Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A party I won't forget

I've lately been pondering on what makes a good 'opening line' when meeting new people. Hi, how are you, nice to meet you, and then....what to say? Sometimes I try "what do you do for a living", but in today's economy I could be talking to someone who lost their job or just doesn't like their job. Or maybe, I know what they do already, since I'm at an office party. Or MAYBE they have a super-secret national security agency job and can't talk about it at all...but in all of those cases the 'what do you do' question can be a quick conversation killer.


I recently went to a party with some friends. The food was good and plentiful and the conversations lively.

Walking up to the appetizer display, I saw someone I had been introduced to earlier. I started right in with my new opener, "So, what makes you happy?" and he said, "Wow, nobody's ever asked me that before!" He was older than I, in his early 60s at least, so I was kind of surprised to hear that. But then he recovered and said "God." I was a little taken aback, I mean, I was hoping for a deep conversation, but then I was thinking maybe he was joking, so I smiled and said, "Okay, I was thinking more of a hobby....."

He smiled back and said, "No, I'm serious".

Then he told me his life story. He had much pain and suffering, he felt lost and afraid, and when he was near bottom he found a religion he could connect with.

I have to say, I was a bit stressed having this conversation. He was obviously very passionate and had a lot to share; but I have found that sometimes such zeal can be overwhelming. I also was a little afraid he was going to try to convince me to join his temple because of his 'persuasive' tone, and this would move into an argument about whose beliefs were 'right'.

We kept going - him talking and me listening, and then we talked some more. After half an hour I took a quick break for a drink from the bar and then went right back to him.

On my break I realized that listening to him talk was much harder than I anticipated. I was trying to listen and have empathy, to feel what he felt going through this experience. I have a tendency to answer people's questions with agreement, to make them feel good. Telling him "I understand, yeah, that makes sense" can sound like I'm agreeing with him, doesn't it? Except I'm not. I'm just following his logic, and feeling his feelings of joy and discovery.

I think this is where some people get confused about empathy - just because I have empathy for you (just because I feel what you feel, and I see why you feel the way you do) doesn't mean I agree with you. It doesn't mean I would even make the same decisions as you, knowing what you've told me and feeling what you feel. It's not about who is right or who is wrong; it's about coming to an understanding of feelings.

There was one point where he said, "Well, you understand what I'm saying, how do you feel about this?" and I had to take a deep, deep breath before answering. I said, "Well, we'll talk about me later, right now I want to hear about your journey." I heaved a sigh of relief. I was literally exhausted after our talk.

I could have cut short the conversation, I could have walked away, but I didn't. I stayed because part of the point of this journey of building connections with people is pushing myself outside of my boundaries. Pushing myself to be uncomfortable. If I feel uncomfortable, I know I'm doing it right. :)

What about you, have you met anyone new recently? Pushed your boundaries?

What was your opening line?



SL said...

the firm added two new lawyers and I introduced myself to one who has an office near me.

Janet said...

Oh, yeah? What was your opening line?

SL said...

hello. I'm SL. I work in the T&E department. My office is right behind that wall. Do you know what area of specialization you are going to be working in yet?

Janet said...

Ah okay so you started with a work-introduction. I'd be curious about your second (and third) interactions once you get past the 'what do you do' part.