Conversationally Speaking, Are You Restoration Hardware Or Pottery Barn?

At University Village in Seattle, Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn sit side by side. On a recent visit with a friend, it was clear that Restoration Hardware has gone totally in one direction, one look. Upscale, monochromatic, over-sized furniture, over-the-top chandeliers, and a minimalist décor of bowls of moss or stones, which RH refers to as “curated collections.” They no longer have tables with fun and unusual merchandise for stocking stuffers at Christmas. In fact, there's no change in decor from season to season. No playfulness. It's all beige, brown, gray, cream, white -- a consistently bland, cold, unwelcoming, ostentatious look.

I found myself wondering, who would want to live here? Individually, the pieces are beautiful. I own a few myself. Yet these curated rooms do not invite curling up with a good book or a good friend. I would be petrified that I might spill coffee or wine. My dogs would not be welcome on the furniture. The only animals I can envision might be Borzois posed regally on either side of the fireplace. My friend and I sat on one of the huge tufted sofas. It was too deep, too firm, and the back was too low.

On the RH website is a letter from Chairman and CEO Gary Friedman, in which he admits, “you’re often rewarded for duplication and punished for innovation, decisions that require some level of short-term pain for long-term gain. We’ve taken our share of punches this past year for standing up for those things we believe in, decisions that will elevate our brand and inspire our customers for years to come.”

Meanwhile, the stock continues to drop and the new membership model providing 25% off is not turning the tide. The problem is the “revolutionary new design… bold, elegant typography arranged around expanses of white space.” Most people I know don’t want to be in a home full of “stunning collections and pieces.” They want to be in a home where they can relax, blow their noses, spend a Saturday in their pajamas. No doubt there are individuals that find the RH brand attractive, but expanses of white space have not become mainstream in our homes. And they won’t. Ever. We want to have our favorite stuff around us, in plain view. Humans want and need warmth.

The enormous three story RH store was empty. I couldn’t help but calculate the cost of all that expensive real estate. And all that silence.

Next to Restoration Hardware is Pottery Barn-- colorful, warm, cozy. When my friend and I went into the store, they were changing everything from winter to spring. There were new items to explore. The place was packed. People were sitting on the sofas and chairs, talking with sales staff, examining merchandise. Couples debated which rug would look best in their home. There was a line at both registers. Colorful spring bedding and flower vases were clearly winners.

The contrast between the two stores, side by side, got me thinking about how each of us is a place - physical, emotional, intellectual - where conversations thrive or die. We encourage or discourage open, honest, robust dialogue, as do our work environments. In an RH culture, people hesitate to disclose what they’re really thinking, deferring to the party line. In a PB culture, you will see smiles, hear laughter, and there are intense, productive conversations. It seemed to me that RH is entranced with their designers, pictured unsmiling on their website, whereas PB is about you and me, our families, how we live in the real world. We are the heroes of the story, not the leaders.

RH’s staging is intellectual. PB’s staging is emotional. As Einstein said, “We should take care not to make the intellect our God. It has, of course, strong muscles but no personality. It cannot lead. It can only serve.”

Another field trip comes to mind.

Years ago, I went to Denver to spend time with Laura Mehmert, a dear friend from high school. We went to a foundry where her eight-foot bronze of a cowboy carrying a calf was being poured. In a foundry, the crucible is what holds the molten metal, which is then poured from the crucible into molds to cool and harden so that it can become the work of art conceived by the artist.

I watched as the molten bronze swirled, burbled, hissed, steamed inside the crucible. The question that intrigued me was, “What is that crucible made out of? Why isn’t it melting?”

The foundry owner explained, “Most crucibles are made of either clay graphite or silicon carbides—fragile materials, essentially, some of the same non-chemical ingredients in porcelain. If a crucible were dropped on a concrete floor, it would crack or shatter.”

The foundry owner warmed to the topic and continued, “The gold and silver used in computers are refined in crucibles. Your dentist has a crucible. You’ll find castings in hospitals, cars, dams, wind generators, cemeteries. Crucibles have a role in forming castings that take people from birth to death.”

As do our conversations.

Several weeks after visiting the foundry, I returned to Denver to see Laura’s wonderful sculpture, which had been installed in a park near her home in Evergreen, Colorado. We arrived at the park in the early morning. The Foreman was magnificent. His long coat blew out behind him, as if he were leaning into a storm. His head was lowered toward the calf, safe in his arms. The calf seemed vulnerable, yet its eyes were soft, not frightened. As I walked around The Foreman, touching it, marveling at its beauty, and recalled the crusty crucible in which it had begun to take shape, I formulated a new goal.

I will become a crucible—a strong, resilient vessel in which profound change can safely take place—for my clients, for my family and friends, for myself.

In creating a work of art, the crucible has an important job—simply to hold, no matter what is poured into it, under extreme heat. I relate to the fragility of the crucible. If I get dropped, I could get hurt. I could crack or break. I am vulnerable. So are you. However, during important conversations, my job is to hold, so that we are able to discuss what needs discussing, no matter how challenging the topic and no matter how fragile and vulnerable either of us may be feeling at the time.

The image of the crucible helps me reconcile being real and having all the emotion, including the occasional charge of anger (my own or that of others), while remaining a place where what needs to occur can occur. It reminds me that my job is simply to hold, to withstand, so that whatever needs to be said, what needs to be heard, can safely be said and heard. It reminds me that the relationships central to our happiness, success, and peace of mind are works of art that form over time as a result of fierce conversations. And that our most valuable currency is relationship, emotional capital.

This is not simply my opinion. The trends published by Bersin, HBR and others for 2017 and beyond are clear. There is a need for human connectivity at a deeper level than emails, Facebook posts, Instagrams and tweets can provide. There is a sea change in the way companies manage performance. In the workplace, employees want ongoing coaching and feedback, face to face. No more anonymous feedback.

There is a shift from talking about people to talking with people in open conversations. In a world of increasingly asynchronous learning and communication, millennials value time with their leaders and colleagues. There is a desire for greater collaboration, for high tech/high touch. The need to bring people together is huge.

The next place for exponential growth for individuals and for companies lies in the area of human connectivity. If you want to be a great leader, you must gain the capacity to connect with your colleagues and your customers at a deep level – or lower your aim. Although many don’t understand this or know how to “connect” beyond “how are you/I’m fine,” we all long for it, no matter how tech savvy we are.

Warmth and authenticity are powerful attractors. The singer James Taylor has said, “I am myself for a living.” When we consistently show up as ourselves and release our unique energy, others recognize it and respond. It is as if we have set ourselves ablaze. Others are attracted to the warmth and add their logs to the fire.

We do not need a special weekend getaway to a romantic B&B in order to have that important conversation with our significant other. We do not need a title, a boardroom, or a fancy office to have the conversation needed to enrich a relationship with our boss, colleague, or customer. We do not need a diploma to be a human being, to be a friend. What is needed is an invitation from you, the real you, willing and ready, available and eager to talk about whatever is most important. A single shot breve or a glass of wine would be welcome too.

Susan Scott, author of the newly revised and updated version of Fierce Conversations, Achieving Success at Work & in Life – One Conversation at a Time. For more information, visit www.fierceinc.com/fierceconversations or you can purchase your copy here.

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