Engaging Ex Nihilo

I’m booooored!

We typically hear this from one of our kids within an hour of one of our road trips. Also when they’re stuck inside the house because it’s raining outside1. And once they’ve exhausted the novelty of opening and briefly playing with their Christmas gifts. And occasionally, when we point out simple mistakes in their homework.

My response to the kids is that they should learn how to be bored. To be fair, this is difficult even for adults: a few seconds of waiting in line and the phones start coming out. In our need to escape boredom, we have recalibrated our expectations to constantly seek entertainment, and in doing so have shortened our attention spans for the worse. Maybe we’re already too far gone in our phone addictions, but I’d like to hold out some hope that the next generation can self-regulate before getting swept up with social media—like everybody else.

But beyond the idea of keeping yourself engaged in isolation, there’s the associated—and perhaps even more important—skill of engaging others. The classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People talks about the importance of actively listening and engaging with people; by earning trust via engagement, it’s then natural for that goodwill to be reciprocated en route to changing that person’s opinion. Similarly, in my current book The Culture Code, the author also cites that leaders who can create a sense of belonging by engaging with their team objectively produce better outcomes.

A key detail in both assertions is that the level of engagement has to be genuine. That is, it’s not good enough to feign interest when you’d rather be elsewhere; you have to make yourself pay attention and ask insightful questions and understand empathetically their perspective. Compared to the behavioral shortcuts that often look similar on the surface2, genuine engagement is much harder to execute consistently. In both books, there are examples from each author on how much of a positive impression someone can create, just by remembering a fleeting name or hobby or life event and recalling it at a later date.

Most of the time, this tendency to easily converse with others is ascribed as a rare natural ability, something core to some types of personalities that we should take time to appreciate. But, much like how introversion isn’t about tendencies but the effort and energy expended for social interactions, positive engagement and developing interests in others’ perspectives is a learned skill, one that also requires effort and energy.

In my transition from an engineer to a people manager, the ability to engage became something that I had to learn and practice—one meeting at a time, via each report and peer I worked with. Of course, I needed to build human relationships as a baseline for the job, but I’ve come to appreciate that doing this well also makes the people part much easier. All it takes, sometimes, is engagement, from nothing.

  1. And it’s been raining outside.

  2. E.g., a classic one is to lean in and mimic their body posture, to emphasize shared similarities.

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