Beyond the screen, there is a human being.
A call for humanization
I begin many of my online workshops with the same question: “What is one role you play outside of your work?” While facilitating a program with a group of MBA students in Guadalajara, Mexico, one young man shouted “I’m going to be a Dad!” The whole room erupted in cheers! This simple question can bring humanity into a room.
Something magical happens when we see each other. When for a moment, we drop the labels, titles, and associations to truly witness the human being sitting behind the screen.
“Everybody has a soft underbelly.” — My Mom, Denise Blanc
With the rise of remote work, it can be easy to look at our colleagues and clients as tiny rectangles on the screen. Work can become primarily transactional. And connection is often the first thing to go.
But without a personal connection, true feelings go underground. It becomes increasingly difficult to get people to speak up, share honesty, or take risks.
More than ever, we need practices to humanize the people we work with. To disrupt our routines, our obsession with productivity, and remind us that we can never fully know what’s happening below the surface.
For the last 10 years, I’ve been designing disruptive learning experiences that shake teams awake to their shared humanity and creative confidence. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned that help teams gel, get real, and lean into collaboration.
1. Let yourself be seen 🙈
“What if we showed the world what’s behind our masks?” — Ashanti Branch
I was conducting an offsite for a group of executives from one of the biggest companies in the world. Imagine black and navy suits, swift, formal communication, and limited personal sharing. As I introduced small opportunities for personal sharing, this group of formal leaders started to noticeably relax: I could see them leaning in, nodding, and starting to open up with each other. About halfway through the session, I asked the group a question that deepened the conversation: “what is something that has been keeping you up at night?” One man responded, “my 9-year old son has Down syndrome. Now that our daughter is getting married, our son is starting to ask my wife and I if he will also get married one day. I just don’t know what to tell him.” He started to tear up.
The whole room froze. And then, it softened. A door had been opened for real, vulnerable sharing. What followed was a raw and honest dialogue. A shift from the head to the heart. And the beginning of a new way of speaking, listening, and caring for one another.
There are many ways to let yourself be seen. Ultimately, we all want to feel seen and heard. So how might you create more opportunities for your team to share the parts of themselves they often hide, ignore, or avoid?
Activity to try: Start your next meeting with a question in the chat: “What is one role you play outside of work?” Encourage a few people to share in front of the whole group. Ask them to give a window into their world.
2. Storytelling helps us see with fresh eyes 👁
“When we take the time to understand each other’s stories, we become more forgiving, more empathetic, and more inclusive.” — Michelle Obama
Imagine. The managing partner of a private equity firm looking into the eyes of a new intern. At a glance, these two men couldn’t look more different. One towering over the other, both physically and professionally — seasoned, confident, and intimidating. The other, small in stature, just out of college, and clearly out of his element. Before this moment, they had never had a conversation. But as the young intern starts to share about the neighborhood he grew up in, a smile illuminates both their faces. Their roles slip away, and they begin to see each other as human beings, perhaps for the first time.
Storytelling is a powerful tool we can use to build empathy, interrupt patterns, and see each other with fresh eyes. Our stories act like a portal to our inner world: helping us feel and understand another person in a way that is impossible to achieve with just the intellect. It’s simple, yet profound.
During the shift to remote, it has become increasingly important to create spaces for people to share their stories. While telling a story about the neighborhood you grew up in may seem like a strange way to start your company off-site, it might also transform your entire gathering.
Activity to try: “Neighborhood Stories.” Get your team into breakout rooms of 2 people. Ask them to tell a story about the neighborhood they grew up in (2 min each). When they come back, ask each person to reflect on their partner’s story, and draw the first image that comes to mind. In another breakout room with the same partner, have them share the images they drew, along with one quality that stood out from their partner’s story. I’ve done this exercise with hundreds of teams around the world, and while it might seem simple, it always evokes joy and changes the way people see and relate to one another.
3. Wisdom comes from unexpected places ⚡️
“Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.” — Terry Pratchett
I was recently leading an activity called “Board of Advisors” for a prominent Oakland non-profit. I asked the team to think about a challenge they were facing that they could use some support around. In an unusual display of vulnerability, the Executive Director asked his team: “How can I balance my need for privacy and solitude with my responsibilities as a public facing leader?” Seeing the depth of his question created the space for others to ask their own raw and honest questions. They began to receive thoughtful advice and innovative ideas from unexpected places: brand new hires, the extremely introverted VP of finance, and even from the people they had not talked to in ages.
We’ve all been in virtual meetings where everyone is multi-tasking, off video, and the energy feels dead. No one wants to share in these spaces.
In these excruciating “flat-line” Zoom meetings, there is a huge missed opportunity. With only one person speaking, the richness and diversity of different perspectives is drowned out by prioritizing the voice of the leader (or teacher) and the need to just “get through the agenda.”
Regardless of their position or level of experience, every person has unique and valuable wisdom to share. The trick is discovering new ways to encourage people to share that wisdom more freely and without the concern of being judged.
Activity to try: “Board of Advisors.” Ask your team to reflect on “a personal challenge they are currently facing that they would like some support around.” Have them frame it as a question. Now, in a Google Sheet, invite them to write their questions in the first column. Then, have the team imagine they are each other’s “board of advisors.” Invite them into a mindset of generosity, creative idea generation, and heartfelt sharing. Ask each person to move one row up and begin to respond to the questions of their colleagues. Play reflective music as people deepen into this process for 8–10 minutes. Then get into breakout rooms of 2–3 people and have them share their questions, meaningful responses they received, and any new insights about their challenge.
We all have too many Zoom meetings. 👨🏾💻
So let’s do this a little differently. Next time you are hosting a meeting, create the space where people can feel seen, safe to share their stories, and where you welcome every voice, no matter their title.
Just remember, behind the screen, there is a human being.