Finally! My cell phone screamed, "INCOMING!"
I'd been pacing for twenty minutes waiting for this call, a critical deadline now only fifteen minutes away. I didn't even look at the display.
"Hello! This is Carl."
"Hello, Mr. Godlove. I'm calling from the Childhood Leukemia Founda--"
I cut her off
"I'm sorry. I can't talk right now. I'm expecting a very important call."
And then, something I couldn't quite make out.
Was it, "Ok."?
Or, "I'm sorry."?
I still don't know exactly what she said, but there was something in her voice that brought me back. More correctly, it brought me into the conversation for the first time. In truth, I was never actually in the conversation until that deafening silence. I had never connected with her. Hers was just a disembodied voice. Nothing she said registered with me from the moment I realized it wasn't "my" call. The one I'd been anxiously expecting.
In a flash, I felt ashamed. Ashamed for how I'd addressed, or didn't address, the human being on the other end of this phone call. Empathy swept through me. I'm still not sure if it was her tone of voice, her words, a combination of both, or something more profound. But I had been delivered a huge dose of regret about how she might feel as a result of my thoughtless interruption and dismissal. I desperately wanted to make amends, and the ensuing silence gave me a moment of panic. Would I get the chance? Had she already hung up?
"Hello? Are you still there?" I asked.
"Yes, I'm here," she replied in a soft, kind voice.
"Oh, I'm so glad. I am so sorry for my careless response. I want you to know that I really am waiting for an important call about a very stressful issue that's put me on edge. I apologize for how I treated you. I don't want you feeling badly because of my bad behavior. You're obviously working for a very good cause. I'm sorry."
She was so gracious and appreciative, pausing for a moment before replying, "Oh, thank you so much. That was so thoughtful."
I left that conversation a month ago with kind closure, but I've been curious and pondering it ever since. Having just facilitated a corporate retreat, I now know why this life lesson came to me when it did. Without human connection, conversation is as likely to result in conflict as it is cooperation, and perhaps more so.
The retreat was filled with sharing. I was engaged for my ability to facilitate the co-creation of a safe space where truth can gently emerge. It was a very organic process where I led from the center and brought the group along with me through my own willingness to be vulnerable. By the end, these beautiful humans were just that. Beautifully connected humans. Titles and roles gave way to bare humanity as they shared what was causing them pain. As it always does, it emerged along a spectrum obeying a counterintuitive truth - the strongest among them shared from the most vulnerable places, allowing their naked truth to be seen.
As the retreat unfolded, it became clear that central to this suffering was the very behavior I exhibited toward the woman on the phone - thoughtlessness fostered by disconnection. In short, a lack of nurture and care for relationships between operating groups spanning large geographic regions. Within these groups, relationships seem generally good. Between groups, not so much. Relationships, genuine connections, are in short supply. Conversation is mostly reduced to disembodied emails. Phone conversations are rare. And face-to-face is nearly non-existent. Truth telling feels risky and remains buried. And it gets worse.
In the same way that my stress produced an incident of thoughtless, rude behavior on my solitary call, ongoing stress in long term circumstances can produce patterns of consistently bad behavior that destroy relationships, or prevent them from ever being forged. Disconnection perpetuates feelings of isolation driven by self-preservation and fear. In a word, survival.
As dire as this sounds, and often is, the cure is as simple as it is messy. Truth telling sprouts from the seeds of trust. And trust is germinated by connection. If you plant and nurture seeds of trust with real human connection, you have a chance for sprouting truth. A chance to discover what is actually standing between you and your goals. Between the existing and hoped-for condition of your organization and its mission. Give people a chance to be real and genuine and to truly connect with one another. Give them a safe space and permission to be vulnerable, and they will begin to respectfully speak their truth. Uncovering this truth is as life-changing for an organization as it is for an individual. And connection is the key. Connection is the cure.