“Human beings are naturally cooperative and loving. We enjoy working together.” Peter A. Levine
We know we need to network. We need to connect. We hear it all the time. The truth is that without collaboration and human connection we are bound down, limited, never truly independent. So we gather connections and build relationships. We learn strategies and research how to effectively work with others. We hold networking events, seminars, and group retreats. Online tools provide opportunities to find, filter out and refine contacts worldwide. We are taught how to interact and influence others.
A Lonely Road
I was driving a pick up along a dirt road curving to the right along the base of a mountain ridge. It was a long narrow valley with a small stream below the road to the right. I was taking my passenger to his new job; we’ll call him Nate. Invisible to us was the city that we left behind on the other side of the ridge. The scenery was cast in gray and slightly brown tones, blending in with a gray sky. We stopped at a steel building with a rough looking office and an equipment shed. Naturally I was interested in meeting Nate’s boss and taking in a new environment.
As I approached Nate’s foreman, another man was walking away, his head down. I didn’t see his face or hear his voice. Nate’s foreman told me that he sees 11–15 people a day come by hoping for work. As they arrive they hold their heads up, attempting to look confident. They brace themselves for rejection as they ask for work. Almost as if apologizing they walk away, heads down. The foreman said he figures that if they were to look up, a stray tear might form. He’s been there.
A sudden wind whipped up a cloud of dust that erased the path of the job searcher as he disappeared into the gray distance. The foreman pondered for a moment. Then he caught himself, possibly choking back a tear himself. He picked up a tool and quickly found a task to distract his emotions.
It’s Who You Know (or who you meet)
Nate got the job because he was recommended by someone who knew the foreman. He met Bob, his referring friend just a couple of days before. He accidentally bumped into him at a store. They routinely exchanged apologies and niceties. They each started to walk away, then paused. Each noticed something in the other. The miracle of human connection immediately unfolded. Nate was grateful for a new friend, not even thinking about his job search. While Bob was thinking his friend, the foreman, who needed to hire one more person, just the right person. Bob is what author Andy Andrews calls, a ‘noticer’, someone who is alert to other people.
Walt Bettinger, CEO of Charles Schwab, teaches how a wise professor taught him the importance of noticing others and finding human connection beyond formal events. You never know for sure the importance of any given contact. Bettinger took ownership as he recognized a missed opportunity. The lesson cost him a pristine 4.0 grade, and changed his life. In his words:
“The teacher handed out the final exam, and it was on one piece of paper, which really surprised me because I figured it would be longer than that. Once everyone had their paper, he said, “Go ahead and turn it over.” Both sides were blank. And the professor said, “I’ve taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last 10 weeks, but the most important message, the most important question, is this: What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?”
And that had a powerful impact. It was the only test I ever failed, and I got the ‘B’ I deserved. Her name was Dottie, and I didn’t know Dottie. I’d seen her, but I’d never taken the time to ask her name. I’ve tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since.” -Interview with Adam Bryant, NY Times Feb. 6, 2016, Pg. BU2.
One of my H.R. managers needed to do a lot of hiring and didn’t have time to interview dozens of people. She wanted to filter out the people before scheduling interviews. So she switched desks with her receptionist. The applicants didn’t know they were already being assessed as they dropped off their paper applications at the reception desk. She watched their attitudes, how they dressed, and most importantly how they interacted and connected with other people. Those who were called back for interviews were surprised to see her in her position. The exercise actually helped them feel at ease so that together they could find if they were a match for the job.
Trust is formed as a product of human connection. In his book, PreSuasion, Robert Cialdini teaches the importance of developing trust before negotiating. Beyond that, if people feel safe enough to be open and vulnerable, ‘negotiation’ can become a moot point. An ideal connection can yield agreement naturally.
I was with a client on a project in Ecuador. We needed to survey a section of coastline that was owned by a private corporation. The property was fenced and clearly posted to keep potential visitors away. We were definitely outsiders. We definitely did not feel welcome. It was time to reach out of our comfort zone and learn. In the neighboring fishing village we learned to connect with their culture and who they really were. As we learned about them, they were equally curious about who we were and what we were doing in this place that rarely sees visitors. As bonds and trust developed, they were excited to tell us about the property steward who was on site where we needed to go. They had not been to any networking seminars, yet they were experts at meeting, connecting with and developing trust with new people. We were vetted in a very real way, and we passed!
This was a new experience for my client was a ‘cut to the chase,’ type of guy. He was pre-set to press for access to the property. Reminding him of our experience in town, I asked him for two hours so we could develop a quality connection with the land steward. At the end of two hours the steward offered us much more than access to the land. He had a surplus of labor in his budget and surplus building materials. He offered to build us office space and a workshop at no cost other than good wishes for our project and gratitude to be connected to us and our work.
Connection, the Deeper Value
The prize of highest value is the connection itself. As humans, our instinct is to connect and form tribes to everyone’s benefit. Too often we take for granted the miracle of connection. Regrettably, I forgot the name of the property steward in Ecuador. Yet after thirty years I continue to learn from his great example of sincere connection and generosity.
An insurance agent in Alaska, not only was he their go-to for insurance, he was there to help them prepare for winter by helping hang their salmon to smoke, or help with any number of chores. He loved his job, but even more so, he loved his clients. If they needed insurance, he was definitely their go-to. Once, his supervisor from the lower forty-eight went up to shadow him for a day and was not impressed with his use of time or his unconventional sales strategies. Yet the numbers confirmed that he was effective because of his relationship with his clients.
More Important Than Our Service or Product
Small companies in industrial parks may become overwhelmed by an overabundant flow of sale reps. One of my bosses said that it would be a full-time job to entertain all of the salesmen that come by. Yet, on occasion I saw him with a new purchase he’d picked up from a passing sales rep. It was the skilled sales rep that could quickly begin building a trusting connection that broke the barrier. The successful sales reps were open and honest and my boss knew it. My boss valued of the experience of the connection as much as or more than the product he purchased.
Four Exercises to Break Through the Connection Barrier
Look for opportunities to practice breaking the ice, or breaking the connection barrier.
Often the hardest place to connect is in our own culture where we have developed false barriers to hide within our shell.
The Elevator Challenge. The advantage is that if it doesn’t go well, you or the other party can get off at the next floor without having to make excuses.
Foreign Environments: You can use your ignorance of local geography and social norms to break the connection barrier. This is an advantage whether just being ‘new around here,’ being from out of town or an actual foreigner. I learned several strategies from my research assistant while on a project in Spain.
Show an interest in local events: “What time does Mass begin?” This opened the way for meaningful conversation, making us actually feel like part of the neighborhood.
Ask a stupid question: Foreigners are usually given a pass as long as you are not offensive to local beliefs or tradition. Augustín taught me to stand outside the wall of a massive cathedral and ask where the Cathedral was. Locals and tourists alike loved this and found us quite entertaining. We became celebrities of a sort, and they had a back stage pass to talk to us.
Ask directions: This is almost always a winning strategy, even if your ignorance makes their eyes roll. It may be difficult to remember all the directions you are given, so locals will often get you part way there and instruct you to ask someone else for further directions at each stage. You’ve been authorized by a local to keep making further contacts.