Episode 102: The Value of Being in the Room

Today there are so many ways to communicate and interact with people, either in person or digitally. In this episode Sherry and Rob share their insights and thoughts on why being in a room with people can be so powerful.

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Sherry’s Webinar

Episode Transcript

Rob Walling:In a couple of weeks, you’re co-hosting your first ever webinar and it’s with Cory Miller, who’s the founder of iThemes. What are you guys going to be talking about?
Sherry Walling:Well, we’re going to be talking about all things mental health. Cory has a deep commitment to mental health in the founder community and has been really open about talking about his experiences with depression, which you can listen to I think on episode 97 of this podcast. And so, yeah, Cory and I just thought hey, we love talking about this, we care about this, let’s have a conversation and invite people to be part of it. I think we’ll focus on, as we tend to do, some strategies to really help build up resilience and wellness and hopefully people will get a lot of value out of it.
Rob Walling:That’s cool. It’ll be I’d imagine a conversation and then some Q&A at the end? Maybe an hour?
Sherry Walling:Yep. That’s the plan.
Rob Walling:Sounds good. On February 7. It’s a Tuesday at noon central time. Where do people go if they want to sign up to hear about it via email?
Sherry Walling:We will put the link in the show notes and then you can also keep up with what we’re doing on Zen Founder by signing up for our mailing list.
Rob Walling:ZenFounder.com
Sherry Walling:You have to forgive me. I’m a little bit under the weather; I have a little bit of a cold. Probably partially a product of having way too much fun this weekend and staying up late and running in the rain and, anyway, all kinds of shenanigans happened. So, my body’s a little bit like whoa, slow down, calm down, get some rest.
Rob Walling:Yeah. And that was a result of you and I heading out to Los Angeles for a couple of days. We were invited out there by Karim who runs Crowd Favorite and you had met him at Copper Press. He invited a bunch of friends out and we didn’t think that we were going to be able to make it and then kind of last minute we were able pick up some cheap tickets and find somebody to watch the kids just for … You went out for, what? About four days? And I went out for just 48 hours and so we had someone stay a couple nights. And I think you and I both came away with the realization of the value of being in a room with people and that’s what we want to talk about today.
Sherry Walling:Yeah. It was … You know, in addition to being just a delightful time with some really cool, smart, interesting people, I just felt like there was so much benefit to having taken the trip and spent the time sitting around in the living room chatting, sitting around in restaurants, sitting around at breakfast, going for walks. Even though we were really together quite a short time there was a lot of connection and I think both personal and professional benefit that came out of that time together.
 One of the things that I think was really important in actually being in the room together as opposed to connecting in the digital world is that there’s an ability to notice nuance, to notice sort of a twinkle in the eye, to notice humor, to notice body posture that I think allows you to build connection faster. You just have more data to take in when you’re in the room with someone. I was meeting a number of these people for the first time and I think to sit across from someone and really have the chance to talk but also to really see them, you just get a sense of who that person is much faster than you would if you were interacting with them digitally without being able to really not only see their body but experience all of those non-verbal cues.
Rob Walling:Yeah, for sure. And it’s a lot easier when you’re looking someone eye-to-eye and having a conversation to figure out … To kind of assess what commonalities you have. And you can cover so much more ground. Virtual relationships are cool in the sense that you get to know people over time and you can see a lot of stuff transform with your business and their business and their lives and everything, but the in person stuff you can cover so much ground so quickly. Because it’s not like you’re going to get on a phone call or a Skype call with this many people. I mean, even over the course of months it would just be bizarre, right? It’s just how we do things socially.
 And so, getting in a room and having a drink and just talking to one person and then the next and then the next and you can find quickly … Out of this room of 15 people you can find the folks where you can bring them something of value and they can bring you something of value and the folks who you’re going to want to build relationships with. And maybe the value is just that you’re going to be friends and it’s almost like … It’s like an informal or unintentional speed-dating, right? Or like speed-conversations or speed-analyzing of each other.
 I mean, I think we’re doing this … You don’t do that intentionally, but that’s just what happens at these things. I find that pretty quickly you can tell … Ah, man, this person and I have a lot in common. I really like the way this person asks questions or carries themselves in a conversation and they’re interesting and they’re doing interesting things. Or pretty quickly you can tell, wow, this person and I don’t have a lot in common. Or our conversation are very different. And I think it’s … You know, being in that room gives you the ability to do that with a lot of folks in a small amount of time.
Sherry Walling:And I think we’re having this conversation on two levels. We’re talking both about the value of professional relationships, because many of these people are in technology, they’re connected to people we’re connected to so there’s a sense of professional networking that’s happening. But then there’s also the sense of just the personal hey, I enjoy you, let’s share are many meals together as possible over the course of our lives.
 I think part of what you’re talking about in terms of this speed-dating-ish; it does happen on both levels. Who is going to be a person who is going to be beneficial to be connected to professionally and who is doing things that I’m interested in doing? And what resonance do I have in terms of the kinds of goals that I have or the values that I have as a professional? And then, again, who do I just want to hang out with?
 Luckily, sometimes those can co-exist in the same person.
Rob Walling:Another value of being in a room is that if you are good in conversation or you’re good on stage … Because I view being up … Speaking at a conference as a way of being in a room with a lot of people at once. Maybe a little more one-sided than hanging out and having drinks with folks, but if you carry yourself well you have the ability to make a much stronger and more memorable impact by being in person than any other medium I can think of, including video, including audio, including written word. There’s just so much more that people can get out of looking you eye to eye and videos of talks don’t do the same thing as when you’re in that room and the splash you can make.
 I think this has been evidenced by … Certainly in my career, the times where I feel like people are just fast fans is when I go and I just nail a talk up on stage. Of all the blog posts, the hundreds and hundreds of hours I invested in a blog posts and the thousands of hours into audio content, standing up on a stage for 30 minutes can do more than someone reading huge [inaudible 00:07:19] of that.
 And we’ve also seen it the same with you recently doing your conference talks. Those talks led you to build out a very fast network in this space and have led to many more invitations to do other talks. I think without you being up on stage those things just wouldn’t have happened nearly as fast.
Sherry Walling:There’s just more that happens in the brain when you’re in the room with someone. One of the ways of talking about this is physiological co-regulation, which is where your body reads someone else’s body. You read not only their non-verbal cues but you read their emotion. And through mirror neurons and other physiological mechanisms there’s a way of you feeling what they feel that just cannot happen virtually. There is this deeper physiological connection and it does create this sense of intimacy, you know? Whether you’re watching someone give a talk or you’re sitting down across the table with them, you are reading and sensing what their body is feeling and that bonds humans together.
 Similar to the podcast I did last week about touch. There’s just this powerful way that we, as a species, have of reading each other that has very little to do with words exchanged or ideas exchanged. But the physical presence of another person and the way that our brains are designed to read and interpret those nuances.
Rob Walling:Another real value to being in the room with other people is building the shared experiences, you know? It’s being able to say oh, remember that time you did that crazy thing? These things become stories and they become legend and, in a way, they can become the good old days a little bit. I know that I still talk to my Drip team and we talk about all those conversations back at the little Drip office in Fresno and wax poetic about the lunches we used to have. And we’re still making memories today. It’s not like we still don’t go have lunch together now and again. We still don’t architect out new features. But there’s something about … Either it’s a very memorable weekend or it can be a memorable couple years where you are building shared experiences with other people and there’s a tremendous amount of value that just can’t be replicated by participating in the same forum online, you know? Or some other virtual way.
Sherry Walling:Yeah, you’re writing a narrative of a relationship. That time that you … The memories, the experiences, the inside jokes, you know? How someone takes their coffee or their weird idiosyncrasies in the ways that they eat food or whatever. You’re building a set of experiences and those shared narratives or shared experiences are what binds family members together but certainly binds friends together. And that, again, I think is an advantage of putting in the time and energy to get in a room with someone, whether it’s at a conference or at an informal gathering like we just went to because you’re going to have an opportunity to make a memory together. And that does mean putting yourself out on the line a little bit and maybe instigating a little bit of trouble, in my case, but being present and being willing to be a little bit edgy or at least be yourself in a way that is memorable and connecting.
Rob Walling:Before we continue with the other … We have I think three more points to make in terms of the value of being in a room with someone. I want to step in here as kind of a … You know, I’m a software developer; I’m an introvert. I actually don’t enjoy being in a room with people for the most part. I have to kind of force myself to do it. Certainly, a glass a whiskey helps with that, but I’ve realized over the years that my desire or lack thereof to actually do it is always paid off by A, the relationships and B, just the time spent in the room. I’ve rarely regretted afterwards having been in a room with people. It’s just the dread of doing it beforehand; of oh, man, do I have anything interesting to say? Am I going to like anyone? Is this going to be boring?
 It’s just all the same stuff and you think that this will be something that you can talk yourself into and I guess that is, in essence, what I do, but I think there’s a lot of folks listening to this podcast who probably feel the same way of like I just don’t like big groups of people. I don’t like having a lot of conversations and meeting a lot of new people at once. And I totally feel the same way. I guess I’ve just seen such value from doing so that I force myself to do it. And like I said, it’s not something that … For the most part, it’s not something I regret.
 The times I’ve regretted it is when I put myself in a room with a bunch of people who I don’t have anything in common with and who I find I go from person to person to person and there’s just nothing there; there’s no connection with anybody. And then I feel like I’ve wasted my time and bunch of my energy because I only have so much inner-personal energy to give in any given week.
 The other times is when I get trapped talking to someone that I don’t connect with but that they’re kind of talking my ear off. I have learned, just as you should listening to this, you learn a couple tactics to get out that; of needing to go check on something or needing to go get a drink. I mean, there’s just different … Needing to go to the bathroom. And these are all legitimate ways of breaking up a conversation. I think that those little skills of learning to engage quickly and assess if the two of you have something in common and then dig deeper if you do and to kind of cut bait if you don’t. I think it’s something that took me a very long time to learn but now that I have learned it, I enjoy or at least feel like I get more out of being in a room with a lot of people whereas even five or ten years ago … Really, before I started running MicroConf, which is where I learned a lot of this, I would just make the same mistakes over and over and being in a room with a lot of people was never that helpful.
Sherry Walling:And to follow that rabbit hole a little bit, I think that there are some things that you can do to help prepare yourself. One is to actually think through a couple of conversation topics that are good go-tos. So, things that are publicly shared experiences like favorite TV shows, food, the shared experiences of raising kids, asking people about their family life. I think with a little bit of preparation you can usually anticipate, okay, who are the people that are going to be there that I may have the best chance of really connecting with and how do I strategically put myself next to them? And then what kinds of conversation points or questions am I really comfortable talking about that I think most people have some opinion or shared experience of that I can at least instigate a conversation that’s likely to go somewhere or likely to connect?
 I think it’s also okay, and I do this a lot because I get really overstimulated by noise, it’s okay to say oh, wow, it’s really loud in here. Do you mind if we step into the hallway or come over into this corner so I can hear you better? And create as much space for yourself and some planning for yourself to be successful in those kinds of interactions.
Rob Walling:And although we didn’t have it this weekend because it wasn’t a conference, I found that it’s nice is everybody has a badge with a name on it and then at MicroConf we have an Ask Me About … And there’s this empty thing that you fill in yourself when you get your badge. That’s always kind of nice to be like, hey, tell me about Word Press or tell me about your Sass App or tell me about this or that. That can always be helpful conversation starter to try to assess what somebody’s up to and what they’re thinking.
 I’ve found … I mean, depending on the crowd, if I’m talking to a bunch of founders then it gets pretty easy, right? You’re like hey, what are you up to? What company are you running? What’s your situation? What’s your history? You can get into it pretty easy. If I’m talking to spouses of founders, I will often say how do you spend your days, you know? Because you don’t know does the person work? Do they not? What interests them? And you’ll find that if you ask that question, how do you spend your days? They will tend to gravitate towards a thing that is most interesting to them and then you can figure out how do I express some interest in this? Is this an interesting conversation topic for me to continue with?
 I also found that wearing … I wore a sweatshirt with the Drip logo on it this weekend kind of by accident, to be honest. It was my nicest clean sweatshirt and several people were asking me about that. One guy said, hey, you’re wearing a Drip sweatshirt. What’s up with that? And I was like well, I actually started it. And then he … It was funny, he was like yeah, I went to MicroConf. Everyone at MicroConf loved Drip. And I was like yeah, I run that, too, actually. And so, it was this kind of funny ability to then dive in of like oh, okay, so then you do that podcast and he can frame up in his mind who I was and what I was up to.
Sherry Walling:I think as challenging as it can be to put yourself out there in these ways and go to the effort of being in the room with people, friends spawn friends. The more steps that you take to get connected, that can often lead to a wider network of connections. I think lots of solo founders, especially, really kind of like the lone wolf experience but clearly that doesn’t work because you have to have a network from which to draw your customers. You have to have a network from which to draw some advice and counsel. You just simply cannot be good at everything.
 In addition to most of us enjoying friendship and needing, at a really basic level, human connection, getting connected in a network and taking the steps to make friends and then get to know your friend’s friends and your friend’s friend’s friends; that can be a really powerful took both personally and professionally.
Rob Walling:Friend’s friend’s friends? That’s a lot of layers.
Sherry Walling:You know, I’m a social butterfly.
Rob Walling:This is a … Is this friendfluence? That’s the powerful and often underappreciated role that friends past and present play in determining our sense of self and the direction of our lives? Where does that come from? You pasted that in the doc.
Sherry Walling:Yeah. I think the title is a little bit cheesy but it’s from a book by Carlin Flora and it’s one of the books that has come across my radar recently because it talks about adult friendships. I think often, at least in my world, in the psychological literature when we’re talking about friendships we’re talking about the role that friendship plays in adolescent and young adult development. But this book really looks at the importance of friendship over the lifespan. Those of us in our 30s and 40s who are no longer out partying late at night most times and who have very busy schedules and friends are, perhaps, less of the focal point of our lives as they may have been other times, this idea of friendfluence, though, is pointing to the role that friends play over the course of the lifespan and really shaping our sense of self and who we are.
 I have really experienced that living in the different communities that I’ve lived in over the past ten or 15 years. The difference for me as a woman with a PhD and a family who’s living in Boston where there are lots of high-achieving young professionals and lots of conversations about academic topics versus the experience that I had living in Fresno, California, which is, for a large city, one of the cities in the country with the lowest level of education and very, very few people have their doctorate degrees. At least in the community of people that I was attached to, it’s a less common experience for women to have advanced degrees and also be parenting.
 Anyway, maybe I’m saying that too delicately, but I found a lot of resonance and friendship and community in a place like Boston or now in a place like Minneapolis. And the friends that I had really helped motivate my work. They helped really push me forward in terms of not only valuing the kind of work that I was doing or the kind of work that I was interested in, but also providing new ideas, providing ideas for books to read, providing contacts. Whereas living in a community like Fresno, many of my friends were really great conversation partners about parenting and children and those were really important friendships as well. But those various friendship groups really, I think, helped shape the focus of what I was thinking about and talking about and doing at those various points in my life.
Rob Walling:Yeah. I mean, I think this was a big motivator for me. In 2005, I started my blog, Software By Rob, and the only other person I knew who was blogging about self-funded software companies was Joel Spolsky and there was no one else that I could find. And then, I think it was a year or two later, Patrick McKenzie started and other people followed suite.
 I realized that having the relationships, even though I wanted to do the solo thing at the time … Having the relationships and the community build around the blog and then to start the podcast and then to start the conference. I mean, it all towards being more and more social and more and more connected. The relationships that I’ve built and that we’ve built … Been able to build within our community and just to build that community from scratch, in essence, and connect to those people has been life-changing both for me in terms of my motivation and in terms of what I get out of it, but also for the hundreds and/or thousands of people who’ve been impacted by the conference and the book and the podcast and the blog and everything.
 I think, almost inadvertently, I’m a big believer of this whole concept of being in a room otherwise I wouldn’t run three conferences in a year. But I hadn’t maybe put this much thought into why. I’ve just seen the results of it and realized that, boy, the more we do of this, the more people are impacted, including myself.
 I think the last point we were going to talk about today about the value of being in a room is this theory, it’s called the weak ties theory. There was actually a research project done on this in the 70s. In essence, what they found was that professionally, many weak ties are better than a few strong ties. This actually goes against who I am, right? I’m a strong ties person and I’m a small group of small ties. I have a few close friends.
 In the 70s, the study was done on getting a job and it was looking at how you tended to find your next job through your weak ties rather than your strong ties. There’s a bunch of reasons for this that we won’t go into here, but I think these days it would be like if you’re starting a company, you’re going to find contractors or employees or you’re going to get that next affiliate deal or you’re going to find that mentor and get the guidance through your weak ties. Your strong ties can help, but you’re just going to have so many fewer of them that you can maintain.
 You know, I see people all the time who have these large weak tie networks, which is more acquaintances, right? They’re not friends you hang out with all the time. But building up that network and having it in place, I think, has kind of been … I won’t say proven to be a much better approach, but I do think that some of this research that’s out there is pointing in that direction.
Sherry Walling:And I think, to pick up on the research train but from a slightly different angle, hands down the most important buffer or thing that protects us when bad things happen in our lives … Hands down it’s social support. It’s the connections that we have. My cousin is struggling with cancer and her sisters and people in the family made T-shirts and we’ve recorded videos and there’s a blog and there’s all of these places of contact where people can communicate their support for her and she can receive their support and she can communicate and reach out back to them.
 That’s what’s true. When things get difficult, when your business, fails, when someone gets ill, when things get really stressful, it’s do you have people who will bring you casserole? Do you have people who will help? Do you have people who will listen? That’s one of these really important measures of mental health and wellness is to know deep in your own heart that you have this network of people who have your back should you need it. Hopefully, you don’t. But should you need it, they care about you enough to show up in a variety of different ways.
 Both from a business perspective and a personal perspective, finding ways to get in a room to cultivate friendship, to cultivate professional relationships; it’s a really valuable investment and it’s really going to be worth your time and energy.
Rob Walling:Hopefully, today we’ve given you our insights and thoughts on why being in a room with people is so much more powerful because often being a room requires a pretty major sacrifice. Like, whether its of money to pay for airfare and hotel, whether it’s of time, to take time off work or take time away from your family and your startup to go to a conference or to go, like we did this weekend, and fly halfway across the country, be away from our kids for a couple days. But I think that the further you dive into this and you develop some skills around it and then are around the right people and people who are helping you see the better side of yourself and who you can connect with and who can motivate you and show you a good direction to go and you can do the same for them … I think the value over time is one of those things that you … You sow this in the short term and you pay a price, but that what you reap in the long term is a vastly larger harvest.