A lot of us interact with others on the basis of “what do I hope to get out of this experience?” At work, we go into meetings hoping we’ll be able to say something intelligent (or, in some cases, sit quietly until the meeting is over); at home, we gather with our families at dinner in the hopes that we can convince the kids to eat their vegetables or say something about their day besides “it was fine.”
So much of what we do is predicated on the kind of interaction we’d like to have—and we might need to start addressing the question from the opposite perspective.
As behaviour analyst Kerry Goyette explains in the Harvard Business Review, it’s worth asking yourself what you hope other people will experience during their interactions with you:
What kind of experience do I want to create for the people who are reading my communication or following my direction?
In other words: you have the power to make other people feel comfortable, secure, and heard—and you also have the power to make people feel uncomfortable, insecure, and ignored.
What are you going to do?
If you do want to help people feel comfortable and prepared to contribute, start by ensuring the experience is accessible to everyone you want to invite. This might be as simple as ensuring there are enough chairs for everybody, or as complex as arranging a menu that provides options for people with varied food restrictions and preferences. It might mean finding a location that is literally accessible, i.e. ADA compliant. It might also mean structuring your meeting so that both the louder and the quieter voices get a chance to be heard.
Once you get beyond the basic logistics of the event, you’ll want to ask yourself how your behaviour might influence the experience you create. Are you going to be able to welcome everyone who arrives, or will you be running late and/or unprepared? Will your presence and demeanour communicate what you hope the guests will take away from the event, or will it actively work against the experience you’re hoping to have?
Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, describes the beginning of a meeting, gathering, or event as a “psychological threshold:”
The opening, whether intentionally designed or not, signals to guests what to expect from the experience. […] What do I think of this gathering? Am I in good hands? Is the host nervous? Should I be? What’s going to happen here? Is this worth my time? Do I belong? Do I want to belong?
Essentially, if you want people to feel like they belong, you’re going to need to demonstrate that belonging through your words and actions.
This type of mindset also works with friends, family members, and other loved ones. As the late Toni Morrison, Nobel and Pulitzer-winning author of Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and many other modern classics, explained during an interview with Oprah:
“When my children used to walk in the room, when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up,” [Morrison] told Oprah in 2000. “You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. But if you let your face speak what’s in your heart…because when they walked in the room, I was glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see.”
Morrison advised parents to let their face “light up” when their children entered the room, to foster an atmosphere of love and acceptance. Brené Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, explains how taking Morrison’s advice changed the experience she gave her children:
Before Ellen left for college, when she would come bounding down the stairs dressed for school, I didn’t want my first comment to be “Pull your hair back” or “Those shoes don’t match your dress.” I wanted my face to convey how happy I was to see her—to be with her. Now that she’s building her own life, my prayer is that she finds people in her life that light up when they see her. I hope I helped her set that expectation.
The next time you schedule a meeting, plan a group dinner, meet a friend for coffee, or greet your kids after they come home from school, what are you going to do to set the tone of the interaction? It can be as simple as smiling and greeting everyone who enters the room—and the more thought you put into the way you treat the people around you, the better experiences you’ll all have together.