How to connect with people

Physician and Social Scientist Nicholas Christakis Flickr user Jurvetson

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Once in a great while, somebody says something to you that, instead of getting filed away in a dusty backroom of your brain, goes somewhere special. It goes to a place where, years and years down the road, it can be retrieved as readily as if you just heard it seconds ago.

It doesn't only happen with words. It can be a place, a picture, a song or even a whole summer at the beach from your childhood. When that sort of thing happens, we say it resonated or stuck with us. We say something like, "That was 20 years ago and, I don't know why, but I remember it like it happened yesterday."

We never give it much thought, but those memories are extraordinarily important in two ways.

First, they're usually metaphors for something emotionally important to you at the time. In other words, you may remember one particular conversation or event, but only because it so powerfully represented something you had strong feelings about, perhaps for a very long time.

The second way is far more relevant and actionable, especially for your career. It's that somebody was able to really connect with you, which implies that you should be able to learn to do the same thing. That's one of the things that mentors, coaches and leaders need to be capable of doing -- resonating with people.

I call the phenomenon emotional memory. The term usually refers to trauma or something that triggers the "fight or flight" response, but less traumatic events can still be emotionally stimulating. In any case, I don't think it's a stretch to assume the effect is similar, if not less dramatic.

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Here's an example of how this sort of thing works.

When I was a young engineer I was working at a drafting table in a large open area one day when my manager, Dick, walked up beside me and just stood there, watching what I was doing. At 300 pounds, bald and about 20 years my senior, Dick was a pretty imposing guy.

Feeling a little nervous, I broke the ice with, "Hey, Dick, what's up?"

"You know, my wife and I have been together a long, long time," Dick said. "Funny thing is, our sex life is fantastic! It's never been better." Just like that. And the guy was beaming, like a giant, lit-up Mr. Clean.

It so took me by surprise that I said the first thing that popped into my mind, which was, "Dick, how the heck do you always manage to be so damned optimistic?"

That's when Dick recounted a story of how he learned about the power of positive thinking and how it changed his life. In a nutshell, when you whine and complain, you annoy people and they avoid you like the plague. When you're positive and optimistic, that attracts people and opportunities.

You know, I worked for Dick for years and I'm sure I learned a lot from him. But to be honest, 30 years later I can't remember a thing except that morning, which I remember clear as a bell. Dick really connected with me that day. What he said really resonated and got me to think differently for two reasons. First, the highly unexpected reference to something as intimate as sex from the big, intimidating boss guy.

Second, I knew I wanted to accomplish great things and had always thought I was special. But after a couple of years in the real world, I hadn't yet figured out how to distinguish myself from the pack. I was feeling pretty ordinary, and that didn't sit well with me. I was disappointed in myself, and I'm pretty sure my management felt the same way.

Whether he actually intended this or not, what I heard from Dick was that I could be special just by thinking I was special. So I needed to stay optimistic and upbeat, just like Dick, and all good things would come to me. While my career didn't exactly go straight up from there, it was definitely a turning point. It was what I needed to hear at the time, and I've obviously never forgotten it.

Personally, I think Dick knew exactly what he was doing when he approached me that morning. If there's a method to be learned, it's this, and I think it's more relevant today than ever before. In an era of information and communication-overload, when everyone is bombarded and distracted 24x7, if you really want to connect and get through to people, you've got to do two things that exactly parallel what Dick did that morning.

First, you've got to get over all the noise and grab their attention in some extraordinary and unexpected way. Think the opposite of subtle. There are limitless ways to do that and every situation is unique. Be creative; you'll figure it out.

Second, you have to be empathetic enough to know what people are really struggling with. And you can't just tell them what they need to hear; that's not how emotional memory works. You need to tell them a story that cleverly demonstrates, without coming right out and saying it, how you once felt just like they do, how things turned out great, and how you did it, more or less. Think drama.

If you can somehow make that emotional connection, you can help change people's lives, obviously for the better, just as Dick did for me. If you can do that, you have the makings of a mentor or a coach. If you can do that on a larger scale, for an organization, you can maybe be an effective leader. It's by no means the entire skill-set you'll need, but it's a very good start.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Jurvetson

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