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In my online leadership course, I teach people a core skill to leadership useful in many situations: how to create a meaningful connection with anyone at any time—a technique I call Meaningful Connection. It’s useful in
- Being interviewed
- Interviewing others
- Getting your team to work more closely,
and so on.
You can use it with
- People you just met
- People you’ve known a long time
and so on.
Below I describe the basics of how to do the exercise. It will work and if you practice, you’ll learn things experientially you couldn’t get from listening to a lecture, reading a book, or watching a video.
The exercise is also a chapter in my book. Here is an excerpt from the book that explains the exercise in more detail: Chapter 17: Meaningful Connection excerpt from Leadership Step by Step. I recommend reading it for a more comprehensive approach, but you can learn the technique just from what’s on this page.
You can use the technique right away. I’ve used it for years and still use it sometimes several times a day. The first times you practice it, thinking of two people in step 3 and listening for their words in step 4 are hard. Like any skill, you’ll improve with practice to where it feels natural. It will feel so natural that not meaningfully connecting, like asking, “so what do you do?” or “so where are you from?”, will feel unnatural and meaningless.
The Meaningful Connection Exercise
I use it weekly or more, sometimes several times a day. It’s not the only way to create a meaningful connection, but it works. Practicing it reveals its underlying structure and skills that you’ll use in meeting and leading others. It’s also the foundation for all the exercises in my book’s Unit 4, Leading Others.
You can do Meaningful Connection in a few minutes or, with practice, you can extend it to full conversations. You can do it once or two or three times in a row. You can do it with people you know well or just met, with friends, family, coworkers, classmates, etc. You don’t have to tell people you’re doing an exercise.
What to do
Practice the script below at least a dozen times one way (you do the odd steps) and a few times the other (they do the odd steps). In university, I assign students to do it twice a day for a week.
The first few times you do it will take a lot of concentration, especially thinking of two people for step 3 and remembering the words in step 4 to use in step 5, but gets easier within a few tries. Even Meryl Streep has to learn and practice her lines. Unlike her, you don’t have to create a character with a fictional back story. You only have to be you. You can show people the script while you do it the first time if it helps.
- Ask their passion, or what they like to do, besides work and family.
- They will reply with something still fairly usual: travel, books, food, etc.
- Say “Cool… you know, I know <someone you know> who <does X> for <their reason> and I know <someone else> who <does X> for <their reason>. Why do you <do X>?”
- 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.
You don’t have to make time to do the exercise, since you can do it in regular conversation, with people you’ve just met, people you’ve known a long time, and everyone between.
Someone doing Meaningful Connection with me might get a conversation like this:
Them: “Hey Josh. If you don’t mind my asking, what’s a passion of yours, besides work and family?”
Me: “Hmm… I like running marathons.”
Them: “Cool… You know, I know a few people who exercise a lot. My brother runs a lot. I think he does it since he loved running track in school and likes to keep up the habit with a track club. My coworker works with a trainer at her gym. I think she mainly does it to keep in shape. Why do you run marathons?”
Me: “It’s not really those things, though I did do sports in school. And I’m not sure running marathons is actually that healthy. For me it’s more about discipline, since running far is so hard. I don’t run with a group. There’s something about the solitude I like, learning about myself.”
Them, having noticed the word ‘discipline’: “So it’s more about discipline?”
Me: “Yeah. Like after running up a big hill in ninety degree weather sixteen miles in, dealing with difficult people in the rest of life isn’t so hard…”
I could talk a lot about the discipline I’ve developed from exercise, especially endurance sports. Even writing right now, I want to. After I did, the other person might continue…
Them, having noticed the word ‘solitude’: “So there’s something about running in solitude that you like?”
Me: “Yeah, running takes almost no equipment. Just shoes and clothes and I can run in Central Park or by the Hudson River and not have to worry about anything else for a while…”
Here is Meaningful Connection in action with me and Marshall Goldsmith, annotating the steps. I didn’t tell him the exercise before. You tell me if he seems to talk about something meaningful to him.
Here I discuss the exercise with Marshall, describing what’s happening behind the scenes:
The Tip of the Iceberg
Now that you know Meaningful Connection, improving to connect as meaningfully as you want is just a matter of practicing. The same as how you get to Carnegie Hall:
Practice, practice, practice!
Then you’ll connect with people as easily as anyone. With enough practice, people will think you were born with charisma. Don’t believe me? Here’s Marshall on how anyone improves in leadership:
Still, all of Meaningful Connection is just the tip of the iceberg. Visit SpodekAcademy.com for a full course consisting of an integrated, comprehensive progression of exercises from basic to more advanced than many experienced leaders know. Meaningful Connection is just one of 20 exercises that all work together to give you the skills, beliefs, and experiences of an effective leader, not just theory.
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