Unless you’re Mr. Congeniality, stepping into situations where you’re meeting new people is probably low on your list of desired activities, far behind grabbing a beer with your buddies or going on a date night with your significant other. But if you’re looking to move forward in your career, chances are you’re going to find yourself stepping into plenty of new jobs, networking events, and office parties where you only know a handful of people in the room.
You might think you’ve got a good handle on the basics of these interactions by now. You shake some hands, smile, and then leave, realizing you only remember one or two names. How did it become such a blur?
According to Keith Rollag, an associate professor at Babson College who teaches leadership and organizational behavior, many professionals don’t realize their full work potential because they fail to master basic get-to-know you skills. They don’t introduce themselves well, can’t remember names, and don’t know how to ask effective questions. It’s not so much that people don’t have the ability to greet others well or remember names, but rather they fall prey to old habits that don’t serve them well. “It is in fighting natural biases against social risk and changing lifelong habits. Real progress comes only through mindful reflection and practice,” Rollag wrote in a piece for Harvard Business Review.
You might feel uncomfortable and on edge the entire time you’re meeting someone new. But if you’ve managed to make the other person feel valued and appreciated, it won’t matter; you’ll have accomplished your goal. And if you remain committed to improving your skills, those anxious feelings will fade. Here’s how to master those three basic routines.
1. Introducing yourself
You can’t prepare for every spontaneous meet and greet, but you can practice how you’ll present yourself ahead of time. There’s nothing wrong with jotting down a few ideas of ways you can say who you are and what you do. In fact, Rollag and others highly suggest it. In addition, the biggest hurdle in this area is introducing yourself in the first place. Too many people assume the other person is too busy or wouldn’t want to meet, but overcoming that is the first step to establishing better connections. Here’s a few tips:
1. Know your context
The way you introduce yourself in a business meeting will likely be different than at a general networking event or your partner’s holiday party. According to Inc., less is typically more. “Provide the bare minimum the other person needs to know, not in an attempt to maintain distance but because during the conversation more can be revealed in a natural, unforced, and therefore much more memorable way,” author Jeff Haden writes.
2. Include specific information
Choosing what other people will find interesting or informative can be tough, but practice it a few times and see what people respond to. Then use that line when appropriate, Rollag suggests. If you need a few ideas to get you started, Time offers examples for several settings.
3. Make the other person feel valued
You might typically view introductions as a connection for you, but making sure the other person feels valued is the best way to ensure the handshake is the basis for more conversation, not a one-time greeting. “Great first impressions rarely hinge on what you reveal about yourself; what matters is how you make your counterpart feel. Ask her about herself and her job, listen intently, show interest, and be energetic,” Rollag advises.
4. Remember what you learned
We all remember that one person who we met and believed we had a great conversation with at the annual holiday party, but who couldn’t remember us the next time we were in the same room. Don’t be that guy for someone else. As soon as you can, jot down a few notes about who you met and important information about them. There won’t be a quiz, but you’ll make a positive impression if you can remember your last conversation with ease.
2. Remember names
Your brain remembers names in a different section than where you remember faces or background stories, which explains why you can remember a colleague’s aversion to champagne but not his name. Studies show hearing one’s name activates the brain, even if there’s a number of other distractions happening at the same time. You can make a solid connection – but first you need to remember the most basic thing about that person.
Before you use any tricks, simply commit to focusing on the person’s name, Rollag writes. By doing so, you’ll be setting yourself up to pay closer attention.
1. Repeat, repeat, repeat
Saying the person’s name out loud is the first step to remembering it. Plug their name into whatever sentence you’re using, Forbes suggests, such as “Nice to meet you, Matt.” This will trigger your short-term memory and begin testing your recall. Don’t go overboard, but repeating the person’s name a few times in that initial conversation will help commit the name to long-term memory.
2. Use memory tricks
This can go horribly wrong, especially if you vocalize the mental games you use to remember names. (See Michael Scott’s example above.) But using mental imagery, pneumonic devices, or associations can help quite a bit. Using alliteration is a great help, as is coming up with a fictional backstory to piece together their appearance with their name.
3. Write it down
As with background information, writing down names can help with name retention. Do this as soon as possible without being obvious, whether you’re recording it in a notebook or on a note in your phone. Though both are helpful, some research suggests writing with pen and paper is more effective than texting the names to yourself. Writing engages multiple parts of your memory, and you’re more likely to retain the information you want.
3. Ask questions
This might be more useful for starting a new job, but it’s also helpful if you’re in a position of wanting to know more about the company you work for. “You were hired to hit the ground running,” Nora Klaver, a human resources consultant and author of Mayday: Asking for Help in Times of Need, told Monster. “But you know that’s probably impossible, and you don’t want to look foolish.” Here’s a few tips about how, and what, to ask.
1. Know what you need
Do you need information, advice, or permission for something? Do you know how long it will take? The clearer you understand what you need, the better you’ll be able to communicate that to another person, Rollag says. This also shows respect for other people’s time, since you’ll be able to share your request succinctly.
2. Know who to ask
This can be more than half the battle, but within a few hours or days in a new space, you’ll likely be able to tell who is more approachable, who holds the keys to the kingdom, and who will be willing to help you. If you’re extremely lucky, those people will be one and the same. If they’re not, make sure you time your requests well. Your approach also matters, Rollag writes. “Sometimes changing your question from ‘Do you know how to…’ to ‘Who might explain how to…’ makes it less intrusive to the person being asked,” he advises.
A key part of this can be finding someone who’s willing to be your go-to person for initial questions. Often, it’s someone who can remember what it’s like to be new. They might not know as much as seasoned veterans, but they’re probably more willing to help you with a stream of first-month questions and will be able to point you in the right direction if they don’t know the answers themselves.
3. Ask easy questions
Even if your ignorance relates to a complicated problem, ask short questions that don’t take too long to answer. By piecing them together, you’ll be able to ask for clear guidance without hijacking 45 minutes from someone else’s time. No matter what, always remember your manners and say thank you for the help – it’ll put you in others’ good graces and make them more willing to help again.