Why We Need to See One Another

Last week I had the chance to hang out with Trevor Noah at the Mastercard Inclusive Growth Summit (OK, we were in the same room, but that still counts, right? You can find Trevor at 1:37 in the video)?

The Summit was an amazing few days, though I admit that, at first, I found it more tiring than expected.

My recent experience with conferences feels like a post-pandemic reverberation: we’re returning to (more) normal professional routines (including time in the office and in-person gatherings), but these routines feel new enough that (a) They’re more tiring than they used to be; and (b) We can look at them with fresh eyes. This caused me to ask myself:

What is the purpose of seeing professional contacts in person?

More specifically: we’ve managed to build strong new relationships over nearly three years of a global pandemic. Might it be that all the social niceties were just a distraction? That we can get business done just fine, thank you very much, without ever meeting in person?

To me, the answer to these questions is both “yes” and “no.”

Yes, we can absolutely get much more done remotely than we thought.

Now that we’re less bounded by outdated norms, we can close new clients, raise capital, and build new, meaningful partnerships without ever getting on a plane. This is more efficient for everyone involved, and I’m surprised that more isn’t written about the positive social dividends of tens of millions of people working from home.

In fact, this all works just well enough that we could be forgiven for thinking that nothing of value happens in person. That, also, is a mistake.

We also need to invest, in person, in our most important professional relationships.

Our professional relationships are a series of interactions, leaps of faith, and surprises (both good and bad). To the extent that these relationships stay within well-grooved pathways, we can successfully manage them through a combination of Zoom, Slack and email.

But there’s a layer underneath that also must be nurtured.

It’s tempting to call this layer “trust” but that is just one outcome of being in relation with others.

Let’s unpack what it means to be in relation with others. It means we both create and discover shared experience in both present and past; develop an understanding of each others’ shared stories (both personal and professional) and common heritage. We weave together overlapping moments of identity, glimpses of one another’s motivation, and understanding the specifics of our  shared humanity. Because of how our brains are wired, these specifics are much more powerful than generalities.

All of these things tap into our basic, human sense of how we understand one another.

Now, think about what happens when something surprising occurs in one of our relationships (and nothing should surprise us any more since everything eventually happens).

One person tells the other the bad/surprising/complicated news. The other person has to figure out what to do with what they’ve just heard.

The information Person A told Person B is a tiny part of everything that’s just happened. And the question to ask is: how will Person B fill in the blanks when told this news?

Absent any relation, the answer is: randomly. The blanks will be filled in based on that person’s perspective at that moment on that day, absent any real anchor or points of reference.

But for two people in relation with each other, two people with a strong interpersonal foundation, those blanks will be filled in with shared narrative, shared experience, shared expectation, shared identity, all of which come together into what we clumsily call “trust.”

Ultimately, this feeds into the resilience of our relationships.

Because we know that curveballs are (always) coming.

The question is whether our relationships will be strong enough to withstand them.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to build resilient relationships without ever meeting in person—but it sure is harder.

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