128: Beyond Belonging – Connecting Authentically without Losing Yourself in Others with Wendy Gates Corbett

Ep128 Beyond Belonging Connecting Authentically Wendy Gates Corbett TalentGrow Show with Halelly Azulay

We are all different, yet we all strive for a sense of belonging. Sometimes, this natural quest can become all-consuming and toxic. Do you ever find yourself trying to be the same as others in an attempt to belong? Wendy Gates Corbett, a recognized leader in the talent development world, joins me on this episode of The TalentGrow Show to share the story of how she overcame a crippling need to belong by asking herself the one question that allowed her to blossom: “What About Me?” Listen to discover the egregious costs of constantly worrying about whether you belong, and to learn instead how to connect with others authentically without losing yourself in the process. Plus, learn how leaders can celebrate the individuality of their team-members while helping them develop an authentic sense of belonging at the same time. Listen and don’t forget to share with others in your network!


Wendy Gates Corbett is a corporate training executive with 20 years of experience designing, delivering, and directing face-to-face, blended, and virtual training programs for technology companies. Wendy achieved the CPLP in 2009 and has co-authored two ATD Infolines on virtual training and a TD at Work on using visuals in presentations. She is also coauthor of SCORE! for Webinar Training: Enhanced Results for Webinar Training and a contributor to 101 More Ways to Make Training Active and 101 Ways to Make Learning Active Beyond the Classroom.

Wendy served on the board of the Research Triangle Area ATD chapter for nine years, including as President in 2004. She has served as a National Advisor for Chapters since 2014. She is currently serving as Chair of the National Advisors for Chapters and is a member of the international Board of Directors for ATD.


  • What made Wendy focus in on the idea of belonging? (5:04)

  • Wendy shares the turning-point moment in her life when she realized how much energy she had been spending attempting to belong (8:55)

  • Ask yourself: “What about me?” (11:44)

  • Wendy explains one of the most egregious costs of constantly worrying about whether we belong (13:21)

  • Positive changes you may experience when you begin to drop your social armor and ask yourself: what about me? (14:36)

  • Halelly connects the discussion with neuroscience and biology, explaining the human need to belong at a fundamental level (17:25)

  • Ways to connect authentically with others without trying to be the same as them (20:04)

  • How the research of Paul Zak, a previous guest on the podcast, connects to Wendy’s ideas about belonging authentically (21:01)

  • Halelly shares her own experience with being the ‘outsider’ (22:31)

  • What can leaders specifically do to engage people as they are and help them feel like they belong? (24:46)

  • What’s new and exciting on Wendy’s horizon? (27:44)

  • One specific action you can take to upgrade your personal or leadership success (29:12)


  • Connect with Wendy on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter

  • Check out Wendy’s website

  • Watch Wendy’s 5-minute keynote on belonging

  • Listen to Episode 56 of The TalentGrow Show with Paul Zak for more on the neuroscience of curiosity, connection, and oxytocin


Episode 128 Wendy Gates Corbett

TEASER CLIP: Wendy: My fear of not belonging really hindered me and made me not shine and not be myself. This was true at school, it was true with friends and it was true at work. As a result of me being afraid of speaking my voice at work, I wasn’t seen as a leader. I was a diligent follower, but I was not a leader.

[MUSIC] Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.

Halelly: TalentGrowers, welcome back to another episode of the TalentGrow Show. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow and this week we have an unusual episode in that we don’t really talk about practical skills or research-based new theories, but we actually talk about something very deep and I hope meaningful and I think that we scratch the surface of a topic that many of us are experiencing but don’t really talk about. My guest is someone who brings her own personal, very personal, story and that’s why she’s talking about it on the show. I think that it’s going to be of benefit and value, not only to you personally, but also to those you lead. So this is going to be with Wendy Gates Corbett and we’re going to talk about belonging. Let’s dive in.

TalentGrowers, we have Wendy Gates Corbett, CPLP, on the show today. It’s going to be a little bit of a different show, so I hope that you’re strapped in and ready. I think it’ll be fun. Wendy is recognized as a leader in the talent development field. Her love for the industry fuels her desire for all professionals to become and stay relevant in their chosen fields. She speaks around the country and around the world on the power of visuals, remaining relevant and the power of belonging. She is the owner of Refresher Training LLC, a company that works with professional athletes, speakers and business leaders, helping them speak with impact and influence. She served as chair of ATD’s national advisors for chapters, and on the ATD international board of directors. For those of you not in the know about the alphabet soup, ATD stands for the Association for Talent Development, which is the world’s biggest professional association for people in the talent development industry, of which I am also a member and that’s how Wendy and I originally connected. We were both leaders in our local chapters and then became involved with all kinds of national committees and have engaged and known each other for many years, so I’m so happy to have you on the show. Wendy, welcome.

Wendy: Thank you so much for having me, Halelly. I’m honored to be here.

Halelly: I’m really glad that you’re here, and today we are going to talk about a topic that is not a typical topic for the show, and it was the third of the things I said about what you like to bring to the world, and that’s the issue of belonging. Before we go there, we always have our guests describe their professional journey very briefly. Where did you start and how did you end up where you are today?

Wendy: It has been kind of a windy career journey, but it started as a corporate training professional. I spent about 20 years working with technology companies, running their client training programs. In 20 years, I started out as a trainer and then worked my way up through the leadership, and I realized that the higher I got, the more career external criteria that I checked, the further I got from learners. I ended up feeling successful, but stagnant. I had several experiences where I saw amazing speakers who had great content and their slides were just horrible and it hurt my heart because I felt bad for the speakers. I felt bad for the audience. And once I started seeing that, Halelly, I saw it everywhere, to the point where I ended up leaving my successful but stale career in technology training to start my company, Refresher Training LLC. I am on a mission to rid the world of bad presentations. That’s what I do.

Halelly: Amen! I think I hear a collective sigh of relief across the world now that they hear it.

Wendy: My career is anything but stagnant now. I’ve been in business for about six years, and about two years ago, I started feeling really pulled to start talking about the sense of belonging, which is what you and I are going to talk about today.

Halelly: Say more about it. How did this pop up for you? Why did it become something that you wanted to bring into your business?

Wendy: It wasn’t intentional. It was really a call from inside, and I think about two years ago, I had been in business for four years, and was feeling fairly confident and competent in what I was doing. I felt stable in my business, and this voice inside me started to say, “You need to tell people about this. It’s time to start talking about belonging.” It was not intentional. I did not intend to become a professional speaker. I did not intend to start sharing this message, but it has played such a deep role in my life, both on the negative side but now also on the positive side, that I feel compelled to share my experience with it, so that other people can realize and recognize that they get to own their own sense of belonging. I feel strongly enough to share that message, because of the freedom that comes with realizing that we actually own our own sense of belonging. It’s no one else in this world but us.

Halelly: And you did a really great TedX talk on it. We’ll link to it in the show notes. For listeners right now, give us a little more of the short version of the story of this perspective, the situation, that so many of us face and our teammates might be asking themselves about, and that most people don’t talk about. The situation that you are now sharing.

Wendy: Sure. What happened, in my experience, is that I grew up with a voice in my head that said, “You’re different, and therefore, you don’t belong.” I didn’t even know that voice was in my head, but that voice spoke to me every single day, and because of that lesson, I spent more than 35 years of my life believing that if you, Halelly, thought that I was different from you, that you wouldn’t accept me and I wouldn’t belong. So my goal in every interaction with you and every other person was to convince you that I was the same as you. Whether we’re talking race, political persuasion, ethnicity, class, you name it, I thought that I needed to convince you that I was the same as you. I didn’t know that I was doing this. It was my normal experience. And as a result of being afraid of being unacceptable, I never spoke up first. I really wasn’t a leader, because I was afraid that if I voiced my opinion before you did, and you had a different opinion than I did, well, then we wouldn’t be the same, and then you wouldn’t like me. So my fear of not belonging really hindered me and made me not shine and not be myself. This was true at school, it was true with friends and it was true at work. As a result of me being afraid of speaking my voice at work, I wasn’t seen as a leader. I was a diligent follower, but I was not a leader. And I didn’t even know that.

The turning point came for me in the middle of nowhere. It was not a crisis situation. I was driving down the road here in Raleigh. I was in my happy place. I was singing my favorite Mariah Carey song on the radio and I was singing silly at the top of my lungs, and I pulled up at a stoplight and on one side of me is a car of white women, and on the other side of me is a car of black women. And I didn’t know who to try to be the same as, and the reason for that is because I’m bi-racial – I’m half black, half white. So I was in my happy place, pulled up at this stoplight and all of the sudden, I flipped because I’m worried about the women in the cars next to me. And who I should try to belong with. And what occurred to me is, I’m flipping out here. These women in the cars next to me have no idea that I’m flipping out. It’s nothing that they’ve done. It’s not their fault. It was the voice in my head, telling me that I need to belong with these women, and while I was paused at that stoplight freaking out, there was a tiny voice in my head that said, “What about me, Wendy? What is it that I want? Where is it that I want to belong?” And that was my voice. I’ve never heard that voice before. I wanted to sing Mariah Carey, but the other voice in my head was telling me that I needed to either belong with the white women on the one side or the black women on the other side. It was at that moment where I heard my voice that I realized how much energy I had been sending, trying to convince you – whoever you are – that I’m the same as you.

Since that time, that one question, “What about me?” has allowed me to stop trying to make you believe that I'm the same as you. It has allowed me to stay in my head instead of trying to crawl inside your head to figure out how you saw me. And as soon as I stopped doing that, I started becoming me. It was almost like my body and my soul, my spirit, were coming to life and being me. And since I’ve done that, first of all, the amount of energy that I now have is so much greater. Because I am no longer spending that mental energy trying to figure out how to make you like me. And I have blossomed and I love being fully me. And the reason I feel compelled to share this is because the ability to ask the question, “What about me?” doesn’t cost any money, it doesn’t require an internet connection, it doesn’t require any technology, and when we realize that we own our own sense of belonging, no one can take it away from us. In my experience, there are so many people in this world who believe that they don’t belong, for whatever reason, and I am here to tell those people, including myself, that we do belong.

Halelly: It’s a very powerful story, and the visual of the situation and the car, I can only imagine what a strange awakening that is. Making explicit or bringing into conscious awareness something that obviously was operating in the background, it’s kind of like having an app running on your phone that you don't know, and it’s sucking up the battery life of your phone without you turning it on or having anything to do with it, it sounds like.

Wendy: Yes, that’s such a great analogy, because I think we can all relate to the apps we have no idea are running on our phones or our iPads, and they are draining the batteries and we don’t even know why. But once we find them, and turn them off or we get to choose when they refresh, we get so much more battery life back. That’s a great analogy.

Halelly: You’re welcome to steal it. I totally think in analogies, always. I wonder, are there other costs, other than you described obviously it’s a cost to energy. Are there other costs to having too many people, as you say, walking around and wasting their mental energy on this problem?

Wendy: On the fear. I think one of the most egregious costs with worrying about whether we belong is living in a constant state of fear. Because when we are always afraid of what other people think, or whether other people are going to like us or accept us, then we’re stuck – in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we are stuck in the safety level of our needs, and we don’t get to express who we really are. We don’t get to feel worthy. We are drained emotionally and spiritually, all because we are spending so much energy living in fear.

Halelly: It’s really awful. It’s very hard, I think, probably just to find happiness and fulfillment, when you’ve got that fear running in the background. Are there some additional benefits that you have found or that people you’ve helped overcome this have found to themselves or to their team or organization or maybe even benefits to our society of more people asking, “What about me?”

Wendy: One of the things that comes to mind for me is that the difference in the way people respond to me and when we get to that level in our relationship where they feel free to tell me how they really feel, it used to be that people would say, “Wendy, I’m really glad I got to meet you and know you, because before I met you, I thought you were a – “ fill in the blank. I was so guarded. I had really thick, emotional armor covering who I was, and I’ve always been me. I’ve always been a nice person. Always been kind of funny and silly, but people didn’t know that and you wouldn’t know that from looking at me, but since I’ve blossomed, since I’ve bloomed and become me, people now say, “My gosh, you are so out there.” It’s clear that I am genuine and it’s clear that I’m vibrant. People describe me as vibrant. And that’s just so different. I think if we could remove the armor that we use to protect us, there would be such deeper connection in this world and I think that true personal connection is something that would have huge personal, organizational and societal benefits.

Halelly: It’s so interesting, because it’s almost like you’re achieving the opposite of what you were intending to when you were trying to fit in. It’s almost like you were trying to connect with people, but by not allowing your true self to be expressed or not being free to just be you, you were creating a barrier.

Wendy: That’s right. And it was me. That I think is one of the huge things. It wasn’t anybody else saying, “Wendy, you don’t belong.” It was me being afraid that you would tell me I didn’t belong, and all of that was in my head. I get tired just saying that. That, I think, the huge insight is that it was my voice, my belief, that was making me think and leading to the fear that directed my behavior. And when I realized that it was in my head, then I could change it. I realized that I had the power to change it. That has been so freeing.

Halelly: One of the things I know from geeking out on neuroscience and reading up about things that make people tick, bringing it to my work, is that we actually have very hardwired, strong needs to belong. It’s not something that is very rational. It’s in our operating system, back to that analogy, because as humans, as a species, our survival depends on our ability to be part of a tribe, to be part of a group, because we can’t get enough food on our own, we can’t ensure our own and our family’s safety just by ourselves, and so the minute that you have to work in cooperation with others and you have to turn your back and one person collects the berries, one person goes out hunting, one person watches over the campground, you have to trust that the other people will do their part and watch your back in order for you to be able to focus on providing the value you can provide. The more that we feel like someone is part of our tribe, or part of our in group, the more that we anticipate that we can predict their behaviors and that we can predict that they have a shared interest with us. The more that they seem like they’re from some other group, or not part of our tribe, the more that we might be suspicious of their motives and therefore more guarded. This is way back to caveman days, it’s in our biology. That’s probably what’s driving a lot of the things we see with in group and out group and dividing people across gender and race and whatever other lines we do, it’s because we always are sort of trying to sort people into friend or foe.

Wendy: That’s so true. It is innate. We really do have a biological basis for needing to belong, because we can’t get through this life by ourselves. We need others and we need to know that we are safe with others. I think that is especially true in the workplace, when, for those of us who don’t work alone – which is most of us – where we nee to rely on other people. From an organizational perspective, when we can create a culture where employees, where our team, feels like they belong, they know that they belong, think of all of that energy and focus and attention that they have freed up and can focus on being more productive and performing at higher levels.

Halelly: There are ways to feel like you belong and to connect authentically with other people, which I loved in your description of the new Wendy, that don’t involve being the same as them. Because as many ways as we’re different from others, I find that there are probably just as many, if not even more ways, in which we can find points of commonality or shared interests or even just ways in which we can find someone else curious or fascinating. Not because we share the interests, but because we’re interested in something that they are interested in. Do you find that?

Wendy: I do! I think I am now excited about difference, and I’m curious about difference, from a positive perspective. Instead of being afraid of it, I’m excited and intrigued by it.

Halelly: It pulls you toward someone when you see it that way.

Wendy: Exactly.

Halelly: There is actually really interesting research that comes out of one of my former podcast guests, Dr. Paul Zak, who studies trust and he draws blood from people and measures their oxytocin levels. He was finding that when we have a moment where we feel that spark of curiosity and connection with someone, we release oxytocin, and their brain releases oxytocin in reaction to our release of oxytocin. We have all these little oxytocin release parties and oxytocin causes trust.

Wendy: I love that oxytocin party. Oxytocin release party!

Halelly: Being curious and then finding little points of commonality or just points of common interest or things that make you want to know more about someone makes you intrigued, like you said, and curious and pulled in, and then that actually causes them subconsciously to feel the same way about you.

Wendy: Yes. Think about that in a work environment, how much of a sense of team could be strengthened by having an oxytocin release party.

Halelly: We should trademark that! I think it just takes curiosity and being what I call a fascinating detective. Just kind of seeking out what’s interesting and fascinating about people that I meet, rather than how are they different. One thing that listeners may or may not know, I don’t share exactly the same experience as you in that I may be very fortunate that part of my personality somehow allowed me to overcome lots of challenges and feeling as an outsider. My dad, based on his career, we moved all the time. I moved 14 times by the time I was 12, including moving to a new country, a new continent, a new language, new everything.

Wendy: Oh my gosh!

Halelly: I was always the outsider. I never really felt like I belonged, because I always moved into a situation where people already had connections, existing connections and cliques. And I always had to try to sort of mesh in with them, but I never was exactly like them or had similar experiences as them, so that makes it very hard. As a kid, man, kids can be really mean, but also sometimes adults, to the outsider. I developed, I think, a way. I certainly had to develop thick skin in some ways to lower my expectations of feeling a sense of complete belonging, so maybe that was freeing me up that I didn’t expect that anymore after a while, but also I think I have a little bit of a contrarian personality, so part of me was sort of non-conformist. I almost wanted sometimes to be really different on purpose, like spitefully. I’m not going to be like you and not even going to try! I found that the curiosity and just trying to connect with people in warm and positive ways allowed me to build bridges. So I’ve always sort of been the bridge builder between insiders and outsiders.

Wendy: That’s nice. We need more people who build bridges.

Halelly: We sure do. There’s so many ways that people feel divided and increasingly so. I have to say, we’re not going to get on this, but identity politics and my opinion just exacerbates the problem does not help, because it allows people to focus in on the “in group” and how we’re different rather than things that connect us.

Wendy: I can see that.

Halelly: This is a leadership podcast and we’re bringing it back into the organizational world. What do you think leaders can do, specifically, to engage people, as they are and help them feel like they belong or what are some traps that leaders can avoid?

Wendy: When I work with organizations on growing their sense of belonging throughout their organization, we talk about how leaders can connect, respect and protect their team. When we talk about connection, we talk about how individuals can connect with themselves, where as leaders we can encourage our employees to spend time alone, quiet time, with themselves, so that they get to know themselves deeper and better. Also, creating connection points with others on their team, where we are connecting as humans and our individuality is celebrated. Just like you and I were talking about, like the oxytocin release party. Creating opportunities for those to happen. When we talk about respect, we dive into the idea that employees need to feel respected and valued, not just by their leaders but also by their peers. How can organizations create, and how can leaders create opportunities to make sure that each individual employee on their team knows that they are appreciated and valued and respected? Also ways for peers to share respect and value for each other. Lastly, when it comes to protection, and I think about protection not so much from a physical standpoint, but more from a dignity standpoint. Where we are creating environments that protect the inherent dignity of every individual. That’s something I think that leaders can do to encourage and expand the sense of belonging in their organizations.

Halelly: Because it all just stems from that inherent need for safety. Feeling respected and feeling protected can help people feel safe enough to just be themselves, and then being invited to be themselves and being valued for who they are can help to reinforce that that matters.

Wendy: Precisely. You’ve got it!

Halelly: Awesome. Thank you. This has been a very interesting conversation, one that I would love to continue. We’re almost out of time, and I was hoping that by bringing you on and having you share your story and your message that we kind of get things spinning a little bit in the hearts and heads of the TalentGrowers, the listeners, and get them thinking about what about them, and what about people on their team and how can they create more freedom for people to just be themselves and be connected? So thank you for that, Wendy. What’s new and exciting for you on your horizon? What new project or discovery has got your attention these days?

Wendy: I have two projects I’m really excited about, and I’m very close to. Very soon I’m launching what I call slide college, so I do programs on ways to design more visual, more compelling, more engaging presentation slides, and so far, I’ve done either a one-hour program or a half-day workshop. What I’m launching soon is a deep dive. Instead of slide school I’m calling it slide college, where it’s a multi-week program, delivered virtually, where we take a deep dive into some of what I call slide rules that I use most commonly to improve other people’s slides. Doing this deep dive into slide design and training others how to design more visual, engaging slides is new for me. Along with that, also coming out in the next month or so, is my book called Slide School.

Halelly: Oh, that’s exciting! I didn’t know you had a book cooking.

Wendy: It’s coming soon.

Halelly: That’s awesome. I’m happy for you, Wendy. That’s such an exciting time to have a book come out. Slide college sounds exciting as well. If you already have a link to it we’ll share it in the show notes and if not, then we can come back and update that.

Wendy: Great, thank you.

Halelly: Before we wrap up, we always end the TalentGrow Show with an actionable tip. What’s something specific that listeners can do today, tomorrow, this week, to upgrade their own leadership success or I guess in this case it’s own personal success or happiness based on the topic we’ve been discussing?

Wendy: I would encourage everyone to ask yourself, the next time you’re in a situation where you start thinking, “I wonder if they think I’m –“ and then fill in that blank. When you start worrying about what other people are thinking about you, to ask yourself, “What about me?” Not making your needs more important than theirs, but equally as important as theirs. To use that question to remain in your own head and remain true to yourself.

Halelly: Awesome. Ask yourself, “What about me?” Good. Thank you. We’ll help people stay in touch with you and learn more from you and about you – what’s the best place to go?

Wendy: Best place to reach me is through LinkedIn. I’m Wendy Gates Corbett with no hyphen. Easy to find on LinkedIn. You can also check out my website, Refresher-Training.com.

Halelly: Do you hang out on any other social media outlets or just LinkedIn?

Wendy: I’m on Facebook and Twitter as well. As RefresherTraining.

Halelly: We’ll link to that and I’m sure people are going to want to learn more from you and thank you so much for sharing your story and yourself on the TalentGrow Show Wendy. We really appreciate you.

Wendy: Halelly, thank you so much for inviting me. I really appreciate it and it’s been fun.

Halelly: Yes it has. Thank you. Okay, TalentGrowers, as you know, you need to take action. This week it’s a little bit more spiritual, I guess, thinking about how are you interacting with the world? How are you bringing your full self to your work and how are you enabling others to do the same? I hope that you’ll follow up and take Wendy’s advice, and I hope that enjoyed this episode. You know that I want to hear your feedback. You know that I want to know what other topics you’d like me to cover or what guests you’d like me to bring on. Let’s keep the conversation going. I am here for you. I make this podcast to benefit you and to develop leaders that people actually want to follow. That’s it for this episode of the TalentGrow Show. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow, and until the next time make today great.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to the TalentGrow Show, where we help you develop your talent to become the kind of leader that people want to follow. For more information, visit TalentGrow.com.

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