Thursday, July 3, 2008

Communicating to Connect

In 1996 during my Coro Fellowship, I had the privilege of having a guided tour of the White House by a senior administration official after a visit with President Clinton. As we toured the various rooms, the official told stories of Bill Clinton’s adeptness in communicating and his uncanny ability to connect with people. In one of those anecdotes there were over 100 people in a room and the president had to leave quickly for another event. Within 10 minutes he went through the room and shook everyone’s hand. The amazing thing was that afterward many of those people spoke as if they had a full conversation with the president.

A few months ago I attended a seminar hosted by the Socrates Society of the Aspen Institute and led by Professor Michael Sandel from Harvard University. When he was class president his senior year of high school he invited Governor Ronald Reagan to speak at his school. He didn’t expect Reagan to accept, but surprisingly he did. Sandel, a strong Democrat to this day, explained how he was full of zeal during those days and how he and his classmates were ready to pounce upon Governor Reagan’s conservative agenda. Governor Reagan entered the auditorium of almost 500 students who were hostile to him and his policies. Sandel was on stage with the governor prepared to shoot his hard-hitting questions and statements, but Reagan deflected his questions with ease and created a bond with the student body. By the end of the 30-minute session, Michael Sandel was amazed that his fellow students’ emotions calmed; many of them spoke about liking Reagan afterwards.

While both these politicians may have been naturally gifted at communicating and connecting with people, there are a few elements we can learn from them:

1. Find common ground. Both Clinton and Reagan were skilled at finding common ground to establish a connection with people. In Clinton’s brief interactions, he immediately establishes a common bond through questions. A conversation might go like this:

“Where are you from?”

“Tampa, Florida…”

“My cousin lives in Tampa. One of my favorite places growing up…”

In the story about Ronald Reagan, he probably recognized common ground during the initial stages of the talk and focused on those areas. How he and the audience are similar. What common beliefs and values he and the audience have.

Clinton and Reagan were masters at this skill, which is useful not only in politics but in business. Establishing common ground could happen in the long time-frame of business just as well as in the short time-frame of the campaign trail. This is an important path to building relationships and trust. I believe trust is essential for being an effective leader in business.

2. Have sincere interest. While both these communicators were politicians and their motives can be questioned, I believe there was sincerity in their ability to connect with people. Both Clinton and Reagan wanted to know the people they were talking to, about their happiness and their grief, and about their lives. Genuine interest is hard to fake and people will catch on if it is not sincere.

My father’s close friend was a leading candidate for South Korea’s presidency years ago. My dad told me that one of his Achilles’ heels was that he always looked beyond the person he was talking to. He was looking for the next person to talk with or a more important person to meet. How would you feel if you met this person? Not important enough? Snubbed? He eventually dropped from contention.

3. Listen and ask questions. Beyond the initial stage of connecting, a good end goal is building a relationship. Whether a business or personal relationship, having a sincere interest in the person naturally builds a bond. One suggested path is simply listen to them and ask questions. I’ve met many people who like to talk about themselves or tell stories for 50 minutes out of a 1 hour meeting. Unless they are extremely entertaining, I found most of these people to be uninteresting and a bit self-centered. Self-centered people are red flags in business for me since their personal agendas can disrupt the goals of your company and trust between employees.

If you have this tendency to occupy most of the conversation, try to start asking more questions about the other people. You have to be patient as you work on this especially if the other people are more introverted. If others simply don’t talk much, then after several attempts you can have free rein on the conversation:)

Think about these points as you engage people in your workplace. Whether at industry conferences, meetings, or at the office, building relationships should be your objective. If everything is done through relationships, isn’t how you establish them important?

Originally published at InsideWork

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