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My Unexpected Encounter at the Lorraine Motel

Posted by Cristina Filippo on 01/18/2016
This summer my daughter and I went on a Southern road trip to the Delta.  After graduating from OU in May, she accepted an offer from Teach for America for a two-year appointment in Mississippi teaching in an under served school in Indianola. This is the hometown of B.B. King, in an area of the country where the farmland goes for miles, the jazz is abundant and everyone greets you with a “ma’am”.  It was a fun, crazy, emotional trip for both of us. We had a day to spend in Memphis and, after a recommendation from a friend; we had out-of-this-world barbecue at Central BBQ then walked across the street to the National Civil Rights Museum. This museum is located in what was once the Lorraine Motel and the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968.  More than likely, most of you just had a picture pop in your mind of the famous balcony where King’s entourage cradled him after he was critically injured and pointed to the apartment across the street where the shot originated. That is the precise location where we ended up that afternoon.
If you haven’t been to this museum, you should go.  I have been to many of the greats:  The Smithsonian, the National WWII Museum, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, etc.  But this one is my favorite for many reasons. The most compelling reason being the final exhibit. You begin by watching an excerpt of King’s last speech and then proceed on to the motel room where King spent his last few moments. I have always had a strong a strong connection with King’s speeches. He is, of course, known as one of history's best communicators. He could accomplish more in one line than many could hope to accomplish in an entire speech or book.  Even as a young adult when I would hear recordings of his speeches it would make me pause, but I never quite understood the magnitude of his contributions nor had the direct connection with his life that many others seemed to have…until I came to this museum. 
As with any museum, you wander around with some exhibits catching your eye more than others.  You stop and read and tend to bump into the same people as you are going through at roughly the same pace.  There were people from all walks of life; however, there was one gentleman that stood out in particular.  He was tall, dark and handsome and was visiting the museum with his beautiful wife.  We would politely move out of the way and say a few pleasantries, smiling as we went along.  Finally, I ended up at the gift shop and I was having a great time leafing through books about King, finding one I loved and would buy…transcripts of his speeches. I was reading through when I glanced up and noticed that same man I had seen in the exhibits sitting in a chair and staring at me Intently.  I paused and he said, “Why are you here?”
What followed was the most unfiltered, honest, energizing conversation about race relations in the United State that I have ever experienced. Soon our discussion had to end due to the museum announcing they were closing for the day…I was sad when it ended mostly because I crave this level of discussion and know how rarely they happen with strangers. As he left the stranger said “This type of deep, honest conversation is what gives me hope for the future”.  He felt the connection and weight of the conversation too.
Reflecting on this led me to wonder how to encourage and foster more deep, honest communication.  In our line of work we have these types of conversations often and find it has a positive, significant impact on individuals, teams and organizations.  And, if I can have that level of exchange with a stranger at the Lorraine Motel wouldn’t it be helpful to find out more so others can benefit from it?  So I set out to look at the research and what the neuroscience literature had to say was fascinating!

In several studies, researchers observed subjects involved in both superficial conversations and substantive conversations.  They based their findings on whether the information exchanged was shallow ("What do you have there? Popcorn?") or meaningful ("She fell in love with your dad? So, did they get divorced soon after?").  Then they assessed subjects' overall well-being by having them fill out questionnaires and by asking the subject's friends to report on how happy and content with life they seemed to be. The happiest subjects spent 70 percent more time talking than the unhappiest subjects, which suggests that even the time a person spends in the presence of others is a good predictor of the person's level of happiness and connection.  More importantly, they found that the happiest people also participated in a third as much small talk and had twice as many in-depth conversations as the most unhappy participants.  What this research indicates is so insightful...ditch the small talk!  It is good for both your brain and your well-being to have those deep conversations we have been discussing.  Here are are five good ways to have those in-depth exchanges more often:   
1.Decrease the personal barriers. 
There’s an assumption that you need to be really professional when first talking to someone. Most people like real conversations that don’t force them to act like people they aren’t. If you see an opportunity to joke around or personalize a conversation, take it — even if it’s early. It will decrease barriers from the start, and the shift will allow you to have a better conversation.
2.Don’t get too excited about your next thought.
People can tell when you aren’t really listening because you just can’t wait to spit your next thought out. Before they’ve finished, you’re already eager to tell them about an amazing experience you had. Be present and listen before you speak. If your story is really interesting, it will still be interesting in three minutes.
3.Inquire versus advocate.
Some of the most important conversations happen when we are curious about the other person. Try to understand where the other person is coming from and what their story is. So much of the time we try to advocate a position, when in reality we can learn so much by simply being quiet and listening. Just because you listen to someone doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything they say.
4.Create a safe space.
Try to create an environment that is safe for dissent where people can “speak the unspeakable.” I think this is especially important if we are to experience true breakthroughs in conversations. You can even say something controversial or contrary to the status quo, and if they do the same affirm them in real time. 
5.Hold back on sharing how awesome you are.
Often we all fall into the trap of talking about our accomplishments and selling ourselves. What we all have to realize is that the most awesome, self-assured people don’t have to pitch everyone on how fabulous they are. People will naturally think you’re amazing as the conversation develops.
Hope your 2016 is getting off to a great start…please let us know if we can do anything to help you in your own leadership journey!


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