We have all felt the pandemic strip out human connection from all of us, but human connection has been in decline for a long time before social distancing made us painfully aware of it. If anything, COVID-19 merely intensified the loneliness pandemic that has been afflicting us for much longer. In his new book, keynote speaker, broadcaster, and philanthropist Riaz Meghji goes deep into the five habits that we can all start to build in order to improve our relationships, both personal and professional. Every Conversation Counts is a powerful work that every leader in the social profit sector needs to read, especially in these challenging times. Listen in as Riaz shares with Douglas Nelson the inspiration behind the writing of the book and the powerful messages contained within it.
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Every Conversation Counts With Riaz Meghji
We have a very special guest on our show. Riaz Meghji is an accomplished broadcaster who’s hosted Citytv’s Breakfast Television, MTV Canada, TEDx, CTV News and much more. In addition, to being all of that, Riaz is dedicated to philanthropy and changing the world for the better through his work with Canuck Place Children’s Hospice and Covenant House. Welcome.
Thank you very much for the generous introduction.
We’re happy to have you on the show not just because we’re getting to meet you in person or virtually in person after seeing you on television for many years. Also because you’ve got a great book out that I think it’s important for leaders in the social profit sector to know about and hopefully pick up a copy of it because it’s bang on to this situation that I know a lot of leaders are facing nowadays. We wanted to have you on the show to talk about your great book, Every Conversation Counts: The 5 Habits of Human Connection That Build Extraordinary Relationships. I want to get into all five of those habits. First, I want to start with your why for writing this book.
The why really comes from a personal fascination of how and why we connect as human beings. The why has been driven over the past couple of decades of asking questions for a living. The great reward in any conversation or interview I’ve had the chance to contribute to was when an element of trust was built where we could unlock and extract something that was a powerful reveal. Something vulnerable, something unique of that person in front of me and do it in a way that we could celebrate what they’ve achieved and inspire people that are watching or listening to that individual. I was an introvert growing up, Doug. To be in this space now, it gets funny putting yourself out there in courageous ways. The piece when I’d interview people, I would also learn from them of what it means to suffer in silence when they were dealing with things. I mashed together a fascination with how we connect and what it means to suffer in silence and that sense of loneliness. It went down a rabbit hole over the past couple of years of how big this challenge of loneliness has been. The timeliness of this, I didn’t think we’d still be in the pandemic at this point but I truly wanted to create an evergreen resource that no matter where we were or what we’re facing, these would be the tools to help people connect in meaningful ways.
When you’re asking questions for a living, people are sharing their vulnerabilities and you’re experiencing that, you’re getting them to share that. Why is it hard do you think for people to share those vulnerabilities? It’s one thing when you’re interviewing them for a show or you’re interviewing on the news. In one-to-one conversation, what are those guards that prevent us from being vulnerable?
The number one guard that I’ve observed over the years whether it’s been interviewing, networking or being at events and one-to-one with anybody is that we’re afraid of losing our sense of belonging. What I mean by this is we live in this polarized climate where if we’re coming forward with our truth, the fear could very well be that this truth could alienate you from your audience. We’re in a culture of snap judgements. We’re in a culture of hyper critical perspectives. I really want to encourage this idea that we’re listening to each other even if we disagree with each other, we’re listening to each other. I think that’s a part of it. The other thing is looking at the simplicity of small talk and how many people dread the idea of small talk when they hear it. That concept to me, small talk is such a defense mechanism because what it’s doing is it’s preventing us from the embarrassment of getting emotional in front of someone we don’t know or maybe triggering or hitting a nerve with someone we don’t know. We’re afraid to have these conversations. We’re afraid to alienate ourselves. I believe if we do it and we do it respectfully, we can build trust and we can deepen relationships to help bring people up.
I think there’s a fascinating point in all of that. We’re afraid of losing our sense of belonging in the midst of what, even before the pandemic, places like the Vancouver Foundation, United Way. We’re talking about a crisis of loneliness in our community, that people really are feeling that degree of isolation. You talk a lot about that in the book and what this means. As someone who has been described as always there among the crowds and in the crowd, interviewing, standing in front of people, you’ve identified the sense of loneliness. What did you see? What brought this to the fore for you?
The studies that existed are part of it. When we would work on TEDx Vancouver showcases, I think the TEDx Vancouver 2015 showcase in my opening of that conversation that day, we were talking about the Vancouver Foundation looking at the big problem of loneliness. It was something that almost felt like it was overlooked. A good friend of mine in the business, Tracy Moore, who hosts Cityline. There was a time we sat down for The Every Conversation Counts YouTube series. She said something to me so powerful about her postpartum depression. That shame will put you in a hole and it just challenged me to not suffer in silence if there was something going on.
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That perspective alone opened my eyes because my wife dealt with postpartum and when anyone is dealing with depression or mental health, these stigmas exist. Sometimes we’re afraid of opening up and expressing ourselves. The more I would hear these kinds of conversations and these kinds of insights that people would share, the more I became fascinated with trying to understand is loneliness a local issue? Is it a national issue? In 2018, we saw the UK appoint a Minister of Loneliness. We saw Japan appoint a Minister of Loneliness. It was something that was happening. It was something I feel was overlooked and wasn’t being talked about enough. It was a huge challenge pre-COVID. The thing Doug I say about the pandemic is it doesn’t change your identity, it reveals it. This pandemic, when we stripped out human connection like we usually have it showed how loneliness can really impact us in major ways.
One of the reviews of the book call to arms for a world that’s struggling with loneliness and isolation. I know a lot of our readers are leaders in the social profit sector who are through their mission work, through the work in their organizations on a daily basis are seeing other people dealing with loneliness and isolation. I’m also hearing that a lot of leaders, people that are charged with being at the front of the pack, in front of the crowd are feeling that loneliness and isolation too. Is it the same kind of loneliness, that shame in a dark place or puts you in a quiet place? Is it something else?
There are several types of loneliness and I feel the former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, in his book, Together, really outlined nicely the types of loneliness that exists for us. Whether that’s intimate loneliness, the lack of a partner, relational loneliness of maybe lacking close friends, the collective loneliness of that lack of sense of belonging to community or isolation, which we’ve all felt. If we’re applying that to leadership, how many times have we heard, “It’s lonely at the top,” and some of the struggles leaders are facing. They can’t necessarily be completely transparent because you might alienate yourself from your board or your staff. You have to be very careful. I think it’s case-specific. The conversations we could have with a leader, someone could say, “I’m missing intimate loneliness. Someone could see I’m missing relational. Maybe somebody could say collective.” It is. I don’t think it’s a one size fits all but I do believe it exists in many different contexts for leaders across the board.
This has been revealing. The pandemic has been revealing the underlying loneliness and the structure of how we’re all living together but apart. The review I quoted, “A call to arms.” What can we do about it? What should we be doing about it? I finished the book, I closed it. I thought, “This is great. What does Riaz want me to do next?”
The overarching theme and main message behind the book, if you don’t remember any of the research, if you don’t remember the habits is to walk into every conversation with the philosophy of how can I be more intentional with how I’m connecting versus relying on autopilot mode of just getting through the days and interactions that we have? In this pandemic, it’s felt like Groundhog Day, much of the things have felt like a routine and we could lose that sense of being proactive with our empathetic curiosity. We could lose that sense of giving someone our undivided attention. We can simply forget about the simplicity of what the gesture is to truly recognize value and appreciate somebody, and lift them up when they need to know they’ve got a champion in their corner. I think step one is thinking, “How can I be more intentional when I’m connecting, when I’m talking to the people in your life?” That’s personally and professionally.
Intentional, is that something that you were good at and that’s how you became as successful as you’ve been at being the interviewed or being the one bringing people together? Is that something that you learned?
It’s something that I learned. I say that without hesitation, referencing back to that comment I made earlier on in this chat that I was an introvert growing up. I had social anxiety. I found it difficult to talk to girls and it wasn’t until I took an acting class in grade eleven and I credit the late great Colin Vint at North Delta Senior Secondary School of creating trust with his students. Knowing that he’s in your corner, he’s going to acknowledge you, he’s going to appreciate you but he’s going to also hold you accountable to step out of your comfort zone to try new things. The great part of any improv or acting exercise is the philosophy of, “Yes, and,” instead of, “Yes, but,” because but is the ultimate verbal eraser. Working through that skill of asking questions, of listening, of giving that effort to be as present as possible, those are all skills that were learned along the way. Trust me, I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I continue to make the mistakes but I continue to practice and make the effort to try and elevate my presence and communication with anyone in front of me.
As someone who has talked to leaders across the spectrum of human endeavor, can you tell when someone is taking that intentional approach? How quickly can you tell that they’re taking that intentional approach to leadership or even just to the conversation with you?
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Here’s how I can tell because I made a critical mistake in my early years as an interviewer. Here’s how I would approach it, Doug. I would find here’s the subject I’m going to interview. I’m going to do all of this what I believe to be amazing research. I would ask the questions that I scripted and then would just go check, that was a success because I asked the questions that I thought of my mind is brilliant. As time went on, I started to realize I’m missing the entire opportunity. I’m making this about myself and the research I’m doing. One of the ideas in the book, and this was taught to me in my first job at a local radio station with the station manager who saw some potential in me and he gave me this life lesson that look at you is greater than look at me. When I thought about that and this was the trap I fell into, I would ask all these questions that were this is look at you but it wasn’t really. It was look at the questions I’m asking. One of the questions that I learned to ask in the green room before interviewing anybody was greeting someone and simply asking, “Thanks for coming in. What’s on your mind?” I would pause, get out of the way and the first thing they would give me would be such a powerful indication of what’s occupying their mental space. That simple question and that simple exercise would allow me to prioritize their priorities.
One of the things that I learned was the value of over-preparing to improvise because we’re going to do our research on the subject whether it’s reading a book, watching a movie, reading a blog to bring our interest and curiosity. Our willingness to improvise, lean in and actively listen to that person and navigate and follow the emotion they’re giving you, that is where real connection happens. Now, being on the other side of the questions, which is still weird because I’m used to asking the questions, I can spot it when somebody is going through their list of questions versus having a conversation, listening to the responses and then it’s organically creating this beautiful dialogue. I feel that presence or instinct in the moment is what we need more of as opposed to scripted dialogue.
Was there a time when you asked that question, “What’s on your mind?” that you threw away most of the questions you’d prepared and took it in a different direction?
One of the powerful moments that stands out to me was when former BC Lion Geroy Simon came into the green room and without going too much and respecting his confidentiality, he had lost his wife. It was in the news. It wasn’t really talked about. Geroy was Mr. Personality and such an ambassador for the team. I remember walking into the green room, looking at his body language, slumped in his chair and thinking, “This isn’t the normal Geroy.” A lot of people don’t know how to approach the idea of loss when somebody has gone through something like that. You don’t want to trigger them. I just looked at G and I said, “What’s on your mind? Where are you at?” He was candid with what he gave, how he had struggled and then I asked him, “What do you want to share out there?” This was in the green room for an interview for Breakfast Television Vancouver where we would be live. I wanted to respect his space and he told me what he felt comfortable with sharing and I said, “Let’s go out there and share that.” If I hadn’t checked in with him, I could have easily gone through the questions of him being Mr. Personality and what’s going on with the team but he brought a realness that day. I respect him for it of having the courage to come back on soon after going through such tragedy in his life.
That is a powerful story and thank you for sharing that. As you were talking about that being over-prepared in order to be flexible, I was thinking of what I think a lot of fundraisers and organizational leaders do when they’re doing fundraising, they’re going to meet with a donor. They know the history, they know the giving that this family or this individual has done in the community, done to their organization. There’s a strategy for how to engage them further to get them to think about giving. You write it down, it goes in a straight line on the piece of paper. We’re going to have a conversation that follows 1, 2, 3, 4. In my experience, it almost never goes that way. The most successful fundraisers that I’ve ever worked with are the ones that are able to be flexible and to engage people where they are at, meeting the person they’re talking to where they’re at rather than trying to bring them along to where you want them to be. I’m curious because you have been so involved with it with a number of charitable organizations, social profit organizations. What is the difference in leadership that you see in the charitable sector as opposed to other areas of the community? Is there one?
The one thing that has really stood out to me and I’ve been a huge fan of the work Canuck Place Children’s Hospice has been doing and Covenant House Vancouver and what I see their leaders do so well that we can follow their lead and learn from, is less information and more emotion. Pure words, more storytelling. I’ve always been drawn to and blown away by the courage, if we’re looking at for example Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, the courage of parents that have gone through the unthinkable of having lost their child. Having a resource like Canuck Place to heal and then having the team support them where they can go on stage, talk about the experience and unify a room towards a common cause of that’s how families have to face this challenge.
There was a conversation with Deb, one of the lead psychiatrists at Canuck Place that was a game-changer for me in 2020. It was one of the final in-person events that I had done prior to the pandemic shutting everything down. I just looked at Deb and the parents were at our table. I said to Deb, “You have such a gift of how you gain access to these parents and get them to trust you.” I was talking to Deb, this was a few months away from having lost my father suddenly and learning what grief was all about, how you compartmentalize that and move on. I said, “Deb, what is the best thing you can say to somebody that has gone through this type of devastating loss?” She smiled, looked at me and said, “Riaz, it’s not about what you can say, it’s about what you can ask.” We all get caught up in ourselves and I’ve been guilty prior to hearing the value of this question she introduced of, “I’m sorry for your loss. Let me know if you need anything.”
We don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do but Deb introduced this question that changed the game for me. She said, “If you know somebody is struggling or has lost a loved one, simply ask them this, ‘What do you want me to know about that?’” and get out of the way. When she said that to me, Doug, it was like a light bulb went off and it made me appreciate, to answer your question, how Canuck Place is a shining example of how they elevate these parents. How they support these families celebrate the adversity they have gone through and to create a powerful dialogue in the room every single time. In the end, they motivate a community to come together. That’s what we need more of all across the board not just in the charitable sector but every company can benefit from that realness and the raw, candid emotion that storytelling can provide.
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That question, “What do you want me to know about them?” that’s great. When I was CEO of the BC Cancer Foundation and meeting people who had lost family members, friends or children in some cases, parents, I’d asked one of the counselors, “What do you say?” You want to say the right thing. Do you want to be empathetic, you want to be warm? I know how you feel. I knew that was not the right thing to say but it was what do you say? She said, “Ask them.” If they don’t tell you their name, say I lost my wife recently or I lost my husband, my father said, “What was his name? Could you tell me what his name was?” Using the name and then they would talk about them in a way that was I’m talking, I’m sharing, I’m interested in knowing the person you lost, knowing about the person you lost, who that was, what they meant to you, not that this has happened to you. It added another richer layer to the conversation and invited more of a conversation.
I found that awkwardness of not knowing what to say really disappears when you’re not talking about someone losing a friend, you’re talking about someone losing a friend named Karen and that connects people. You don’t need to say anything else. You can smile, nod and be there in connected human because now you’re talking about the person that they’re thinking about, what’s occupying their mind. As you’re sharing that example, I’m thinking of 3 or 4 conversations I had with people where I felt my heart felt so big and my eyes were full of tears as I was listening to them to tell the stories about those people.
That is so beautiful, Doug, and the keyword from your personal experience as you describe it, that stands out to me is it’s an invitation instead of an intrusion on somebody’s personal space when they might be struggling or going through something. That makes me think how can we be intentional with how we’re inviting people to open up, share, be real and connect.
I think a lot of the fundraisers and organizations in the social profit sector, our job is to respectfully receive the stories that either the clients, the people we serve or the donors that support the organizations respectfully received their stories of why this mission, why this cause is so important to them. The way we handle those stories when we receive them, the gentleness or the humanness that we receive those stories really cuts through the whole organization. It defines the organization. It defines the experience of the parents who come to Canuck Place or the donors who support it. They know this is a place that receives their story well.
You talk about storytelling and I could spend all day asking you questions about that and intentional listening. Is there a balance there? To share a story, to connect as we’ve been doing about what’s the right question to ask or how do we respectfully receive stories, encourage people to tell them, is there tension between being a storyteller and being an intentional listener? Are they different? Being an intentional listener is asking the question and getting out of the way as you’ve described and making look how great you are rather than look how great I am, in your language. Storytelling is, “Here’s an experience. Here’s an example. Here’s a story that I want to share.” Can you be both? Should leaders be striving to be both of those?
What that makes me think about is can you be both? I think there’s a healthy back and forth there. If it comes to storytelling and if we want to be intentional with it, I always think how is this story going to serve the audience? How do I start with the conflict that’s going to be relatable to that audience? How do I end with the transformation or change that’s going to carry a teaching point that will bring value to the audience? We could build our story inventory and I have an arsenal of stories that we’re telling that one could just be an ego stroke. If we really want to motivate or inspire an audience, we need to understand them first. That’s where the listening part comes in to understand what are their pain points? What are their priorities? What is the story I could tell with that struggle, with that conflict and that resolution that’s going to deliver a value? That they’re going to walk away from this conversation or presentation, if that’s the case, inspired and equipped with a lesson to make their lives better.
When you’re thinking about that engagement and that inspiration, how is it different when you’re thinking of connecting people attending a gala that you’re emceeing or you’re standing on the TEDx stage versus a conversation you’re having when you’re interviewing a single person, you’re sitting down and having a conversation?
I try and treat them one and the same. Here’s what I mean by that.
That’s not the answer I expected you to say at all.
The reason I say that is because we’re in this beautiful space of intimacy with a show and I’m envisioning one reader. If I’m on camera on a virtual call, I’m thinking of one audience member on the other side. If we’ve written a book or writing a column, I’m thinking of one reader, all powerful communication, all powerful connection. I try and focus, not try, this is the intention I give to it, it’s, one-to-one. I’ll admit I’m weak at a group dinner, Doug. I’m not good at the whole group setting, I’ll sidebar and say, “Doug, let’s just chat on the side and connect one-on-one.” If we’re on a big stage like that, I’ll do my best to lock eyes with people but talk to them as if I’m talking to one person so they feel like there’s no one else around them.
I think that’s it. A really powerful perspective, particularly for leaders who are more introverted and they don’t look for those opportunities to be standing in front of groups of people. They’re wanting to have those sidebar conversations. We haven’t even got to the five habits. This is a book that I will be sharing and passing along to organizations that we work with. I saw so much for leaders in the social profit sector to take from this book about showing up as your authentic self. You started this talking about people not wanting to connect or withdrawing because they’re afraid of losing that sense of belonging and then ending up isolated as a result.
What we’re seeing now, as we’re a year into the pandemic, is leaders are exhausted, many of them, with showing up every day and being the cheerleader or they’ve got rally fatigue from bringing their teams up, bringing their boards up. Talking to donors and saying, “Everything is going as well as it can. Here we go.” People are tired and they want to be themselves because the masks, shields and the armor that wear every day is getting too heavy. Reading the book, what jumped out at me is that these habits are a way of being myself more often in conversations that not just leaders but anybody can be. How did you find the five habits? You’ve done a great job of breaking them down but did you start with three and said, “That one’s two and maybe we’ll add a fifth one.” How did you come up with those five habits?
I’ve been documenting for years ideas that have been shared through interviews whether it was leaders, philanthropists, athletes and celebrities. Through all the notes when I would just take a look at creating this resource in every conversation counts, I would see patterns. Listening was such a big component to it. Helping people overcome the superficiality of small talk with making your small talk bigger was a habit. Doug, you’ve articulated the idea of taking off your mask, which is put aside your perfect persona as a habit. The need to be assertively empathetic, seeing leaders who not only dealt with adversity but leaned in, acknowledged people focused on what we could agree on and then kept people accountable. Preserving the relationship was big. The notion of appreciation as a fifth habit of how we make people feel famous.
These were patterns that I would observe from watching and learning from interviews over the years and then implementing them in my own daily life. Whether that was delivering a keynote presentation, having a one-on-one conversation, networking at an event. I would study and understand what would lead to somebody trusting me, opening up with something powerful and then watching them succeed in their own lives. When it came down to really documenting the five, they were pretty clear of what stood out over the years of what makes people effective communicators and connectors that have built powerful relationships in their life.
The summary that I took away from the book was that intentionality that’s showing up as yourself and not making it about yourself. The willingness to meet people where they are, this is who I’m talking to, this is a conversation I’m having and meeting where they are. It is a great book. I want to thank you for being on the show but much more, I want to thank you, Riaz, for writing this book. I think it is rare to find something that is so perfectly time for our society. I think it’s instructive for leaders at this time. I’ll encourage everybody to buy it so you don’t have to.
That’s very kind and generous, Doug. I want to acknowledge you for inviting me on to your show to share this message and having an authentic conversation about it all. Hopefully, if you’re reading this and you got something out of this, let us know how this served you. I hope this helps with your own intentionality with the relationships you’re going to build in your life.
Thank you very much for being here.
- Every Conversation Counts: The 5 Habits of Human Connection That Build Extraordinary Relationships
About Riaz Meghji
Riaz Meghji is a human connection keynote speaker and author of the book “Every Conversation Counts: The 5 Habits of Human Connection That Build Extraordinary Relationships”. He is also an accomplished broadcaster with 17 years of television hosting experience; he has interviewed experts on current affairs, sports, entertainment, politics, and business. His on-camera experience not only taught him the power of a candid conversation but also how to put it into practice. Riaz has hosted for Citytv’s Breakfast Television, MTV Canada, TEDxVancouver, CTV News, and the Toronto International Film Festival.
He is a natural storyteller with a proven ability to conduct engaging, in-depth conversations across various disciplines. Off-camera, Riaz dedicates himself to philanthropy and causes he cares about including Canuck Place Children’s Hospice and Covenant House. He holds a degree in business from Simon Fraser University and studied leadership communication at Harvard Extension School and the Canadian Management Centre. He lives in Vancouver, B.C., with his wife Lori and son Nico.