How Forging Unlikely Friendships Can Help Communication and Growth

Hello, how are you?

When was the last time someone asked you how you were? And waited with a genuine interest for a response? Despite the renewed focus on mental health, for many of us, working from home has meant blurring boundaries and working longer and longer hours where we are on calls; where “How are you?” is recited more as a pleasantry than a question for someone to answer.

This COVID social distancing world…there is so much to say, but in a space already filled with so much noise, it’s important to choose our words wisely, in a way that adds value to the conversation. Conversations about COVID, mental health, Black Lives Matter (BLM), and about resilience as a Muslim, and a woman of colour are a full time, full-on, job. And then they all happened to intersect one fine day in an unlikely friendship.

Despite my extroverted personality, I enjoyed self-isolation. I enjoyed the opportunity it provided to be silent. To cut through the noise, the effort, the work ensemble, the transport, the struggle to find a parking at a client site. The opportunity to work in the quiet comfort of my own home. And then suddenly colleagues wanted to video chat; a window into my home that maybe I wasn’t ready to share. Where do you draw the line? How do you maintain boundaries? How do you communicate your boundaries with the firm purpose to others without seeming aloof, rude, or disinterested?

Just as I had come to terms with communicating professionally from home, the BLM movement began. And the rush of socio-political revolution in the air created frenetic unsettling energy within me that impacted my ability to focus at work. Unrecognized by me, this anxiety had built up and was threatening to bubble over. And I didn’t know what to do or how to deal with it, till one day an unlikely friendship was forged during a video call.

It’s a fallacy to think you can communicate with your colleagues and clients the same way you always have. Working from home with familial interruptions, online calls, and video chats, has fundamentally shifted the way we interact with others.

I work in an organization where there are people at all levels, passionate about nurturing a commitment to building a better working world, within themselves and others. This commitment led to a simple chat with a colleague in which he asked me how I was and waited with genuine interest for me to answer. And it all came tumbling out: frustration and anxiety that surprised me with their forcefulness. I can only imagine he was taken aback. But his calm, measured response, his respectful active listening, and his words of wisdom helped ground me and provided the perspective I needed to prepare my communication with others.

Because it’s a fallacy to think you can communicate with your colleagues and clients the same way you always have. Working from home with familial interruptions, online calls, and video chats, have fundamentally shifted the way we interact with others. So much so that when we do revert to face to face communication, it’s changed again — and it requires concerted effort to continue communicating effectively, let alone with influence. 

My colleague is a calm, cool, and collected, white male senior leader and I am…me in all my frenetic energy. From the outside, we are as far apart as society can label us to be. But friendship can be found in the most unlikely of places if you’re willing to open your heart and mind. And despite all the negativity in the world right now, there are people around you who look beyond race, creed, religion, and ethnicity to communicate with genuine interest and find common ground. People who are always willing to give you their time, their words of wisdom, and their experience to help you deal with your anxiety, your frustration, and your efforts to be seen and heard.  And in the words of Will Smith, “More than ever, we have to understand the reality of where we came from. The problem is that there is an absence of knowledge about the history. It is really difficult to elevate without the knowledge and wisdom being presented in a way that the youth among us in their most powerful form are also educated.”

COVID, BLM, and new ways of working and communicating are all bringing revolution (I don’t use that word lightly) into our homes, hearts, and minds. It is hard, but to quote Will Smith again, “My grandma used to say to me, ‘Try to be thankful for your pain, to be thankful for these times and these opportunities for growth.'”

In one of his YouTube videos, Will Smith says, “When we move through the world, you are confronting defiled and degraded minds, and it’s never going to be any different. It’s the way God designed this place. You are going to come across people that have poisonous conclusions and false beliefs, and they’ve got insane narratives running through their minds, and as you walk through the street you are coming into contact with that all day long. So, in trying to build new systems, you’re still going to be confronting those defiled and degraded minds in these circumstances. The problem isn’t completely in the system, the problem is in the hearts and minds of people, and it demands that our attention begins on our hearts and minds.”

I know negativity exists in the world, but I believe God also designed the goodness of humanity; a humanity built on genuine desire to learn about those we share the world with and vested interest in their wellbeing. And dealing with negativity in a mature manner for growth requires an open mind willing to learn from and share with others. A curiosity that kills ignorance with kindness and forges unlikely friendships. 

So, I ask you again, and wait for your answer with genuine interest: How are you?