Originally posted Meetings Today Blog
Vivek Murthy, MD, who served as the 19th U.S. Surgeon General, and someone whose life and work have made a great impression on me, wrote, in this Harvard Business Review article, about his family’s experience after Hurricane Andrew: “Looking today at so many other places around the world ravaged by disasters of all kinds, I think about how often tragedy brings us together—and how fleeting that connection often is. …
“There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher. Additionally, the number of people who report having a close confidante in their lives has been declining over the past few decades. In the workplace, many employees—and half of CEOs—report feeling lonely in their roles.
“During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness. The elderly man who came to our hospital every few weeks seeking relief from chronic pain was also looking for human connection: He was lonely. The middle-aged woman battling advanced HIV who had no one to call to inform that she was sick: She was lonely too. I found that loneliness was often in the background of clinical illness, contributing to disease and making it harder for patients to cope and heal.”
As I read Murthy’s article on “the loneliness epidemic,” my thoughts turned to meetings—conferences, seminars, conventions—some with a few people where it’s easier to feel lonely if one is new or has less in common with others, or is an “other” than the majority attending—an “outsider.” And then there are those large-scale meetings of hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands where you’ve come with colleagues you may or may not know well or with whom you may not feel comfortable around in a different setting. Or you may have only had a virtual connection to them—as many of us in the hospitality and meetings industry do when we attend a meeting—and you may still feel lonely.
I thought about the desire for connection during the first months of the MIMList (the first meetings industry virtual discussion group founded by Rod Marymor as part of the MIM – Meetings Industry Mall) that I moderated and how many wrote asking “Is anyone attending [fill in the blank name of an industry meeting] so we can all meet face to face?” All because no one likes being alone or lonely at a meeting or event.
Yes, there are many of us Introverts who “want to be alone” because that’s how we recharge, but we don’t want to feel lonely. Meetings are designed specifically for connections: years ago, MPI’s Foundation conducted ground-breaking studies about why people attend corporate and association meetings. The studies indicated that one of the main reasons people attended meetings was “networking” or as I came to call it, “peer to peer interaction and learning” (Sadly, the studies are out of print; I do have PDFs that we will get to you if requested—email me at FridayWithJoan@aol.com).
As I read Dr. Murthy’s comments and as I thought about my own experiences with organizations and at meetings, as a first-timer and as a “veteran,” I remembered:
- My first MPI Chapter (PMPI) meeting in D.C. when Bill Myles (now of blessed memory) came up to me as I hugged a wall, introduced himself, and invited me to serve on the Membership Committee!
- Then my first national MPI meeting in 1984 when, though I was president of PMPI, I didn’t know others. Weldon Webb and Beverly Kinkade, both from the St. Louis Chapter (SLAMPI), took me under their wings. Oh how much easier it was to participate and meet others and to commit to greater involvement!
- At my first International Association of Facilitators (IAF) when I walked into breakfast of 1,200 and thought I’d find a table in a corner until, when walking by three people deep in conversation, they invited me into their conversation and to a seat at their table. Included, I felt less lonely and became involved.
- Patti Shock and Ed Polivka (he now too of blessed memory) who, at my first PCMAmeeting, welcomed me with smiles and conversation ensuring I was included.
- And at my first meeting as an MPI delegate (thank you Doug Heath for appointment me) to the (then) Convention Liaison Council (now the EIC) Board meeting when Bill Gehron representing HSMAI, Keith Sexton-Patrick representing ACOM (now ESPA), and Sandi Lynn representing SGMP, all included me in conversations and my loneliness disappeared and my involvement grew. The two often seem to be related!
What is the obligation for those in the hospitality industry (see definition a, definition b) to help people feel less lonely? How can meetings help alleviate the loneliness epidemic and contribute to better health, just as we’ve added healthier foods, yoga, fun runs, policies to combat sexual harassment and to ensure diversity and inclusion?
How do we do it? Here are some ideas.
1. Understand the roots of loneliness. Dr. Murthy in Harvard Business Review (HBR)wrote: “Loneliness is the subjective feeling of having inadequate social connections.”
He went on to say “Happy hours, coffee breaks, and team-building exercises are designed to build connections between colleagues, but do they really help people develop deep relationships? On average, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with our families. But do they know what we really care about? Do they understand our values? Do they share in our triumphs and pains? This isn’t just bad for our health; it’s also bad for business. Researchers for Gallup found that having strong social connections at work makes employees more likely to be engaged with their jobs and produce higher-quality work…”
“Connection can also help indirectly by enhancing self-esteem and self-efficacy while also shifting our experience toward positive emotions—all of which can buffer an individual during stressful situations and have positive effects on health. Indeed, studies have found that companies whose workers feel they have high-stress jobs have markedly higher health care expenditures than their counterparts with low-stress employees. … My experience has been that people bring the most to their work when they feel connected to the mission and the people around them.”
No kidding! Because of all those who invited me into conversation and allowed us to get to know each other as individuals as well as colleagues, I immersed myself in our hospitality industry. Where would I (or you) be today if someone hadn’t taken time to include you? And I’m sure we can all think of times where we weren’t included.
2. Create opportunities for deeper connections.
Dr. Murthy, as Surgeon General wrote about his work with staff, new to him and he to them: “To bring us closer, we developed “Inside Scoop,” an exercise in which team members were asked to share something about themselves through pictures for five minutes during weekly staff meetings. Presenting was an opportunity for each of us to share more of who we were; listening was an opportunity to recognize our colleagues in the way they wished to be seen. I share what my office did not as the antidote to loneliness but as proof that small steps can make a difference [emphasis by Joan]. And because small actions like this one are vital to improving our health and the health of our economy.”
I asked in a number of social media groups about how people felt as first-timers or if they felt lonely at meetings, especially if they were at a meeting at which they knew few, if any, others. The responses reflected the sense of isolation many felt, some believing that “first-timer” designations made them stand out and they were only approached by those who were told (often board members or executive staff) to do so.
This response, slightly edited, is from colleague and friend, Elizabeth Engel. In this narrative, she is describing who makes what efforts at meetings and events:
“My first time at a [association related to hospitality and meetings] event in 2000. I’d only been in the profession for a few years, and I didn’t know anyone outside the confines of my own association employer and the staff members of our three ‘sister’ associations.
“The conference was in the city in which I live and work, and being my first conference with this organization, I didn’t realize that I should clear my evening schedule for the receptions and parties that would take place in conjunction with the event.
“So I went to sessions, sat in the back of the room all by myself, didn’t really talk to anyone, and scurried off at the end of the educational program each day to keep my evening commitments. In short, I was the attendee with no friends.
“I did learn a lot, but I kind of missed the point of an in-person event: I didn’t expand my network at all.
“I didn’t attend another large association conference for another two years. [When I did return to this conference] I still didn’t really know anyone outside my (still the same) employer and (still the same) ‘sister’ associations.
“But in the interim, I’d learned two key things: keep my evenings free, and make the first move. I knew it was on me to create a better outcome, and I did. This time, I pushed myself outside my comfort zone to look for the other person in each room who didn’t seem to have any friends, go over to her, and ask her a question about herself, which is the easiest way for introverts [and others!] to get conversations with strangers going.
“That was the start of building the professional network that has sustained me for the past twenty years, through multiple job changes and launching my own business five years ago.”
3. “Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization” said Dr. Murthy, and to which I add, and in and at your meetings.
To what Elizabeth learned and did and what Dr. Murthy suggests and the MPI Foundation studies indicate, and what we know from our own experiences and observations, when our noses are in our electronic devices at meetings, peer to peer interaction and learning can’t easily happen. If we set participation examples and explain why we are doing so, we may be able to turn around the current usual behavior and help people create better connections that can lead to more involved members.
More involved members become informed and active participants in our professions, which leads to more commitment to buying and selling from those we know.
4. Change tradeshow interactions.
It’s not just the brief hello on the tradeshow floor for buyers to obtain tchotchkes or a chance to be entered into a drawing [oh … ethics, a discussion for yet another time!] or for sales and marketing professionals to get a name to add to the database. Deeper connections can be made with real conversations like one I had with colleague Marlys Arnold at ExhibitorLive with an exhibitor in a wheelchair about shows and the ADA.
As Dr. Murthy wrote we need to “Encourage coworkers [and in our world, meeting participants and tradeshow exhibitors] to reach out and help others—and accept help when it is offered.” Read on to the sidebar to the interview with Dr. Vivek Murthy to see more of what he has to say about how meetings can help people feel less lonely.
5. Encourage interactive education.
Many of us connect best when we are talking about meaningful ways to solve problems or sharing anecdotes about our latest success or problem.
We need to help “speakers” become, and treat them more like, trainers or facilitators to encourage interaction in sessions. We also need to encourage the use of appropriate seating outside session rooms where, during breaks or at times desired, people can share what they learned and make different connections over a shared raised eyebrow in a session. In both instances we have enabled learning and encouraged less loneliness.
What are your experiences and what have you observed at your meetings—or in your hotels and convention or conference centers—that have encouraged connections and less loneliness for travelers and meeting participants?
- When you were a first-timer at a meeting especially when you knew no one or few people, what made you feel welcome?
- What’s your reaction—or that of those who attend your meetings—to “first-timer” designations—stickers or ribbons on badges?
- In what ways do you encourage interaction in sessions and at social events? In what ways does it succeed and how is it measured?
- If you’ve measured the return to future meetings (or joining or renewing membership) of first-timers or their buying habits based on meaningful versus brief interactions at tradeshows, what did you learn?
- And what makes you feel “lonely” at a meeting and in what ways could our industry and especially our industry associations help alleviate what could lead to a greater health epidemic?
Our industry has an opportunity to help people feel less lonely and isolated. Maybe it was “bold” to suggest we can “cure” a health crisis but I think we can go a long way to alleviating it in one of aspect of society that touches many.
And so … On October 29, many of us observed the yahrzeit—anniversary death—of Rosie Ledesma-Bernaducci, a colleague and friend. Those of you who knew her and the circumstances of her death may believe as I do that loneliness contributed to her suicide. It’s that deep loneliness that though one has a smile on their face, and is well-connected and respected, masks a deeper sense of not being connected, truly connected, to others. To her, I dedicate this blog and newsletter in hopes that we can create better connections to solve the issue of loneliness in some way through meetings.
For those who would like to respond privately with a comment to be posted anonymously, please email me at FridayWithJoan@aol.com and I’ll post it for you.