What builds bridges between people?

What question lies at the heart of your work? What are you most curious about? Why do you do what you do?

I’ve always been interested to know what turns around a failing relationship, a de-energised team or a fragmented group. A relationship can deepen or go awry based on a seemingly tiny occurrence: a comment, a question or even a tone of voice. 

This was brought home to me when I attended the Govern for Impact conference in Quebec, Canada, June 2019. I’d been invited to give a keynote – ‘Leading with Purpose’ – and the following day, I led an interactive session focussed on some practical tools. About halfway through, a delegate raised her hand and said that she had a question. I’d noticed her wheelchair and wide smile installed when I’d walked into the room. 

“I work in an organisation which has a powerful purpose statement but there are procurement practices that undermine this. There really needs to be a dialogue about this. I’m not you, I’m not Sarah, coming in as an external consultant. How does a lowlife like me get the CEO and the Chairman to talk about this?”

For the first time that morning, the room fell quiet. I spoke about the value of having an ally and counselled her to find someone who shared her concern so that she’d feel better resourced to speak with the senior leaders. 

But, coming away from the session, I felt that her poignant question called for a fuller answer than the practical one I had given. I’d failed to reassure her that no one is a ‘lowlife’ no matter how far away from the centres of power and prestige they are. It felt like a missed opportunity to make a deeper connection. 

In 17 years of consulting, I’ve learnt that there is one thing that unfailingly works. Even when the other person is running you down or having a go, when we give them the benefit of doubt, take a moment to really connect or show some empathy, it never fails to build a bridge between us. It’s where we come from – an inner place of kindness, compassion or gentleness – that cultivates transformation. 

Sarah Rozenthuler
Sarah Rozenthuler