I, like many people, believed I knew everything when I was 16. And naturally, knowing everything meant that I needed no one, so meeting new people in my mind was a case of them getting on side with me because I was going places and they really needed to get involved. I certainly don’t think like that now, in fact, it’s quite the opposite: one of the most relaxing things for me to do is meet new people, and love making friends wherever I go.
This change happened largely over the course of two years. After finishing college, I became self employed, doing the majority of my work at my church, The River Dream Centre. In a strange twist of fate, I didn’t get accepted for university despite having the grades, and so for me this was divine intervention. I immediately began work on our youth program and created ‘Feedback’ – a monthly event initially aimed at 16 – 19 year olds.
Our first event was an utter reflection of myself (and certain obsessions of mine), and this wasn’t a good thing. We served no cold drinks, just gourmet coffee. No rock music: it was jazz. No games and shouting but more class and culture. But with each month’s event, I became more in touch with the team of people around me, and the audience that we wanted to reach.
It was at the same time that I was reading The Naked Leader by David Taylor, a very off-the-wall and alternative look at leadership that was contra the ’7 flawless and simply steps to success’ gimmick of most leadership books at the time. I didn’t get too much out of the book, other than enjoying my first steps into innovative thought (the chapters were not in order – you read them in different ‘tracks’). But the one thing I did get out of that book which has indeed changed my life was found in the chapter ‘How to build instant rapport’, where whatever it was that David actually wrote, I have always remembered as this simply axiom:
To build rapport with someone, talk about their favourite subject: Themselves.
The lights went on in my mind. I had finally found a way to assist me in building relationships – and boy, did I need it! I began changing my conversations with people from a subject line of myself, to them. I began to love learning about new people by asking questions – this wasn’t some mind trick I was using – I found such joy in connecting with people, and found that talking about them helped them open up and engage on a deeper level with me.
Over the course of one year, Feedback changed from middle class coffee-cocktail party to 350 teens crammed in a room for ‘The Battle of the Bands’ – 350 teens that a year ago, I would’ve have struggled to talk to and connect with, that now were 350 teens that I engaged with, found out all about them, and was able to help them. Our numbers increased month on month at an astounding rate – one month we had 400+ people in the auditorium with another 200 or so waiting outside – and my favourite place to be was at the door, speaking to every single one, remembering their name, and becoming a part of their world.
I needed to make room for them. They needed to know they could talk, they could share what was going on at home and at school, and that someone did care. I became a confident to many, and a leader to well over a thousand young people over that year. Feedback stood for more than fun and music, and even more than community. There was openness and honesty, a culture that wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t grow from being self-centered to focussed on others.
Essentially, what I think I learnt was empathy. I became more aware of the person sat across from me than I did myself, and emotionally invested into them for a short while. This empathy has become one of my non-negotiables. Whenever I speak to someone new, I’m always thinking now “how am I making this person feel valued”, not because I’m trying to manipulate them or play them, but because I’ve discovered that every person has incredible value, but few people make room for it.