me that I’ve got a lot of rehab work to do. It’s reminding me that I’ve forgotten how the outside world operates and telling me that my sharp edges need smoothing. And to make matters worse, the outside world is undergoing its own shape-shifting exercise. The physical barriers that we’re navigating – Zoom screens, face masks – are making communication, with its nuance and fine-tuning, perilous.
Masks, especially, have a detrimental effect on subtle communication messages. They block the transmission of key pieces of data to our brains (which don’t know how to compensate for missing facial signals) and trigger neural distress.
A wealth of pandemic-related data confirms this:
· As humans, we listen with our whole bodies, and in today’s COVID world, our brains are having to work harder to fill in the gaps.
· At best we are exhausted from this extra data processing; at worst, we are getting a fair amount of it wrong, threatening our carefully built relationships at home and at work.
Just last month, I dialled into a client meeting and found myself joining an online room of mask-wearing execs. One of the agenda items entailed giving tough feedback – pretty tricky to negotiate at the best of times. As the facilitator, I could hear people’s words, see their eyes and notice their hand gestures, but I couldn’t see their facial expressions. I could infer a smile from their eyes and their words, but I couldn’t actually see the gentle turn-up to the corners of the mouth.
To help these execs, and to avoid unintentional communication errors, I slowed the conversation right down by repeating, clarifying and summarising each point, articulating the mood and interpreting feelings so that nothing was missed or misread.
Another corporate duo I’ve been working with are stuck – locked behind Zoom screens and locked into opposing positions on a big decision. They’re both valued leaders and the organisation is terrified that one (or both) will walk. To help fill in the blanks, I’ve been prepping them thoroughly for each conversation, and debriefing them afterwards. Being seen and heard really matters to these two, and just knowing that their viewpoints are respected is helping defuse the situation and soften their emotions.
Clearly, our confidence has taken a battering during lockdown. So what can we – a bunch of social misfits struggling with missing communication data and exhausted brains – do about it? How can we retune our antennae and rebuild the high-quality relationships we need to flourish as humans and thrive at work?
Well firstly I guess it’s about fessing up. A friend of mine was talking to his daughter about her return-to-school worries, and she summed it up with five-year-old wisdom: ‘I just don’t know how to be with people, Daddy’. If she can spot the problem and own up to it, so can we. Being aware and acknowledging the difficulty helps us to notice it and give it the attention it deserves. It means we can slow things down (just as I did in the masked-ball conference room) to make sure we are reading mutual signals correctly. It also means we can give ourselves, and others, a bit of slack for not getting it quite right.
It’s also about getting back in the mental-gym and rebuilding some muscle mass. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time with senior lawyers and consultants, helping them navigate their Partnership path. Brilliant at their jobs, they often find social contact and networking to be the toughest aspects of their professional lives. For the ones who suffer from chronic shyness, even making sustained eye contact is a tall order.
I find that mini training exercises work wonders. “Practice on the barista who serves you coffee. Look them in the eye, count to three, smile, ask them how their day has been. Take a risk, see what happens.” It’s about getting more comfortable with casual interaction, and feeling prepared when you walk into that board room, shake the hand of the CEO and look them in the eye. Practising means expanding your range and building the muscles to meet new people, relate to acquaintances and strengthen relationships of mutual respect.
It’s also about knowing you can address something that feels unsettling – and survive.
So here comes my confession…. My real reason for wanting to avoid the dinner party was that I’d had a disagreement with a friend who was going to be there. Since it happened, lockdown had kept me safe: I’d been able to avoid getting in touch to clear the air. But with the date fast approaching, I realised the time had come – and so I took a dose of my own medicine and picked up the phone.
Clients always tell me two things after they’ve handled a difficult conversation. First, “It was nowhere near as difficult as I thought it would be”, and second, “I wish I’d done it sooner”. And so it was for me. A (minor) difference of opinion, left to fester, had grown out of proportion, allowing my inner misfit to run the show.
I’m not alone in this. After six months of ‘life underground’ (and with tighter social-distancing rules imminent), we all need some rehab. A blend of honesty to admit we’re out of shape, discipline to practice skill drills, and courage to do the heavy lifting . And if that seems like a big ask, imagine a world without relationships, where we live in separate bubbles, transacting for work and living without dinner parties. It’s not a world I want; how about you?