The lost art of meeting the other

In Fremantle, a few days ago, Pedro and I unknowingly ended up in a festive market.

Everything seemed mundane until I spotted a shop selling rainstick and didgeridoos.

I saw a lot of interesting stuff in this shop including mandalas, spiritual books, tarot cards, chimes, didgeridoos and more. The shopkeeper showed me around with passion and just by experiencing her positive energy, at one point I became interested to know her better.

I asked, ‘Tell me about yourself.’

She replied, ‘what do you want to know?’

I said, ‘whatever you would like to share.’

There was a good ten seconds silence and then, out it came.

‘Not sure what to say. OK, I thought you were just wanting to know where I come from.’

Is that because I look like an Asian person, I said.

Perhaps, she responded.

OK, well not really, but if that’s important to you, you can start from there.

I come from Mauritius. I’ve been in this country for a good few years now. But you know, the first time I visited this shop, I fell in love with this place. I asked the owner, can I have a job here, and to my surprise, within 2 weeks I had an offer. I don’t know why I am telling you all this.

I don’t know also, I said.

She started to talk about religion, Lord Ganesha, the books she enjoys reading and her struggles in the foreign land. Next thing I could see Maria’s eyes were full of tears.

‘Gosh. I don’t know where this came from’, she said.

We had a great conversation and she shared so many more personal things. At one stage, I had my eyes on the tarot cards on sale and she warned me not to buy them because there were better ones available in a nearby store.

Selling the product was not the most important thing on her mind. And like with every authentic experience, I became even more convinced that I was in the right place. So, I ended up buying a few more things.

In a world so impoverished when it comes to meeting, there is so much to learn from this experience.

A meeting starts with suspending our agenda

When I first asked the question, ‘tell me about yourself’, Maria thought I was seeking a discount or a bargain by finding common grounds. In other words, I was being an opportunist.

But as she became aware that I was genuinely interested to know her, everything changed from that moment.

A meeting is in experiencing learning

We often talk about learning but how do we understand learning? Learning is a discovery and often a step forward into the unknown. It’s a gamble not a guarantee for improvement as it is often ‘sold.’

By asking open questions we have a much better chance to learn. Think for example, how far would this conversation go by asking, ‘What do you do?’ or ‘what makes work difficult for you?’

If there was a problem with ‘doing’ or ‘work’ it will come up with an open question.

But such is the problem with mechanistic thinking that we cannot rise beyond objects and behaviours.

A meeting is risky

Asking open questions can be risky. It can backfire. What if Maria would have responded by saying something like ‘Why should I?’ or ‘let’s stick to business!’.

But then, there is no learning without risk.

How interesting that every every meeting must begin with an agenda, templated questions, goals and expectations which subsequently becomes a quest for controlling, problem solving, competing, selling and proving.

A meeting is in attending

I had the opportunity to meet with Graham Long during my recent trip to Canberra. Graham has spent a lifetime understanding and explaining to people what it means to meet with others. As we were having a meal, Graham pointed at the plate between us. He said, this plate is an example of the meeting between you and I. The day we realise the power of sharing – that your hunger and your satisfaction precedes mine – we experience a meeting. Wow!

All meeting is in attending to the other.

Don’t believe my word. Start a conversation with someone today by asking, ‘tell me about yourself’ or ‘what would you like to share’ or ‘where would you like to begin.’

Do not try to solve any problems, do not give advice, and do not try to steer the conversation.

Stay in the moment and listen to understand. You may learn something about this person and about yourself.

And for god sake, this is not a technique or a recipe for a meeting. So please don’t run with a set of questions thinking that you will meet with people. Be yourself.

A true meeting is felt much before it is known or understood.

So many opportunities are lost each day at work – investigations, hiring, recruitment, audits, appraisals, strategy discussions, lunches and dinners where we are so busy proving and controlling that we rarely meet with people.

We want to understand how people make decisions but we rarely take the time to know the person behind those decisions. I recently met a woman who came to my workshop to learn about the science of decision making. Her little daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia on the day before the workshop. Would it be fair to expect that she should pay full attention to the course ‘content’?

The act of organising (and organisations) starts with meeting people where they are before we start to draw an agenda for the meeting.

I hope more people learn to experience the joys of meeting and take it to their workplaces and beyond.

As Martin Buber once said, we are social beings and all life is lived in meeting.

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