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  • Musonda Mumba

You are only as BUSY as you claim to be – spare a moment for young people.

Photo Credit: Callum Shaw/Unsplash

In my late 20s I participated in a conference where an amazing line up of speakers gave their presentations about their environmental work. I was particularly interested in one speaker who spoke about wetland conservation. Right after he was done I made a beeline towards him so I could ask a couple of questions and have a brief chat. Within a minute of reaching him, he informed me and few other young people with similar intent, that he was very busy and had to leave. We just stood there, rather deflated and walked away disappointed. And this continued over the years and I would walk away from conferences or meetings feeling that these “experts” were only interested in delivering their speeches but never had a moment to talk, albeit briefly about how their work could have influenced others particularly young people.

Fast forward many years later as a scientist, and in my role as a UN Diplomat, I had serious introspection following the experience of my youth. I decided that I would never be that “Busy I can’t chat” kind of expert and as such I have devised a formula of sorts to navigate this. This is truly a learning curve and growth path and so these tips below are not exhaustive.

Create the time.

Over the years, when invited as a speaker to conferences, workshops etc. even after a 15 to 30 minute intervention, I factor in at least 45 minutes to an hour after that, of MY time. Unless, of course, it coincides with me having to dash to catch a plane, bus or train. This adding of extra time after my interventions has not only benefited me by meeting such interesting, curious and innovative young people; it has also taught me patience and humility. 

Listen and make eye contact.

I haven’t always been a confident person. However, what I have learnt as I have interacted with young people over the years, is the aspect of listening and making eye contact at the same time. People who have known me for years say that I have mellowed over the years because in my 20s and into my 30s, I was just a chatterbox. Didn’t listen too well. Perhaps that was just my coping mechanism as a young person. Over time, with some yoga breathing techniques, and practicing to bite my tongue every time I caught myself dominating the conversation, I learnt to listen and make eye contact easily. When I started doing that, it was rather unsettling but over time, I realized that even the most impatient of millennials will talk when you listen and look them in the eye. With a smile to top it up.

To keep young person engaged, use reversals.

Recently at a meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, a lovely young lady walked up to me after I had delivered my keynote. This rather tearful millennial literally hugged me and told me how excited she was to finally meet me in person after following me on twitter for a year. I jokingly told her that I was super impressed she confidently came over and even gave me a hug and thanked her for it. She was nervous and I had to break the ice. She wanted to know what I had done, to advance in my environmental career and she informed me that she felt it was simply too hard for women to become scientists. So, I flipped it and used reversal questions. Why do you think that? Tell me more.

As she continued to speak, I listened. Added a few more reversal questions: Now that’s interesting. But how did you respond to that when asked? I learnt from a lovely mentor of mine about this technique and adding transition statements to the questions, made it flow more naturally. This also gives the other person the clear impression that you are interested in learning more about them and also what they are up to, as they share with you.

I have received such wonderful and honest feedback via emails or messages from young people around the world about how I made them feel special in the few minutes of interacting.

Set boundaries with a realistic NO.

While my intention isn’t to be the lifesaver to every young person, I have also learnt to set boundaries with a nicely crafted “No” when asked to review a CV or paper or something that I won’t be able to do simply because I also have a day job. Many young people have asked me to review their CVs and I am honest enough to respond this way: Well George, I would have loved to and I am glad our chat has been helpful and meaningful. Sadly, my work schedule doesn’t allow me to provide dedicated time to review your CV. I would be spreading myself too thinly and not give it the attention it deserves however, I am happy to suggest someone who can.

Many a time I had some adult make some unrealistic promises that went totally unmet and my ego crashed!! I have learnt that its best to be honest than raise expectations and waste the time of these young curious and equally expectant beings. Be sensitive.

And so in all matters “adulting” and pretending to be perpetually busy, trying to save the world (as some people claim) remember the words of the Philosopher Socrates: Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.

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