THE THEATRE OF BUSINESS
May 20, 2019
Sari M Kern RN MBA
In business and in life we are constantly meeting new people whether it be through meetings, networking, introductions, at a party or a happy hour event. When we meet people, we often make a judgment within the first few seconds of the interaction - is this person interesting? Is she valuable to my network? Do we have things in common? Is he a potential client? Does she have something she can offer that I need? These are some of the filters through which we observe our interactions. We have a list of questions primed and ready to be shot out at the person as soon as she is done answering the previous question to gain this information as quickly as possible. This approach can be effective to gain the information you want, but interferes with genuine listening, and the person receiving your semi-automatic string of questions sees right through it. This makes forming a connection, exuding authenticity, and the ability to absorb the true root of a person’s essence very unlikely.
I studied theatre and acting in high school and college. My mentor at the time provided my classmates with valuable teachings through the lens of Sanford Meisner. The “Meisner Method” utilizes a few cornerstones including “put your attention on the other person,” “silence is a moment,” and “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Meisner’s practices have helped me immensely in many of my careers. As a scuba diver, it allowed me to observe and process visual cues of a diver who was about to panic and intervene before anxiety peaked. As a poker player, it made me really good at recognizing another player’s “tells.” As a nurse, I could assess when patients needed further explanation of a procedure, even when he denied having questions. In business, I am quick to find points of connection when meeting someone for the first time.
Put your attention on the other person. We have things we want to know about others and things we really want people to know about us. When you start a conversation with someone, watch and listen. As an example, let’s assume you are the head of a financial-tech SaaS company and attending a networking event at a yacht club. You have been to this event many times and the well has been pretty dry for new customers so you are looking for first-time attendees who are in finance and could be a potential client for you. This also means he or she needs to be high on the totem pole at the company to have the power to recommend or select vendors. You start a conversation with a fellow attendee you do not recognize:
You: Is this your first time coming to this event?
Him: To this event, yes, but I am here every weekend.
You: Oh, great! What is it you do?
Him: I work in finance for a very prestigious firm downtown.
You: That’s wonderful! What do you do for them?
I hear these types of conversations all the time. There were multiple opportunities to be curious and learn more about the person. But at this point in the conversation the finance person is likely already annoyed because he or she has dropped three subtle clues pointing to what they really want to talk about. You are asking questions that are getting to your objective without putting attention on the other person and really listening. First, the very first thing the man tells you is that he comes here every weekend. This is not unintentional. Just like when people mention their kids or their dog or their airline mileage status, it is a hint that they want to talk about this part of their lives. They want you to ask how old their kids are, show you the Instagram photos of their dog, and why they travel so much. The man in the example wants you to know that he is a member of the yacht club. Acknowledge this by digging a little deeper and asking a question. Really listen to that first answer and follow where he wants to go.
After the second question about what he does, our fellow networker drops another hint: his firm is prestigious. This implies his firm is well-known and he wants you to ask which firm. He also is being coy about what his firm does and the word “prestigious” ties back to frequenting the yacht club - he is reminding you (since you did not already ask) that he is very successful. Summing this guy up quickly, he really wants to talk about himself, his affiliations and all he has accomplished, but wants to be a little mysterious.
Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances sounds like a total contradiction to authenticity and forming connections but bear with me. Let’s say you are going to start over with your networking acquaintance from above and you decide to explore his reason for frequenting the yacht club. Also, let’s assume you are not a yacht-enthusiast so this is not exactly a conversation you are educated nor excited about. But because you are noticing that he wants to talk about his relationship with the yacht club, you will need to feign some interest to ask questions. This should drive your conversation until you naturally come to a topic of mutual interest - sometimes this happens quickly, and sometimes it takes a little more effort. As an example, by asking where was his favorite place to travel on his yacht is he may answer a travel destination that you have been to and enjoy as well. Now you have made him feel good because he is talking about yachting, you have displayed empathy and interest by keying in on his hint and further exploring, and have found a genuine connection by asking the right questions. If this man is a potential client, he is also much more inclined to work with you because you have already shared stories and experiences. An imaginary circumstance was created by pretending you were interested in the man’s passion for yachting, but you lived truthfully because you asked questions that someone who is interested would ask. This kept you present, attentive, and effective in your conversation.
Let conversations be driven by the other person’s answers and by really creating an interest in what they have to say - not by your quest to find bullet-point answers to each of your questions. When you let go of expectations and follow the journey you are practicing the art of networking and relationship-building.
S Kern Consulting is a consulting firm that specializes in developing data-driven strategies to create business solutions.