‘You don’t know who you’re talking to’.
I’m not trying to accost you. Or begin a lecture about online safety, although this is very important (watch Black Mirror, my GOD it’s hauntingly accurate). This is about IRL situations.
The above phrase is something my Dad says on the reggers. It doesn’t sound like advice does it? Or something that can help you ‘network’ (read: talk. Networking is TALKING). But it’s opened up so many unlikely friendships and unexpected opportunities that I wouldn’t have discovered unless I had spoken to everyone as I have with this statement in mind.
How much do we really know about the person we sit next to for 9 hours a day? Probably not a lot. We might think we do. I used to kid myself by saying that I didn’t care. How silly.
It turns out that everyone has a bit of a hidden life. A hobby, a guilty pleasure, a story. Of course they do. It also turns out that with a bit of light probing and the right questions we can find things out about our neighbours that we wouldn’t have known otherwise.
I used to be rubbish at talking (yes, talking, not networking). I had to rehearse a conversation before picking up the phone, making sure I knew the end goal, the questions I needed to ask. Sometimes I would write it down. I would stay inside for days, too scared to go out and have to make conversation. Still now, talking to anyone new makes my heart go a bit wibbly. That old phobia returns like a repressed memory resurfacing. But as time went on my confidence grew and the phobia dissipated, but I still had no clue how to talk to people, like really talk to them. I only ever saw the stale surface, never the gritty underneath bits that people don’t often conjure up. But with this phrase in mind, I learnt to navigate conversation to unlock people’s veiled lives. Maybe it’s in a freudian slip when talking about work, or a story they tell which has a hidden meaning. All you have to do is take the minute detail which makes their eyes light up a touch and expand on that.
Take conversation I had with someone earlier this year. The man was in his 70’s and I would be sat next to him for the next two hours at a sport’s awards dinner. What the fluff do me and a man who is generations ahead of me have in common? But I didn’t know who I was talking to. We spoke about work for a bit, and then…
Me: “I have been at this role for about 2 months now, I used to live in London.”
Him: “Oh, I love London.”
Me: “Do you visit often?” I’ve got my probing stick out.
Him: “When me and my wife can, we love to catch a show.”
Me: “Ah the theatre, what shows have you seen?” I am now poking him with said probing stick.
Him: “Hundreds! We love them.” It might be not seem like much, but it prompted a 45 minute conversation about his (and my) adoration for show tunes and tap dancing on the West End. I made an unlikely friend that evening, because I didn’t presumptuously sit next to him assuming he would have nothing to offer in the way of conversation other than the age of the hotel’s skirting boards. I found his interest and ran with it. People love to talk about themselves, their loves, they like to be heard and listened to. Play on that and you’ll never shut them up.
But it is with the addition of this phrase to this method that makes a conversation almost a pursuit, an endeavour to discover an entirely different person to the one sitting beside you.
It’s how I learnt that my old boss used to travel the world doing extreme sports and the girl I used to be desk pals with was a trained opera singer.
I guess the phrase is akin to, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ but we’ve been there, said that, and we’re still judging. This goes deeper, it’s not about looks. It’s about our perception of people. It proves that people can surprise you, you just have to be ready to be surprised.
It could subconsciously be indicative of how you perceive others. But it proves that you should never underestimate people.
This method has allowed me to connect with people on such a new level. When I networked before it was all boring business and LinkedIn jargon, but now I find ways to interweave how we can build on each other starting with common ground. This is when networking just seems like talking, how it should be.
If you’ve got a story to tell, the chances are it’s going to invoke something in the other.
The good thing is, the person you’re talking to doesn’t know who they’re speaking to either.