Friday, November 29, 2013

Leaving Someone's Campsite Better That You Found It

I spent most of my childhood summers at sleep away camp.

And looking back at all my years of canoeing and hiking and collecting wood and making fires and eating foil packs of undercooked ground beef, I remember the biggest life lesson that stuck with me:

Always leave the campsite better than you found it.

Ask any counselor in the world. It’s the number one rule of camping.

But it’s also a great rule for relationships.

If you want to contribute meaningfully to the growth and well being of every person connected to you, you need to leave them better than you found them.

Emotionally. Intellectually. Physically. Spiritually. All of the above. After every interaction you have with someone, that person should walk away better. More alive and confident and connected and elevated and seen and heard and infected and speechful and encouraged and wanted.

Which sounds like a lot of work––and it is––but once you install the right awareness plan, the art of leaving people better becomes second nature.

Awareness plan. Let’s talk about that.

Psychologist Herbert Leff originally coined the term as, “A metacognitive procedure or mental recipes for perceiving and thinking about the world around us.”

An awareness plan is a lens for your interactions. A plugin for the human operating system. And when used consistently and respectfully, it can change what you see when you see people. More importantly, it can change what they see when they see themselves.

One of my favorite awareness plans, one that always leaves people better, is unearthing a valuable new opportunity in the midst of a conversation. As someone who has mentored hundreds of artists, entrepreneurs and business professionals in the past decade, I’ve discovered this process to be a combination of three skills:

Affirming, noticing and offering.

Think of them as the tools for leaving someone's campsite better than you found it. Let’s see how each plays out in a conversation:

Affirming. I come from a family of yeasayers. Relentless affirmation, instant encouragement, permissionless participation and radical acceptance are in our blood. And because of that temperament, I’ve never met an idea I didn’t like. Not unlike the golden rule of improv comedy, fun is always on the other side of a yes.

The exciting part is, when it comes to a conversation with someone, being fundamentally affirmative becomes a form of optimism––because saying yes to everything increases your field of perception. It’s what allows you to better notice valuable opportunities.

Imagine how many ideas you could generate for another person if you regarded everything they said as a possible inspiration for a work of art? Or a new creative idea? Or a business system that could change the world? Think of yourself as living in a shared pool of thoughts, from which opportunities can blossom. You can’t say yes fast enough.

Noticing. The whole reason I started wearing a nametag everyday is, I just wanted to see what would happen. That’s all. It was an exercise in curiosity, nothing more. But that’s who I am. I’m a giant question mark. I’m the annoying kid who raises his hand before the question is done being asked. And it all boils down to three simple words:

“Now that’s interesting.”

Noticers say things like that. Out loud. Especially in conversations. If there’s something normal to one person, but fascinating to you, point it out respectfully and inquisitively. That’s where opportunities come from. Noticing what people are too close to themselves to see. Being willing to dwell in the novelty of the situation. Being a mental omnivore.

And, always watching for reactions, not opinions. That’s huge. Once you start looking for subtle, external, physiological cues about what people are really like, what’s really important to them, it’s amazing how quickly new ideas bubble to the surface.

How many valuable opportunities could you unearth by watching what people do with their bodies during the conversation? Look for recurring cycles of activities or repetitive patterns in your interactions.

Offering. I used to have a problem adding too much value. Hijacking the conversation. Projecting my own meaning onto the other person and trying to solve their problems too quickly. But I quickly learned that, if you want to leave people better, it’s not about prescriptions and formulas and superimposing yourself onto them. That’s just annoying.

Unearthing valuable opportunities is a gentle act. And since you’ve already affirmed people’s perspective and noticed interesting things about them, they’re ready for the final step. But they might need a little push. Something that delightfully disturbs them and compels them to take action on their new idea.

My favorite move is to pull out my notepad, write down a quick summary of the opportunity we’ve unearthed together, rip out the piece of paper and hand it to them. Then I’ll either say, “No charge,” or “I’ll send you an invoice.” Both lines usually get a laugh, although rarely a check. But what matters is, it’s a positive way to place an exclamation point at the end of the conversation. And we often reconnect a later date to see how things are progressing.

That’s an awareness plan.

Affirming, noticing and offering.

It’s how you unearth valuable new opportunities in the midst of a conversation.

And it's a surefire way to leave someone’s campsite better than you found it.