December 20, 2015

Don't be a conversation poacher, embrace mentors

Term one in Hong Kong is over: I hiked a handful of mountains; ate equally adventurous foods with strangers while communicating using only glances/pointing/smiling; immersed myself in the mystical venture capital profession (seriously, I emceed Hong Kong’s version of Shark Tank); but most importantly, I made some incredible friends; many of which are now mentors I hope to communicate with for the rest of my life.

I probably had three meetings per week for every week I was in Asia (total of 8 weeks). About 24 lunches, 24 strangers. Of course, not all 24 are now mentors of mine; however, being conscious of these different layers of connection, from stranger to friend to mentor, has contributed to my personal growth.

The truth is, all humans cherish quality conversation. Unfortunately, focused engagement in a conversation has deteriorated. Looking someone in the eye as you’re listening or talking to him or her is not the norm—but I don’t buy into that. My experience was really enriched by having truly present conversations rather than dividing my concentration during the aforementioned lunches.

In Hong Kong, I began to cherish these lunches as I watched people transform before me from strangers into mentors. I discovered most people are mentors waiting to be unleashed; however, we keep them caged up because of the imminent threat of conversation poachers.

What are the characteristics of a conversation poacher?

Well, conversation poachers thrive on cell phone vibrations, motor mouth rants, and the twitchy Facebook scroll. I believe no one is too busy for a 20-minute coffee; however, they are too busy for a distracted conversation poacher. I use the term “poacher” because conversations are wrongly being slain by digital distractions, and it will gradually lead to the extinction of quality conversations. Most importantly, strangers cannot develop into mentors alongside a conversation poacher.

In Hong Kong, I made an effort to be as present as possible during every interaction. In this headspace, I could quickly pick up on nuances in conversation that allowed me to make correlations with, and challenge, what I was hearing. It might sound simple; however, I consider this form of rapid conversation analysis and response to be a learned skill that greatly enhanced my time in Asia. It allowed me to find mentors nestled within strangers, and let them shine for both of our respective satisfaction.

I met a woman who welded metals in a machine shop in high school, practiced law in London, and is currently heading an innovative Internet of Things program in Asia. I interviewed a shark fin hunter, chatted with an engineer professor who trains undergraduate engineering students to build tools for humanitarian relief, climbed a mountain at 4am with the CEO of a global trading platform, drank (an excess) of sake with an ex-corporate lawyer, and the list goes on.

Before approaching these people with my most present self, they were just strangers, and would remain that way if I was a conversation poacher. I urge you to exercise your innate ability to be present when you communicate, and try it out on a (welcoming) stranger. You will not be disappointed.

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