Have you ever been excited about sharing an experience with someone important only to have it unexpectedly ruined? That’s what happened to me several years ago.
While I was on a business trip to South America, I got the chance to visit Machu Picchu, the mountaintop home of the ancient Inca, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. My guide was fantastic, the view was amazing, and the whole experience was incredible. When I returned home, I was determined to take my wife, Margaret, there.
Not long afterward, we picked a date and invited our close friends Terry and Shirley Stauber to go with us. To make the visit even more special, we made reservations to stay at a 16th-century monastery converted into a fine hotel in Cusco, and we booked tickets on the luxury train run by Orient Express. I wanted to make this once-in-a-lifetime experience as special as possible.
With great anticipation we boarded the train with the Staubers and our friends Robert and Karyn Barriger, who have lived in Peru for 25 years. As the train made the long climb through the countryside, we were not disappointed. The gorgeous scenery that glided along outside our windows for three and half hours made us feel as though we were in a National Geographic special. The food and service on the train were spectacular, and the conversation with our friends was warm and engaging.
We arrived at the station at noon and took a bus up to the ancient city. We climbed aboard along with six other people and Carlos, our tour guide. As we rode to the top of the mountain, I tried to connect with Carlos. I’ve found that we usually have a better experience if I get to know our guide and he or she gets to know us. I tried making conversation with Carlos, asking questions about his background and his family in an attempt to get to know him, but he never really engaged. His answers were pleasant but short. I liked him, but I quickly realized he wasn’t really interested in me or anyone else in the group; and he wasn’t going to do anything to connect with us.
Machu Picchu is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. The lush green landscape against a crystal-blue sky makes it feel as if you can reach out and touch the nearby mountain peaks. As soon as we got off the bus, the deep sense of history in the place was overwhelming. We tried to soak it in, but Carlos quickly gathered us around and started his prepared speech. It seemed that what he wanted to say to us was much more important to him than any of us were.
For the next four hours, we found ourselves in information overload. Carlos bombarded us with facts and figures, dates and details. The spectacular experience I’d had on my previous visit and that I had hoped to share with Margaret and my friends was ruined by Carlos and his barrage of boredom-inducing information. Any question we asked was an inconvenience to Carlos. It was clear that Carlos didn’t place any value on us, his listeners.
With each passing minute, a greater sense of disinterest settled into our group. In time, we began to feel that we were an interruption to Carlos and his agenda. Before long, I observed that the members of the group were drifting away one by one. They were separating themselves from Carlos physically and emotionally.
By mid-afternoon, the group had scattered, and Carlos was talking to thin air. From a distance I watched in amazement as Carlos lectured to no one but himself, continuing the tour without his group. Only as time ran out and the bus was preparing to leave did people go anywhere near him.
Not Getting the Message
Carlos made the same mistake as others who don’t connect: They see themselves as the center of the conversation.
I’ve known many teachers and speakers who possess that self-focused mind-set. Every conversation is about them. Every communication is an opportunity for them to demonstrate their brilliance and share their expertise. My friend Elmer Towns, a professor and dean at Liberty University, once told me that self-centered teachers seem to share a common philosophy:
Ram it in—jam it in,
Students’ heads are hollow.
Cram it in—slam it in,
There is more to follow.
Such people miss incredible opportunities in life by failing to connect. Good teachers, leaders and speakers don’t see themselves as experts with passive audiences they need to impress; and they don’t view their interests as most important. Instead, they see themselves as guides and focus on helping others learn. Because they value others, they work at connecting with the people they are teaching or trying to help.
I admit that when I began my career as a minister, I didn’t understand this. I was detrimentally self-focused. When I counseled people who were experiencing difficulties, my attitude was: “Hurry up and finish telling me your problem so I can give you my solution.” When I was leading any kind of initiative, I constantly asked myself, “How can I get people to buy into my vision so they’ll help me with my dreams?” When I spoke to an audience, I was focused on myself and not them. I lived for positive feedback, and my goal always was to be impressive. I even wore glasses to make me look more intellectual.
When I think about it now, I shudder in embarrassment. Much of what I did was all about me, yet I still wasn’t succeeding. I was often self-centered, and that was at the root of most of my problems and failures. I felt frustrated and unfulfilled. I kept asking myself questions such as, “Why aren’t people listening to me? Why aren’t people helping me? Why aren’t people following me?” Notice my questions centered on me because my focus was on me. When I made a call to action, it often began with my interest above everyone else’s. Me, me, me! I was self-absorbed; and as a result, I failed to connect with people.
The Lightbulb Moment
Then something happened that changed my attitude. When I was 29, my dad invited my brother-in-law, Steve Throckmorton, and me to attend a Success Seminar in Dayton, Ohio. Growing up, I had heard some great preachers. Some spoke with fiery passion. Others were masters of rhetoric. At this seminar, I heard a speaker who understood how to connect with people. I sat there mesmerized.
At the time, I remember thinking: “This is someone who understands success. I like him, but there’s more to it than that—he really understands me. He knows what I believe. He understands what I’m thinking. He knows what I feel. He can help me. I would love to be his friend. I already feel like he’s my friend.”
That speaker was Zig Ziglar. His way of connecting with an audience totally changed my thinking about communication. He told stories. He made me laugh. He made me cry. He made me believe in myself. He shared insights and tips I could take away from the event and apply personally. That day, I also heard him say something that changed my life: “If you will first help people get what they want, they will help you get what you want.” Finally, I understood what had been missing from my own communication—and from my interaction with other people. I saw how selfish and self-centered I’d been. I realized I was trying to get ahead by correcting others when I should have been trying to connect with others.
I walked away from that seminar with two resolutions. First, I would study good communicators, which is something I have done ever since. Second, I would try to connect with others by focusing on them and their needs instead of my own.
It’s Not About Me!
Connecting is never about me. It’s about the person with whom I’m communicating. Similarly, when you are trying to connect with people, it’s not about you—it’s about them. If you want to connect with others, you have to get over yourself. You have to change the focus from inward to outward, off of yourself and onto others. The great thing is that you can do it. Anyone can. All it takes is the will to change your focus, the determination to follow through and the acquisition of a handful of skills!
Why do so many people miss this? I think there are many reasons, but I can tell you why I missed it and why I thought communicating and working with others was all about me.
Immaturity: When I began leading and communicating with others professionally, I was young and immature. I was in my early 20s, and I did not see the big picture. I saw only myself; everyone and everything else was in the background.
Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, likens such immaturity to thinking that life is like a movie in which you are the star. That’s the way it was for me. Too many of the goals I pursued and tasks I completed were about my desires, my progress, my success. I look back now and marvel at how selfish my attitude was.
Maturity is the ability to see and act on behalf of others. Immature people don’t see things from someone else’s point of view. They rarely concern themselves with what’s best for others. In many ways, they act like small children.
Margaret and I have five grandchildren. We delight in spending time with them, but like all small children, they don’t spend their time focused on what they can do for others. They never say, “Papa and Mimi, we want to spend the entire day taking care of you and entertaining you!” Of course, we don’t expect that of them. We focus on them. We recognize that part of the parenting process is helping children understand they are not the center of the universe.
I love something I read recently called “Property Law as Viewed by a Toddler” by Michael V. Hernandez. If you have children or grandchildren—or if you’ve ever spent time with a toddler— you’ll find that it rings true:
1. If I like it, it’s mine.
2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
4. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
5. If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
6. If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
7. If it looks like it’s mine, it’s mine.
8. If I saw it first, it’s mine.
9. If I can see it, it’s mine.
10. If I think it’s mine, it’s mine.
11. If I want it, it’s mine.
12. If I need it, it’s mine (yes, I know the difference between want and need!).
13. If I say it’s mine, it’s mine.
14. If you don’t stop me from playing with it, it’s mine.
15. If you tell me I can play with it, it’s mine.
16. If it will upset me too much when you take it away from me, it’s mine.
17. If I (think I) can play with it better than you can, it’s mine.
18. If I play with it long enough, it’s mine.
19. If you are playing with something and you put it down, it’s mine.
20. If it’s broken, it’s yours (no wait, all the pieces are mine).
As people grow older, we hope their self-centered attitude will soften and their mind-set will change. In short, we expect people to mature; but maturity does not always come with age. Sometimes age comes alone.
Deep down, most of us want to feel important; but we need to fight against our naturally selfish attitudes; and believe me, that can be a lifelong battle, although an important one. Why? Because only mature people who are focused on others are capable of truly connecting with others.
Ego. There is a very real danger for people with public professions to develop unhealthily strong egos. Leaders, speakers and teachers can develop a disproportionate sense of their own importance. My friend Calvin Miller in his book The Empowered Communicator uses the form of a letter to describe this problem and the negative impact it has on others. The letter states:
“Your ego has become a wall between yourself and me. You’re not really concerned about me, are you? You’re mostly concerned about whether or not this speech is really working … about whether or not you’re doing a good job. You’re really afraid that I will not applaud, aren’t you? You’re afraid that I won’t laugh at your jokes or cry over your emotional anecdotes. You are so caught up in the issue of how I am going to receive your speech, you haven’t thought much about me at all. I might have loved you, but you are so caught up in self-love that mine is really unnecessary.
“If I don’t give you my attention it’s because I feel so unnecessary here. When I see you at the microphone, I see Narcissus at his mirror … Is your tie straight? Is your hair straight? Is your deportment impeccable? Is your phraseology perfect? You seem in control of everything but your audience. You see everything so well [except] us. This blindness to us, I’m afraid, has made us deaf to you.
“We must go now. Sorry. Call us sometime later. We’ll come back to you … when you’re real enough to see us … after your dreams have been shattered … after your heart has been broken … after your arrogance has reckoned with despair. Then there will be room for all of us in your world. Then you won’t care if we applaud your brilliance. You’ll be one of us. Then you will tear down the ego wall and use those very stones to build a bridge of warm relationship. We’ll meet you on that bridge. We’ll hear you then. All speakers are joyously understood when they reach with understanding.”
The first time I read Calvin Miller’s letter, I was struck by how accurately it described me when I came out of college. I was so cocky. I thought I had everything figured out, but the truth is that I didn’t have a clue. I had taken courses in speaking, but the university course work I had completed for my degree merely had taught me how to construct a competent outline. My studies in no way prepared me to connect with an audience.
Our professors had encouraged us to concentrate our attention on our subject. We were told to focus our eyes at a point on the back wall of the room. My delivery was awkward and mechanical. Worse yet, whenever I spoke, I wasn’t very interested in the people to whom I was speaking; I was looking for the compliments I hoped to receive after the message. Nobody can connect with that kind of attitude.
Failure to Value Everyone. Today I see my purpose as adding value to others. It has become the focus of my life, and anyone who knows me understands how important it is to me. However, to add value to others, one must first value others. In the early years of my career, I didn’t do that. I was so focused on my own agenda that I often overlooked and ignored many people. If they weren’t important to my cause, they didn’t get my time or attention.
To succeed in life, we must learn to work with and through others. One person working alone cannot accomplish much. As John Craig points out, “No matter how much work you can do, no matter how engaging your personality may be, you will not advance far in business if you cannot work through others.” That requires you to see the value that others possess.
When we learn to turn our focus from ourselves to others, the whole world opens up to us. This truth is understood by successful people in every walk of life in every part of the world. At an international meeting of company executives, one American businessperson asked an executive from Japan what he regarded as the most important language for world trade. The American thought the answer would be English; but the executive from Japan, who had a more holistic understanding of business, smiled and replied, “My customer’s language.”
Having a good product or service isn’t enough. Becoming an expert on your product or service isn’t enough. Knowing your product but not your customers will mean having something to sell but no one to buy. The value you place on others must be genuine. As Bridget Haymond commented, “You can talk till you are blue in the face, but people know in their gut if you really care about them.”
Insecurity. The final reason people often place too much focus on themselves and not on others is insecurity. I admit this was not one of my problems as I started my career. I grew up in a very positive and affirming environment, and I did not lack confidence. However, that isn’t the case for many people.
Chew Keng Sheng, a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Medical Sciences, believes the underlying reason for immaturity and ego-centeredness, especially among public speakers, is insecurity. “I can remember the first few times when I was asked to speak,” wrote Keng Sheng. “I literally was shaking. When the speaker is insecure, he will seek approval from his audience. The more he wants to seek approval from them, the more engrossed he becomes in himself and how he can impress others. As a result, he is more likely to fail to meet the needs of the moment.”
What a negative cycle that can create, especially if a person doesn’t receive or recognize the desired approval.
A Matter of Connection
One of the reasons speakers fail to connect is they give the impression they and their communication are more important than their audience. That kind of attitude can create a barrier between a speaker and an audience. Instead, show your audience members they are important to you by doing the following:
• Express your appreciation for them and the occasion as soon as you can.
• Do something special for them if you can, such as preparing unique content for them and letting them know you have done so.
• See everyone in the audience as a “10,” expecting a great response from them.
• As you finish speaking, tell them how much you enjoyed them.
You can connect with others if you’re willing to get off your own agenda, to think about others and to try to understand who they are and what they want. If you really want to help people, connecting becomes more natural and less mechanical. It goes from being something that you merely do to becoming part of who you really are.
If you’re willing to learn how to connect, you will be amazed at the doors that will open to you and the people you will be able to work with. All you have to do is keep reminding yourself that connecting is all about others.
John Maxwell is a speaker, author and former pastor who has sold more than 18 million books. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than five million leaders in 126 countries worldwide.
Used by permission. Adapted from Everyone Communicates, Few Connect by John Maxwell (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Copyright 2010).