Photo Credit: Dan Meyers via Unsplash
In my early twenties, I attended a group retreat led by Mary Belenky, author of Women’s Ways of Knowing. During a group exercise, she asked each person to identify what group they were in, were they a jock, a nerd, a burnout, or a preppy, etc.
You recall your high school days, right?
The group you identified with in school. Maybe you were a jock, a nerd, or a burnout. Maybe your school had skaters, metal heads, goths, or some other group.
Most, if not all, of your friends were part of the same group.
When it was my turn, I wasn’t really able to answer her question.
Finally, a bit sheepishly, I admitted my friends were in all the groups and I didn’t really belong to any one group.
“Oh, you’re a bridge person!” Mary said. She seemed truly delighted.
It was through this exercise and the debriefing after, I learned about what a bridge person was and how much influence they can have on those around them.
When she explained it further, I knew instantly it was one of the things I was put on this earth to be.
What is a bridge person?
A bridge person is someone who not only declines to be labeled, but is comfortable and accepted as they move in and out of different groups.
Bridge people truly know the ins and outs of more than one group.
They can help to bridge the gap between distinct groups for other people as well.
My eighteenth birthday party is a good example of how my bridge person tendency showed up.
I grew up in one small town and went to the same school district until I was a Freshman in high school. Because my parents divorced, I graduated from a nearby rival school, one town over.
This meant by the time high school ended, I had friends in both schools.
I sent out my party invitations to all my friends. My close friends warned me I was nuts.
Friends in both schools insisted there would be fights and drama because kids from the rival schools would clash.
My response every time was I simply wouldn’t tolerate any fighting.
Guess what? Not only were there no fights but several friendships and even a couple relationships began that day.
Ironically enough, one of my best friends, who several times told me I was courting disaster for inviting everyone, flirted with and many years later married, a guy from that rival school.
What about the workplace?
The workplace is often very similar to high school.
Executives stick with executives, laborers stick with laborers, secretaries with secretaries, etc.
Maybe it was my ego, I’m not sure, but in my mind everyone was valued.
Everyone’s opinion was useful. A job title didn’t add more or less weight to an idea or opinion.
What mattered to me most in the corporate setting was solving problems.
I would talk to whoever I felt could help and enlist them on the project.
As a result, I wasn’t limited to just one department, I could recruit skills and resources from any department.
The view of the problem is much clearer when you consider all the opinions and needs of those who are involved at every level.
And you get more done, with better results, because your resources are broader too.
The next time you think “I can’t talk to that person”, take a deep breath.
Remember that old saying, “we all look the same on the inside”. Forge ahead for the good of the project.
One ability I now purposely cultivate is the ability to be a bridge person.
I’m a firm believer it’s a skill that can be developed if desired. Friends tell me it’s my super power.
Below are some skills bridge people excel at:
- Authentic Intent-a bridge person cannot have selfish intent or an ulterior motive. You must sincerely want the best outcome for all involved.
- Empathy-develop the ability to truly feel what others are feeling and to understand the larger picture and implications.
- Active listening-practice the ability to listen and respond to others in a way they understand which builds trust.
- Patience-it takes more time to collect feedback from all parties involved and to build the trust needed for others to share honest feedback about what works and what doesn’t.
- Mediation-learn to develop an environment that enables others to gain the confidence to use their voice and to feel heard.
We will always need specialists, of course, but bridge people have their special purpose in life.
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