I’ve had a bit more time to cogitate over the presentation given by author Thom Singer last Monday at the AASCIF 2013 annual conference in Austin, TX. In that presentation Singer spoke of ways to improve our networking abilities and personal relationships with others. Two of the specific things he mentioned were “verbal vomit” and “hiding your stuff”. 

How could I not possibly expound on these notions?

The idea of verbal vomit is simple. It is what you experience when you meet someone at a conference or event for the first time, and they inundate you with an endless barrage of verbiage about themselves and their company. You want to get away, but you can’t. The putrid stream of input burns your ears and splatters your shoes with the remnants of their ceaseless ranting. It is verbal vomit, plain and simple, and someone is going to have to mop that crap up.

I would hope that I have never verbally vomited on someone in such a manner, but I can’t be sure. You see, I am not a great networker. In fact, I can be downright socially awkward in these situations. While I can strike up a conversation with virtually anyone in line at a retail store or at a Southwest Airlines boarding gate, I am not wholly comfortable engaging people in what are, in the end, relationship efforts designed to build business. I am far more comfortable standing on a stage in front of several hundred strangers than in a room trying to read the illegible name tag of some poor soul who has happened across my path. Perhaps that is because the roles are more clearly defined when I am on a stage or at a podium. I am the presenter, pretending to know what I am talking about, and the attendees listen while pretending not to be playing Farmville on their smartphones. The roles and responsibilities are clear. Not so in the face to face frontier called networking. 

That is a dance, my friend. A dance where no one knows who is leading, or if we are even on the same sheet of music. It is an area where I truly lack finesse. I don’t have to reach too far back to give you an example of this. In fact, I merely need to go back to Wednesday. I was stumbling and fumbling my way through the AASCIF exhibitors area, when I inadvertently stepped on the high heel of a young woman in front of me. The foot collision caused her to jolt to a stop, while my forward momentum continued. Therefore, I put my right hand out to brace myself as I lost my balance forward. Ultimately, I realized that while I had broken a potential fall, I was now standing motionless with my hand firmly grasping her right buttocks. 

Welcome to business networking, Wilson style. The good news is that I do not believe I vomited on her – verbally speaking. We spoke for a few minutes, I eventually removed my hand from her buttockal region, and we exchanged business cards. And we call that one a success.

Now, here is a little secret. Those prone to verbal vomiting when attempting to network are equally uncomfortable with the process. They just display their insecurity in a very vocal way.

“Hiding Your Stuff” is a much cleaner standard by all accounts. Singer used that phrase when talking about the negative distractions that exist in your life; Those problems that demand your time and attention, yet you can’t let them affect your daily job. Singer cited a very personal example of this, telling us of having to deal with a critical, life altering surgery decision for their 4 month old baby daughter. He spoke of all the stress in dealing with this crisis, while at the same time having to hide it from the elements of his highly visible position.

While I sympathized with his story, my ability to relate was from an entirely different experience. I wrote last fall about the passing of my mother (I Know Why They Call It The Long Goodbye). Those who read it may recall that I was flying to Detroit to give the Keynote address at the Michigan Self Insurers Fall Conference, when I received a call telling me that my mother’s nursing home had been unable to wake her that morning. After a long fight with Alzheimer’s, we now knew that the end was coming; whether it was a matter of hours or days remained to be seen, but the inevitable was upon us. Despite this news, I had commitments and obligations to meet. Canceling the presentation never crossed my mind.

There was one thing I never revealed in that article. The following morning, just before I stepped on stage, I received a text from my sister. It read: 

“Mom’s temperature this morning is 109”

At that moment I felt sick to my stomach. Even when you recognize that her inevitable passing would be a blessing, news like that is a very difficult thing to accept. Still, as Singer noted, sometimes you have to “hide your stuff”, and I certainly did not want this to affect the presentation I hoped to deliver. I knew this was best kept to myself. The only people who knew what was happening were a couple friends in attendance and the person who invited me to the conference. I successfully “hid my stuff”, the presentation proceeded, and I have no regrets.

So how are these two topics, Hiding Your Stuff and Verbal Vomit, related? 

It is a simple common thread. Sometimes the problem with life is that it interferes with itself. It doesn’t always let us hide in our comfort zones. We have to navigate occasionally treacherous paths that require conflicting actions or emotions, and we must confront those things that are our personal “gumption traps”. Successfully hiding our stuff when the situation requires it, and controlling our tendency to verbally vomit on strangers can make us better employees, better workers and better people. 

There is nothing wrong with “hiding your stuff”. It is part of the human condition, and how we survive as a species. And it almost goes without saying; learning not to verbally regurgitate on potential friends and business associates would likely help that survival process as well.

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