Q&A: Riaz Meghji says the pandemic has turned bosses into broadcasters

Maybe you can relate to Riaz Meghji's story of his lonely childhood as a socially anxious introvert who seemed destined not to fit in. "I was a shy kid," the veteran broadcaster and television host recalls of growing up in North Delta. "And when I looked around, I felt like I didn't have my place, I didn't have this sense of belonging." In Grade 10, that all changed for Meghji when he watched his brother perform in an improvisational theatre group. "Seeing the interaction with the audience, it was almost electric, and there was this energy, and I thought, I would love to be in that space to express myself more," he says. Meghji decided to switch schools and try new experiences—including acting...

Credit: Charles Zuckermann and Zenna Wong

The longtime TV host chats about his new book on building stronger connections with others—and shares some tips for better virtual meetings

Maybe you can relate to Riaz Meghji’s story of his lonely childhood as a socially anxious introvert who seemed destined not to fit in. “I was a shy kid,” the veteran broadcaster and television host recalls of growing up in North Delta. “And when I looked around, I felt like I didn’t have my place, I didn’t have this sense of belonging.”

In Grade 10, that all changed for Meghji when he watched his brother perform in an improvisational theatre group. “Seeing the interaction with the audience, it was almost electric, and there was this energy, and I thought, I would love to be in that space to express myself more,” he says. Meghji decided to switch schools and try new experiences—including acting.

Being onstage helped him find a passion for presenting, which pushed him toward radio and TV, even after he earned a finance degree from SFU. “It crept back in,” says Meghji, who has hosted for the likes of Citytv’s Breakfast Television, MTV Canada and CTV News. “I love talking to people, I love learning from people, and I love the art of presentation and making that emotional connection with people.”

In his new book, Every Conversation Counts: The 5 Habits of Human Connection That Build Extraordinary Relationships, Meghji shares what he’s learned over the years about how to forge those ties—even with total strangers. His insights can help businesses, leaders and employees navigate a post-COVID world where connecting virtually is the new reality.

For the complete interview, check out the BCBusiness Podcast.

What did it feel like to write a book about human connection last year of all years, given what was going on in the world with the pandemic?

The timing created a great sense of urgency. Pre-COVID, to focus on human connection—it’s the reason that I’ve loved broadcasting after all of these years, and just interviewing people for a living. That connection piece: if you’re able to create that safe space and unlock them, and then they share something that one, is quite powerful but two, could inspire somebody to live differently, it’s always been a passion.

And then to be doing that research pre-COVID—loneliness and human connection were kind of afterthoughts for major companies when we’d introduce the idea. Communication is always a universal topic, but when the pandemic hit, that urgency accelerated for me as a writer, and then there was such powerful research because everybody was living through this feeling of isolation.

Many people were experiencing, OK, this is what loneliness is. Some people appreciate solitude; that’s their recharge. But—especially the extroverts out there—when you’re stripped of the daily luxuries of those watercooler conversations or those physical points of contact when you can just connect in the hallway, it has you take inventory of who you are, how you show up, how you thrive. And it became urgent, it became fascinating, it became really rewarding to create something that could help people through this.

You mention that long before we had this COVID-enforced isolation, there was a twin pandemic of loneliness. What other forces are combining to drive that trend?

[Health services company] Cigna, they have a Loneliness Index that comes out every year. To touch on that question for perspective, they had some key factors that were driving that feeling of loneliness for people. One, there was a lack of social support. Because at its core, loneliness is this perceived lack of meaningful social connection.

Negative perceptions about your social relationships: if you take a look at your social circle and ask, OK, well, how is this serving me? Is this working against me? Physical and mental health are also huge factors in this.

And then the final point of the top four is work-life balance and the burnout factor that was really impacting people. And now in this space, the importance of boundaries, of having clarity and having courage to say, OK, these are the hours I’m going to work as opposed to, Well, everybody’s home now; they’re accessible. It’s walking a really fine line.

We’ve talked a lot about the pandemic and the anxiety around not getting in contact with this virus. In 2021, I think the big piece to watch for is going to be the impact of this isolation, these feelings of loneliness.

The first of your five habits of human connection is to listen without distraction. Why are people such terrible listeners?

The era we’re in right now, information is so quickly accessible at our fingertips, and everything moves so fast, and it’s so convenient how we can access it. It’s almost like people want this sense of immediacy. So on a baseline of what we struggle with with listening, it’s this culture of distraction we’re in.

But anyone can learn to listen. What are some ways to get better at it?

One of the mantras that I was able to learn interviewing people for a living in the broadcast world was “Discover, don’t dismiss.” And it’s really leaning into the power of questions. Instead of having the intention to give unsolicited advice, interrupt somebody if you disagree or immediately try to fix the problem, keep the idea of discovery as a priority, and ask those questions of how or what. At the end of the day, asking questions that elicit some kind of positive emotion is a great starting point.

When you share yourself with others—in the business world, for example—why does everything start with storytelling?

Storytelling is so essential simply because of emotion. If we think about how emotion works, it can connect us, it can polarize us, but above all, it is what motivates us. And clarifying our purpose—if you’re going to share that story, regardless of the context you’re in, I ask myself, What do you want to do with that story? Do you want to inspire somebody? Do you want to entertain them? Do you want to move them in a certain way? What do you want them to do differently with it?

Some people say great stories have a beginning, middle and end. I always look at the idea of what’s the struggle, that personal, raw struggle that’s going to invite somebody in—OK, I can relate to that. What did it feel like to lose a job? What did it feel like to lose a relationship? What did it feel like to feel like you failed in a venture that you fully believed in? Because if people are going to cheer for your success, they’re going to relate to your struggle first.

Being vulnerable can backfire, though. What could go wrong?

We’ve seen great leaders say, You know what? Ask me anything. We want to create a raw and vulnerable space. But sometimes there’s a psychological term known as the pratfall effect where if you share too much, too quick when you haven’t established your credibility or your point of strength, then people are questioning your confidence to begin with, and then you just dive in with that vulnerability, that could be construed as an over-share and create distance instead of bringing someone closer to you.

So the philosophy about vulnerability that I really encourage is, convey credibility before vulnerability. And if you’re a leader out there communicating with your team, perhaps you’ve already done that. You’ve shown the courage to step up, look after your teammates, and you’ve been proactive about checking in; you already have that strength.

But when we’re in this virtual space where people are joining new companies and they don’t have the traditional on-boarding process, it’s really important to establish that point of strength, expertise or credibility.

Another of your habits of human connection is to be assertively empathetic. What does that mean, and what are a few key things to remember?

If we’re in a point of conversation where we disagree fundamentally, my goal is to stay open instead of dismissing what you said—to acknowledge it, to recap it, to understand it. And then to look at the bigger picture of how the both of us are on the same side. You think about this in an organization. If two people are saying, You know what, if we make that decision, if we go that direction, this business is going to fail, and two people are seeing differently, one, it’s so important to acknowledge the relationship as the foundation for productive conversation.

So instead of me attacking somebody else and saying, No, you’re wrong, that’s not going to work, here’s why, it’s acknowledging, OK, so here’s what I’m hearing about the process. Here’s our goal; we want to this company to thrive. Here’s the outcome of something that’s happened in the past. And once we’ve established we’re on the same side, then I can introduce the idea of, OK, Here’s what I see differently, and here’s why. And once we’ve allowed that person to be heard, it’ll disarm that point of resistance. Then we can get to those productive questions of, OK, what does our ideal scenario look like?

Here’s something many of us don’t do enough: connect with other people by making them feel famous. For leaders, why is expressing gratitude so important?

One of the greatest needs, whether people say it or not, is they want a champion or cheerleader in their corner. Many people have talked about the idea that we want to be seen, we want to be heard, we want to be appreciated.

How we tap into that so say, You know what? I value what you’re doing, I appreciate the effort you make, I recognize that fact that you have done this—these are such crucial ideas to bring people up, especially right now. If we’re in a virtual meeting and everything is moving so efficiently, and we’re missing out on that emotional check-in piece, people will wonder, Does what I do really matter? We need that reminder from the people who are leading us.

The last part of the book explores the future of human connection. Where do we go from here as we try to connect with each other in this half-virtual, half-real world we all inhabit now? What are some best practices for virtual communication, especially in a work setting?

We were talking about the idea that every single professional in your business, we’ve all become broadcasters now. The first thing I encourage leaders to do is to always stay in ready mode. Because when we’re doing a live video call, it’s a live broadcast. No matter how much you prepare, anything can happen.

I’ve coached leaders and teams on sales presentations, and they show me all of their great visuals and video assets. Because of bandwidth and technological limitations, sometimes the video gets choppy. The first question I’ll say to them is, You have this great opening video to convey that emotion. What happens if the video craps out? Do you what the three key points are where you can pick things up? Are you ready for a question if they’re challenging your ideas, your value-add?

It’s easy to rehearse and prepare for all these things, but the greatest way to come across with authenticity in virtual communication is to be prepared to own your imperfections. It’ll show who you are in that point of mini crisis—of, Uh-oh, video’s not working.

The other idea is the active engagement that needs to be amplified in virtual communication. We can’t have the traditional meeting that runs half an hour, 40 minutes without people consistently relaying their input. One of the things I champion is the idea of change your pace often. So when you open your presentation, find a point of engagement. One of the questions I’ll throw out to the group right off the bat is, OK, let’s talk silver linings and where you’re mindset’s at. Because of COVID, tell me about a silver lining and drop it in the chat box. Immediately, people start sharing personal stuff, and it’s making it about them.

And then for attention spans, every seven to 10 minutes, how we change up that format. Because it is so easy for the audience to fall into a passive mode in virtual communication. So if you are presenting, if you are the leader, you are the showrunner.

Share and rotate that power is another opportunity and tip. If you have a team of six leaders that’s on a sales presentation, you have your captain or VP that anchors that off the top, then throw to someone else and activate them so you get a sense of variety on the call, too.

But the most important thing is having that audience feel heard on the virtual call. Use the poll. Use the question. Call people on so their video pops up, so they know at any point, they’re actively engaged. It’s not just the sage from the stage for 45 minutes; this is a conversation.