This completely changed the way I communicate

"What would you want on your tombstone?" was flashing on my laptop screen.

I was put on the line with a total stranger, and we each had two minutes to share our thoughts with each other. I was feeling very uncomfortable. Should I say what I want to say, or should I say what I think I should say? 

It was not just another day of training in corporate America.

Let me back up and tell you how I got there. I attended an hour-long "How to establish a successful mentoring relationship" webinar a few weeks ago.

It started out normal enough. I learned some interesting facts. For example, mentors should focus on mentees' long-term career and life goals, and line managers should focus on their direct reports' performance and immediate career next steps. 

The tone changed fifteen minutes in. It was exercise time. The moderator announced that she would pair each of us randomly with another participant on a private line to answer one questions. We will each have 2 minutes to share, and when the time is up, we will be paired with someone else to answer another question.

That was something I had never experienced before. I didn't know what to expect, but I was game.

The earlier questions were easy enough. "What are the proudest achievements of your career?". 

I was unloading my answer to my partner so fast that I was literally out of breath. Seriously, two minutes was enough to tell him all the strategic, transformative initiatives that I had led. My partner felt the same way too.

Then the questions turned tricky. "What kind of people do you like to surround yourself with?"

Hm. I stared at the screen. Was it just another way for the moderator for us to continue to showcase our strengths? Or should I share the trust? That I like to surround myself with artists, chefs, and new-agey people?  

The hustler in me took the microphone back in 0.0005 seconds. There was no time to waste, and it was always time to sell. I was so relieved when my partner also decided to put up her best self. 

 "What would you want on your tombstone?" That was the last question.

I stared at my screen in a state of panic, and my mind was racing a thousand miles a second. If I took the thinking of my inner hustler to its logical extreme, my tombstone will look like this: 


But that was not what I want. I was quiet for the first time in this exercise. What should I say?

"This is incredibly difficult" She broke the ice. I was thankful that I was not alone. 

What was going through my mind was that I knew what I wanted on my tombstone. I just wasn't sure if I should share with her.

Why? Because I have been constructing a facade of ambition, and I was not ready to take it down and showed her who I really was. The most important thing in my life is to be there for my friends in good and bad times. I want to be there when they need to talk, they need a place to stay for a while, or when they just want a home-cooked meal. 

I didn't know what took over me. "Hey, actually I have thought about that, and my answer is quite simple: a great friend. There is nothing more important than that to me, and I hope to be remembered this way."

I held my breath as I couldn't see her face. She probably thought I am a loser and am I really ok with it?

She took a deep breath and said, "This is a very emotional question for me. I just moved to this new city last week for this job. It hits me hard that my friends and family are so far away." 

I thought she would cry, but she didn't and we continued to talk until the time was up.  

I felt lost when the line was cut off abruptly and we were put back to the main conference call. I felt this deep connection to her in the short four minutes that we shared our anxiety and fear, and I wanted more. I cannot explain why, but I felt l know her and trust her because she was not afraid to show that she is just human. I would love to get a chance to work with her.

I thought about this for days after the call, and I changed the way I approach people in a professional setting. Less communicate to impress, more communicate to connect. 

Here are the valuable lessons that I have learned. 

1. The business of business is relationships; the business of life is human connections. 

2. Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends

3. It feels risky to share the real me first, but it is a risk worth taking. Turning strangers into friends is always good for business.