The Human Connection

Photo of Marci Marra

It’s been a while since my last blog, but I want to continue on the theme which I started back in April 2014 — People First, The Human Factor. This post is about connecting with people you don’t know, practicing the technique in your personal life, and applying it to your professional interactions.

Research shows that humans primarily use emotions — not logic — to guide their decisions. So even if you’re selling the best consulting service on the planet (Caiman Consulting), you can still lose customers to another firm that the client feels they know better and thus trust more.

The solution? The first step in building trust is creating a genuine connection with someone. Typically, you don’t have much time with a hiring manager when selling your services or interviewing for a consulting engagement. You have approximately 60 seconds to make a good impression, thus you need to get very good at forging connections very quickly.

How quickly? In the one minute or less it takes to check out at the grocery store.

You can practice making these connections as a game. I first witnessed this game being played by my husband. He’s one of those people that chats with every store clerk, server, flight attendant, etc.

He always starts with something as simple such as “So, how’s your shift going?” What I’ve learned from witnessing this is how to make a genuine connection with people in less than 60 seconds.

By playing this game, you’ll get the opportunity to practice your rapport-building skills in a zero-stakes environment. As an added bonus, you’ll get to make others’ lives a little more pleasant.

How to Get Started

First, let’s define what a “genuine connection” means. It’s a bit subjective, so I’ll share how I personally define it. I usually award myself a victory when the person flashes an authentic smile, laughs, or shares a unique personal detail. Once a personal detail has been shared, you can build on it, find something in common, and start to build trust.

If the person is polite but disengaged, I chalk it up as a loss.

I typically get the ball rolling with a question. Normally I’d recommend leading with a personalized question, but that won’t always work for obvious reasons.

Try one of these instead:

  • “How’s this [day of the week] treating you?”
  • “How’s your shift going?”, then “Do you still have a long time left?”
  • “Have you tried [product I’m buying, food I’m ordering, and so forth]?”

Alternatively, start with a compliment. I told a woman her blue hair was gorgeous and bold (prompting her to launch into a rendition of her friends’ reactions to the dye job — win) and an older man I loved his whimsical bowtie (leading to the story of how he got it — another win). Appeal to something a person is proud of, and you'll immediately be endeared to them.

After you’ve asked a question or given them a compliment, look for something in their answer that you can spin into a conversation. For example, here’s the interaction I had yesterday:

Me: "How’s your shift going?"

Checkout clerk: "Pretty good! I mean, life’s good."

Me (with a smile): "Glad to hear that! Anything in particular making you happy?"

Him: "I don’t know, I have running water, a roof over my head, food when I’m hungry…"

Me: "What an awesome outlook on life!"

Him: "Honestly? I’m always watching documentaries and reading about different places so I can keep things in perspective. So many people I know take all this for granted."

And there it was: the moment of honesty and openness that defines a true connection.

My favorite Icebreaking Question

Honestly, my favorite question is related to pets, but that doesn’t work universally, so I’ll give you something that does.

“You seem like you’re in a good mood. What’s your secret?”

Use this one if someone’s smiling — people love being told they look happy, and you’ll get to hear about the last nice thing that happened to them.

Go Out and Try it

In just a month, you'll start noticing trends: what makes people light up, what keeps them in “polite but uninterested” mode, and which element of their responses to hone in on. These insights will be invaluable when you’re on a call with people you haven’t yet met, meeting someone in person for the first time, or making new contacts at a networking event.

Several months down the road, you'll probably stop needing an arsenal of questions. You'll have become good at reading people and knowing intuitively what to say to create a genuine connection.

So go ahead, play the game. It’s good for you.