A couple of weeks ago, billionaire Jeff Bezos had a really, really important conversation with a 90-year old man that could have gone really, really wrong.
While the world watched, iconic “Star Trek” actor William Shatner stepped out of the Blue Origin “New Shepherd” capsule that had just taken him safely to space and back, and stood alone in the Texas sun. After congratulating the other passenger astronauts, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos approached Mr. Shatner to engage him in conversation.
And what a conversation it was.
“What you’ve given me is the most profound experience I can imagine. I am so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now, I don’t want to lose it. It’s so much larger than me and life; it hasn’t got anything to do with the little green and blue orb. It has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of life and death. Oh my god, it’s unbelievable.”
Shatner was understandably moved by the experience, far more than the other travelers appeared to be, but what struck me was not just his profound sense of wonder at the spaceflight he’d just taken.
I was also struck by how he kept going on, and on, and on about it, rambling and repeating himself multiple times, and how Bezos behaved as he listened.
After years studying the art of communication, I’ve learned how to notice the subtle clues people give off when they’re tired of a conversation and ready to wrap things up. There is a movement of the eyes, an tilting of the head, and other non-verbal signals that say “Okay, that’s great, but can we be done now?”
Bezos didn’t do any of those things.
I have no way of knowing what was going on in the billionaire’s mind during those moments, but I know what was going on in mine: “This is a really, really important conversation for Bezos… I hope he doesn’t mess it up.”
You see, regardless of your feelings toward the “Star Trek” franchise or its actors, you can’t deny that William Shatner is a cultural icon beloved by millions of people around the world. That means that if Bezos had been rude or dismissive, those actions could have made a major dent in his reputation.
Would mis-handling that conversation have had any impact on Amazon’s sales or stock value?
But I would argue that the true measure of a person’s life has more to do with how we interact with other people than it does with how much we increase a corporation’s bottom line.
So, whether Bezos’ interest was genuine or simply performed, I don’t know. But what I DO know is that he handled the situation like a pro.
May we all learn to handle awkward conversations with such grace, whether the TV cameras are watching or not.