My guide gently lowered the big Brown trout back into the lake. As he cradled it just below the surface, the Brown slowly waved its tail back and forth. Its gills pulsated. And then with a burst of energy, it was gone into the depths.
I sat back in the boat. I finally had my Brown on day five of a six-day fishing trip to Patagonia. Not the largest Brown I’ve ever caught, but fat and beautifully colored.
The Browns are generally incurious about any manmade fly cast their way, more so than their cousins, the Rainbow and Brook trout. It’s just their nature. So if you are fortunate enough to hook one, it’s safe to say that for a moment, you had made what is fake look like whatever real bug was on the menu du jour.
I’ve endured the 24 hours it takes to get to this remote section of Argentina for the last three years because the fish are big and plentiful, and the casting isn’t terribly technical. We’re not generally casting beneath overhanging trees or around big boulders.
It’s also summer there in January, so it’s a delightful break from our typical daily NYC forecast this time of year: gray, damp, and cold.
The scenery – highlighted by the Tronador Glacier in the distance – is glorious. Every morning and evening the sun explodes off its ice and snowy shoulders as if to say “Yes, I am spectacular, aren’t I?”
The lodge where we stay is top shelf. I can’t imagine nicer staff. We are pampered by an incredible chef and enjoy some of the best Malbec Argentina has to offer. There is always a roaring fire to greet us as we straggle downstairs for breakfast. While it’s summer in Argentina, we’re backed up against the Andes Mountains, so it can easily be 50 ͦ F or less before the sun heats things up.
And I come to meet fly fishers, and maybe make a new friend or two. I am not a novice, nor am I an expert, so there is always something to learn from someone.
I am by nature shy, but with only 14 guests, introducing myself is not like attending a knees-knocking networking event in a hotel ballroom. I easily introduce myself and ask where the other guest is from. I ask about their occupation. I ask about where they’ve fished before.
And I wait.
Maybe it is the curse of being a coach because asking questions is easy for me. I’m genuinely curious about people. But what I’ve found is that the more questions I ask, the more they tell about their lives. They are like the proverbial heavy flywheel, turning slowly at first with my initial questions, but then rotating seemingly on their own.
They do like to talk about themselves, I note, as we gather together for one meal after another.
And I wait.
There is a point toward the end of the week when I look around the evening dining table – everyone now engaged in amiable conversation with their neighbors – and I imagine picking up a spoon and clinking a nearby wine glass.
The room falls silent, and everyone looks at me.
I address everyone by name, and note something I’ve learned about them during the week. When I finish addressing them, I ask. “Now, who can tell me something you learned about me?”
And I wait.
The case for being curious
In the old days, my inner critic would have had a field day with my observation: “No one cares about you,” he would have whispered. But when I look at my imaginary nemesis now sitting over in the corner, one leg gently crossed over the other, filing his nails. He looks up and shrugs as if to say, “Don’t look at me.”
I’ve come to understand that it’s not me. Most people, like that big Brown I caught, are seemingly incurious. They will talk endlessly about themselves, but we will have peace in the Middle East before they ask a reciprocating question.
“Do what your father-in-law does,” my wife suggests as I relate this observation via FaceTime one night. “Just tell them.”
My father-in-law is a practiced master at getting his story out without being asked. Within scant minutes, whomever he’s talking to will know (1) he taught English literature for 35 years, (2) became an executive chef for four years and (3) ran a gourmet food and wine tour to Italy for 21 years. It’s uncanny. We joke about it at home, but he’s brilliant.
“Somehow when it comes to me,” I say to my wife, “it feels like self-promotion.”
“Well, then, don’t complain that no one asks you about you. You can’t have it both ways,” she concludes without looking up from her online chess game.
Let me be clear about something. What may seem like whining here is not about fairness, it’s really about wanting to develop a deeper connection with another human being. As my dear friend, neurologist Melissa Hughes Ph.D. just wrote:
“One study asked subjects to engage in a process called “reciprocal self-disclosure” whereby strangers pose and answer personal questions. They found that people were rated as warmer and more attractive if they showed real curiosity in the exchange. This implies that demonstrating curiosity towards someone is a great way to connect with others.”
So, let’s connect already!
The next day I have the legitimate opportunity to slip into a conversation that the book I co-authored is coming out this March. That statement lands like a perfectly cast fly I’ve put down right in front of a trout.
“It’s. Right. There! Crush it!” I scream silently to my breakfast partner.
No “Wow, you wrote a book? That’s amazing!” No “What’s it about?” No “Who is the intended audience?”
A fellow coach, Michael Bungay Stanier, urges in his new coaching book for non-coaches to “stay curious a little bit longer.” But what if they’re not curious to begin with? What happens then?
“Don’t be interesting. Be interested,” goes the old expression. Maybe I will have a bespoke T-shirt printed with that expression and wear it around the lodge next year.
OK, so maybe next time, I will just put my hand out and say “Hi, I’m Jeff. Jeff Ikler.” I will leave the words there like my fly on the water and wait.
And maybe, just maybe, a big Brown will rise to the occasion and take it.