Many years ago, I started to work with a sociologist. It was an eye-opening experience. Until that time, I had mainly worked with people who had their education in mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and business. I had collaborated with the odd lawyer and the odd medical doctor, but a sociologist was something new. And different.
My new colleague (and, later, friend) would, every time we met, share with me how he was feeling and what was going on in his life. Sometimes he would share happy moments and little victories. Sometimes he would share troubles, challenges and difficulties. At first, this was odd to me. It seemed almost child-like. I would nod politely while he shared his status, with a wan smile, often feeling mildly uncomfortable. It was as if I was invited and led into a living room where I did not really belong.
But his behavior grew on me. Gradually, I started to look forward to his sharing, candidly and vulnerably, what was important to him. As our relationship deepened and our trust grew, I felt that I could ask him about his habit. At one level, it seemed entirely natural to him, but I was convinced that it was a conscious choice to live his life so openly. He confirmed this. To him, this was a way to connect more deeply as human beings. While he did not expect others to adopt his style, he clearly sensed that he was role-modeling something important and that his sharing represented an invitation to others to be, more fully, themselves. I started to experiment with this. When we met, I would share, more openly, what was going on in my life. This accelerated our trust building and it rapidly made for a richer relationship.
I recently lead a leadership program in Hanoi. One of the participating leaders, Kate, shared that while she had had a successful career, she had recently moved to a new position where expectations seemed different, and she was receiving poor upward feedback. She had paid extra attention to following up her people, but this had mot helped much. I inquired how she followed up her people, and she shared that she would check on their progress, ask if they needed help with their tasks and check if they were on track to deliver on their targets. And, she would do this in a supportive way, truly wanting all her people to succeed. I had an inkling that what the issue might be. It seemed that she was only providing support at the intellectual level. And she was only checking in at the intellectual level. We explored this together, and she left our program excited to open up a new space.
We humans are whole, integrated beings, with mind, body and soul. We have intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs. All too often our work places, however, pay scant attention to anything but our intellectual contribution and our intellectual needs. We provide training to our people, and give them information, frameworks, models and tools – all addressing the intellectual side. And our work places remain emotionally and spiritually, barren wastelands.
When we “check in” with people – be they peers, followers or leaders – it is valuable to see them as they are – whole, integrated beings, with mind, body and soul. This is the perspective that is embedded in the Zulu greeting “Sawubona” – often translated as “hello”, but rendered, literally as “I see you”. What a wonderful greeting! “I see you … in all your humanity; your strengths, your weaknesses; your hurts, your aspirations, your hopes, your yearnings, your victories, your joy.” Without prying, it is enriching to be open to all these facets – not just where people stand ‘in terms of meeting their targets’. And we can signal our openness to others by sharing more of what is going in our lives – like my sociologist friend did.
There are many ways to “check in”, even if we restrict our exchanges to the professional domain. It is legitimate to ask: “Is your work giving you joy? What would you need to get more fulfilment from it?” It is straightforward to inquire: “To what extent are you meeting some of your personal aspirations as you engage in this work?” or “Are you continuing to learn and grow in your current role? What would it take for you to learn and grow the way you want to?”
A friend of mine, Brechje van Geenen, recently shared the way she checks in with people. When she gets together with another person, she encourages them both to answer three simple questions:
How am I feeling right now?
What is keeping me from being fully present?
What is my intention for this meeting?
(See her post here). I find that beautiful. It opens up a huge space – respectfully. It builds connection. It fosters belonging. It avoids misunderstandings. What a tremendous investment of time and energy – to ask these three simple questions … and then to listen deeply. Not problem solving with the other, not showing sympathy, not criticizing – merely accepting and acknowledging. And seeing the other.
Another friend of mine, Irina, shared a different notion of checking in. She was focusing on the challenge of a loving, married couple to stay close – decade after decade, as they grew and changed, individually. Her starting point was provocative: “You are married to a different person each year. The person you were married to last year, no longer exists. They have matured, they have experienced new things and they are, now, literally a different person.” Unless you do something special, you risk drifting apart, and one day you ask the question that “Schmidt” (Jack Nicholson) asks in the movie “About Schmidt”: “Who is this old woman who lives in my house?” A possible antidote, Irina suggested, was to ask a single question of one another, every day: “What is the most important thing that happened to you today, and how did it make you feel?” At the end of a year, you have 365 data points that give you an excellent basis for understanding who the other person is.
Whether it is at work or at play, let us check in with one another in a meaningful manner. Find your way to check in, and make the world a better place, locally, around you, by simply seeing the people around you in their full humanity