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It seems we often start new relationships with common questions – “Where are you from? What do you do? Where do you live now?” These questions are considered socially safe, predictable and expected. However, these safe questions are often slow starters – or worse, non-starters – for meaningful connection. Having recently moved to a new city, I was reminded of the importance of such relationship building skills for the purpose of connecting. They are fundamental life skills, especially in leadership and workplace arenas.

I have therefore been experimenting with a slightly different question when meeting new people in new places. Rather than talking geography and job, I ask, “What do you care about?”* eventually followed by “Tell me more.” It has completely changed the conversation, and often, the direction of the new relationship.

The idea came from a card game gifted to me by my wife – Vertellis, which in Dutch means “tell me more.” The game is composed of a series of cards with questions designed to help the players get to know each other better. There are some basic questions on each card; however, the game begs players to say “vertellis!” prompting more, deeper, and possibly more connecting responses.

Leaders need to connect. It’s that simple – yet so many miss out on this opportunity. I often think of John Maxwell’s wise words: “Many communicate but few connect.” And since this is a blog and I get to write what I think, here’s why I think this is:

We’ve short-cut our way to communicate for utility. We no longer write letters, but rather quick emails or worse – we text abbreviations of words. Despite the beautiful complexity of our languages, we’re back to hieroglyphics, in the form of emojis. Don’t get me wrong; I love these symbols as a way to represent an emotion or sensibility, and when I need a short-cut, I take it. But as a general rule, we’re not exercising the connective tissue of communication as leaders that will benefit us, our people and our organizations.

But don’t despair. You can still write letters … and if you can’t, here are more possibilities to sharpen and expand your communication skills in the 21st century:

  1. Read more. Reading provides us mental exercise and practice with language. Think about reading something outside of your “normal” genre choices. If you are well read in leadership materials, pick up some poetry. Think about the classics if you’re well read in contemporary fiction, and if you’re seldom reading something instructional, pick up a how-to-something book. Exercise a different part of your brain with different language.
  2. And considering #1, learn a new language. I was conversing with a client who is fluent is four languages, and her story was inspiring. She shared that when she approaches English (not her native language), she facilitates a different way of thinking so she can attempt to connect with the author or speaker. She said she has learned to empathize better in life with the addition of each language in her life.
  3. Consider the ladder of abstraction. The ladder of abstraction is a model to describe structure or a hierarchy of language. Simply explained, lower rungs on the ladder are more commonly understood while higher rungs may be more sophisticated or elite. Be mindful of the audience you wish to connect to and speak or write from their rung. Don’t speak from a higher rung to seem more impressive or intelligent, or a lower rung and seem condescending; both will effectively negate some of your connection. Match the rung and you’ll connect more and better!

Communicating clearly and making impactful connections is a large part of our coaching and training at Emergent. LeadFORWARD is our year-long transformative leadership experience that focuses on making an impactful connection as a leader. Call us to learn more if this sounds like an aspiration you hold for your leadership!

*Yes, this question often results in very odd looks. I’d like to suggest that you still experiment with it. Don’t back down – be that person who can ask an uncommon question so you can be that person who has uncommonly great connections!

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