This week, the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, takes place. Last year, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship invited my husband to attend, all expenses paid, which meant that I, as his spouse, was also invited.
I nearly said no, certain that I would only feel out of place among the heads of state, corporate leaders, policy wonks, and celebrities who typically attend.
As a fairly unknown writer and the spouse of the real attendee, I was prepared to feel shunned and looked down upon by those I encountered. Surely they would know that I didn't belong there.
No one was more surprised, then, when my week at the World Economic Forum turned out to be a complete delight. Despite my lack of prominence or wealth, I was accepted and engaged on a level I've rarely experienced.
By the end, I had learned several valuable lessons about how to make the most of spending a week with hundreds of people who seemed far out of my professional league.
1. Be free of preconceptions and assumptions.
Just as I didn't want people to write me off, it wasn't fair of me to make assumptions about others before talking to them. When I prejudge someone, I am less likely to approach them or try to engage them in meaningful conversation--which makes it that much more likely that I will miss out on a good connection.
Several of my best conversations at WEF came about because I decided to introduce myself to someone despite my hesitations.
That gruff man riding the trolley with me? The executive director of an international newspaper, who had fascinating observations about the state of American politics.
That quiet man bundled up under layers of coats and scarves? The president of a prestigious university in Asia, who shared his thoughts on the rising costs of education.
That reserved woman in the stylish pink dress in my breakout group? She turned out to be the queen of Belgium (seriously!)--and her contributions to the discussion were thoughtful and authentic.
2. Be curious about everyone you meet.
The vast majority of people I met at WEF had no obvious overlap with me. We were from different countries, cultures, industries, and socioeconomic backgrounds. And many were fairly regular people who, like me, considered themselves fortunate to be there.
But they all had fascinating perspectives to share, as long as I was willing to approach the conversation in a posture of listening and learning. Oftentimes, just a few thoughtful questions about their work, their country of origin, or their experience at WEF were enough to open up a wide-ranging conversation that challenged my assumptions and broadened my understanding about how the world worked.
Everyone likes being asked about themselves and their opinions, whether they are well known or not. My interest in others created a bridge for us to connect in a mutually beneficial way.
3. Be confident that you have something to offer, even if it's no more than your personal story.
I was prepared to draw from my professional experience in the nonprofit, social enterprise, and public sectors to contribute to discussions, and I did that when appropriate.
But the most meaningful exchange I had during the entire week--and one I remember vividly a year later--was when a British engineer and I shared how we had both lost a parent in childhood.
We debated whether technology should be used to bring back our lost loved ones (virtually or physically). The discussion delved into our personal pain and sorrow, as well as profound moral and ethical questions.
The conversation had almost nothing to do with our professional credentials and everything to do with our personal stories. Given the weighty silence in the rest of the room, I'm pretty sure the conversation was memorable for everyone else as well.
If you approach others with an open and curious mind, and a willingness to share about yourself, chances are they will reciprocate in kind. And those personal connections are what will ultimately lead to positive and productive professional relationships.