It's not always easy to connect with other people, but it's a useful skill to master -- for your personal life as well as for your professional one. Calvin Sun offers some suggestions for getting people to warm up to you and open the lines of communication.
The ability to establish rapport with others, and thus to get them to open up to us and like us, can help our career. You don't have to be a salesperson. It can serve you well regardless of your position in the IT organization. Here are some tips to help you develop this skill.
Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.
#1: Remember people's names
"Remember that a man's name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language."
-- Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People
Few sounds are as dear to a person as the sound of his or her name. When you remember people's names, they generally take that to mean you value them (unless you're Khan, and the other person is Captain Kirk). I once gained a client during a conference call because I recognized a participant as being the father of a student I had attended high school with. After I made the connection, the father said to everyone, "Let's hire Calvin."
There are many books that teach techniques of association and visualization, but for me, the best way to remember a name is to repeat it when I am first introduced, and then to use it several times thereafter.
#2: Ask questions about spelling, pronunciation, or the meaning of names
Most people have the good sense not to ask about someone's physical handicap, deformity, or other physical issue. Yet asking questions about someone's name, such as spelling ("Mac" vs. "Mc") or pronunciation (hard "g" vs. soft "g" in a surname such as Bollinger, Ellinger, or Henninger) may be welcomed by that person. When you ask these questions, it shows your interest. Do it within reason, of course, or else the person might think you're a stalker.
#3: Balance the asking and the telling
Do you know people who spend all of their time talking about themselves? It's hard to establish rapport with such a person. But even though you don't want to talk incessantly about yourself, don't go to the opposite extreme and only ask questions about someone. That person may feel great at first, but eventually he or she will feel uncomfortable at not gaining information from you in return. So try to balance the information you share with the information you ask about the other person.
#4: Look for things in common
When asking about another person's background, look for areas you have in common, such as birthplace, hometown, hobbies, or school attended. These topics make for natural areas of discussion.
#5: Look for things in common with relatives too (but your not wife's sister's husband's brother's wife)
The previous point doesn't have to just apply to you and the other person. Think about connections involving your relatives as well. Maybe you're not from that same town, but maybe your father was, or the other person's mother was. Making the connection to relatives also can work. Just keep it within reason. It might not help if the connection is through your wife's sister's husband's brother's wife.
#6: Use cognitive dissonance
The theory of cognitive dissonance states that people dislike conflict and will try to eliminate it whenever possible. You can use this theory to build rapport by expressing frustration or at least annoyance at an outside event. Suppose you're meeting a new employee this morning. On your way to work, you encountered a huge traffic jam, one that the new employee probably also encountered. When you meet that employee, it's OK to show frustration or annoyance at the traffic jam, saying, for example, "I can't believe that traffic jam, it just messed up my whole day." That employee probably has the same thoughts, and your expressing them can draw that employee closer to you.
#7: Sit rather than stand
A conversation is far more peaceful and comfortable if you're sitting. Conversely, having a conversation while standing makes it easier to begin fighting. So sit whenever you can, if you want to establish rapport
#8: Be on same side
If you're on the opposite side of a desk, consider coming out from behind it. Being on the same side of the desk sends a message to the other person that you really are on his or her side. If there's no desk, at least try to align yourself so that you're facing the same direction as the other person.
#9: Be careful about comments on photos
Commenting on photos could get you into trouble and undo all the good you gained from following tips 1 through 8. If you see, for example, a photo of an older woman and a younger woman, and the former is the person you're talking to, don't assume the relationship is mother-daughter. If you say that, and they're really sisters, you're dead.
#10: Never speculate on pregnancies
Similarly, never assume that woman who looks expectant really is so. If you ask, and the answer is "no," you're similarly dead because you have no graceful way of retreating, other than "Please excuse me while I remove my foot from my mouth." Even worse, if your conversation occurred during an employment interview, you've done more than commit a faux pas -- you've set yourself up for a lawsuit as well.
Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.