You open the door, step over the threshold, and immediately find yourself in a sea of unfamiliar faces. You make your way around the room, peeking in all of the corners and peering into the various gaggles, looking for a familiar face. Is that…? Nope. Time to take another lap.
As you walk, you listen to the conversations around you. Your ears prick up as you hear that sounds vaguely interesting. You slowly meander over, lingering at the periphery. They notice you and beckon for you to join them. After exchanging pleasantries, someone hits you with the inevitable: What do you do?
I’ve struggled with this question for years. In the U.S. in particular, we’re overly focused on jobs to give our lives meaning. As though outside of productive employment we have little value as human beings. Homemaking… raising children… volunteering… there are myriad ways we might choose to spend our time, all of which are easily as important as—if not more than—punching the clock.
I’ve tried to shift myself away from this droll, knee-jerk line of questioning. And I’ve failed. Often. But I’m making a concerted effort to supplant it with questions that create opportunities for me to forge deeper connections with the people I meet. I honestly want to know what makes them tick. What makes you tick. I want to know what you love. I want to know what annoys you. I want to comprehend your complexity and revel in your humanity.
Obviously this tack breaks up the monotony of what are often quite impersonal social conversations, but it also helps me level up my empathy. In sharing of ourselves—and listening to others share of themselves—we naturally find places where our interests and experiences overlap. Or at least bump into one another.
Empathy is undoubtedly the number one tool in my design and development tool chest. When I empathize, I make decisions and build products that are more egalitarian, more inclusive. But getting in the empathy-zone is not always easy.
When I try to connect with someone who is going through something I’ve never experienced, it’s hard. I spend a lot of time trying to visualize what they went through, which delays my ability to share in the experience, in an emotional sense. It’s not just me either, this is actually how our brains are wired. When I’ve experienced the same thing as someone else (or even something similar) my brain skips the visualization step and moves more quickly to establishing that emotional connection. This is one of the reasons some medical school programs have aspiring doctors spend a night in the hospital as a patient. Seeing the doctor-patient interaction from the other side really juices up their empathy.
It would be impossible for any of us to experience every situation, every emotion, every kind of love, loss, frustration, but we can develop a deeper sense of what it’s like by listening to other people share their stories. By asking them questions. Not prying, just connecting.
If you want to give it a shot, here are some of my favorites:
What was the best thing that happened to you this month?
Do you have any hobbies?
What do you do to relax?
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
What’s your super power?
If you wanna probe deeper:
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?
If you had to pick a moment in your life that shaped the person you are today, what would it be?
Depending on the context, some of these might require a bit of a lead-in. Especially if the conversation has been plodding along those same heavily-compacted portage trails we follow, seemingly instinctually. Typically, I find an easy segue to be something like Ok this may sound kinda weird, but I’d like to know more about you.
By finding out what makes other people tick, we create opportunities to establish deeper connections with them. And that is good for us in work, life, and everything in between.
Speaking of… What is the most foreign place you’ve ever visited? How did you feel when you were there?