[This post is part of a series on Communication Skills Exercises for Business and Life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
UPDATE: See my February 2016 webinar video on the Meaningful Connection exercise. It goes into more depth.
Have you noticed how some people, when they meet someone, draw the other person in, creating a great, meaningful conversation right off the bat? Do you wish you could? How much more valuable is a connection when the other person wants to follow up with you and appreciates you talking to them? How much more likely will you be to get a job offer, date, or whatever follow up?
This exercise gives you a structure that engages the other person to make a meaningful connection. It’s powerful, yet deceptively simple. It works in all situations — business, personal, family, etc. No more petty networking where all you have is a business card and the hope that the other person remembers you.
By the way, since I have this exercise performed on me often in front of an audience, I can attest how well it works, even when I know what the other person is doing.
Everyone likes talking about what’s important to them. Also, everyone likes being listened to, not just for the facts, but for the meaning — the emotional value of what they say.
The structure of this exercise gets you to get them to comfortably reveal something important to them without probing. Its content forces you to pay attention to the other person’s meaning and emotion and demonstrate that you did so.
The effect is that you demonstrate you care about what they are saying about something important to them. People like talking to people like that.
When you contrast this exercise, which begins by asking them about their passions, with the usual, pathetically boring “So what do you do?”, you’ll see this exercise is about passions, emotions, motivations, and things people care about. In cases where someone’s work is their passion, you’re no worse off. For most people talking about work is boring, humorless, and cliche-ridden.
I describe the principles more in the Follow up section below.
Here is the “script.” You can put things in your own words to sound natural. You can also deviate from the script, particularly to add parts based on what the other person says.
- Ask what they like to do besides work and family. I usually ask them for a passion of theirs.
- They will reply with something still fairly usual: travel, books, food, etc.
- Say “Cool… you know, some people travel for [give one reason]. Some people travel for [give another reason]. Why do you travel?”
- Their response will include two or three words that are unusual or stressed.
- Respond to clarify what they said using those two or three words in your response.
All you have to do is steps 1, 3, and 5. Often in step 4 or after step 5, the other person will talk at length, in depth, and with passion. It’s up to you what interest you want to pursue with.
Here’s how a typical conversation went with me.
Other person: “So Josh, what’s a passion of yours… besides work and family.”
Josh: “Oh man, last year I bought a rowing machine. I love it. I row on it a lot now. I didn’t realize how much I’d like rowing.”
OP: “That’s cool. You know, I had some friends who rowed crew in college. Some of them did it for exercise. Some of them did it because they loved competition. Why do you do it?”
J: “Actually, even though I like those reasons, they aren’t why I do it. For one thing, once you get on it can be almost meditative. It’s repetitive but not boring. My friend who rowed crew told me about keeping the cadence even, so I’m always keeping track of my rowing pace, so I’m focused. The other thing is that it’s super-convenient. It exercises nearly everything and I don’t have to leave my apartment. I can just walk two steps over and I get a great workout.”
OP: “Cool. I hadn’t thought about it being meditative, but I can see that. It must be relaxing. And that it’s not just convenient but super-convenient must be a big plus.”
J: “Totally. Sometimes when I’m about to get in the shower I think, ‘I have time to work out’ and I can work in a great workout. In fact, there was a time … ” [then I launched into a story about how convenient it is].
It’s uncanny how the exercise gets people talking. Not every time, but often. When I do the exercise with large groups I leave a slide up with the script. People do the exercise literally reading from the script. The people they are doing it with, knowing the person they are talking to is reading the script still get into meaningful conversations with them about their passions. Sometimes I have to work hard to get the groups back out of their conversations.
Before steps 3 and 5, since you are showing interest in something important in their life, you can go into more detail of what they said than just the script says. After you get the hang of it, running through the script can be a fifteen minute conversation leading to more.
You can also do the script more than once in a conversation.
It’s informative to note how the script works. I call it a “script” at first instead of a script because of its variability. It requires you to pay attention to the other person and respond with information relevant to them and you. For example, in step 3, you don’t just reply, you have to connect something in their life to things in yours, then comment meaningfully on them. You have to think about people’s motivations — theirs and others.
Also, in step 4, you have to listen intently, not just to their words, but to the non-verbal emotional content of what they say. The stress people put on words or extraordinary word choice reveals their emotions and motivations. People don’t often notice or comment on those things, so when someone does, you notice it and appreciate their caring. You show it by using those words back.
You, right here, right now
If you don’t have someone with you, you can call someone up and run the script with them. You don’t have to ask or tell them what you’re doing.
Mostly it’s great when you’re first meeting someone. Now when you’re at a networking event or cocktail party, when you meet someone you want to get to know better, instead of many meaningless interactions exchanging cards, you can go into depth meeting someone meaningfully.