I've started to hate it, and we all do it. When we meet someone new, the first question we often ask is "So, what do you do?" He tells us he is an accountant, and we think to ourselves, "I don't really know what to say as a follow-up. I guess I'll go with my other default question and ask him where he is from." This conversation is off to a great start! (I'm being sarcastic.)
Over the next five minutes that we are stuck chatting with this nice, but not very interesting taxman from New Jersey who has two dogs and likes to grow tomatoes in his back yard, what have we really learned about him? Next to nothing. And it is often challenging for the relationship, whether it's professional or social, to move beyond this kind of superficial conversation.
Instead, what if we try a powerful new question that allows our amigo to share something about himself that is fascinating? I promise once you do this and do it right, you will be as convinced as I am that this is a great way to get to know someone decently well in just a few minutes.
Here is the question: "Please tell me a story about when you were at your best. I know this can sound like I am asking you to brag, but I'm not. Maybe you responded really well to a challenge in your life or did something positive for someone you care about. I'd love to hear about it, and I'll tell you one of my stories too. What do you say?" If this sounds strange, keep reading.
A Positive Introduction is a wonderful technique that often elicits powerful stories, and can have a profound impact on the storyteller and those listening. My new fellow graduate students and I exchanged Positive Introductions to kick off the school year, and the energy level in the room went through the roof. As storytellers recalled times of triumph or a shift in thinking, they felt positive emotions. Those of us listening got to share in the experience and discovered a great deal about the storyteller, including the strengths of character that make them special. The experience was deep, authentic, and memorable.
If you decide to take the plunge and try a Positive Introduction, here are some things to keep in mind:
Pick the right setting. A noisy cocktail party might not be the best place to take this new approach for a test drive. Workshops, classrooms, office team meetings, and small dinner parties are ideal because they are intimate enough so that everyone can listen and get a chance to share.
Actively listen. There is nothing worse than pouring your heart out about something personal and the people you are talking to zone out. Listen up! Try to turn down the running commentary in your head and focus!
Show that you are actively listening. Listening involves the whole body. Eye contact, silent nodding, and an occasional "hmmm" are great ways to communicate that you are an absorbent sponge.
Express gratitude. Thank the speaker for sharing or offer up a word or two of validation when they are done. Asking follow-up questions is appropriate and ideal.
Identify strengths. Offer positive feedback by listing strengths exhibited by the storyteller. Some examples include kindness, compassion, perseverance, gratitude, grit, and love. By focusing on someone's strengths, it is natural to develop a greater sense of respect for him or her.
Most importantly - Set the stage. If you are the host of a structured event, explain the process so everyone is on the same page, including refreshing everyone's mind on how to actively listen and respond to the story. It is your job to create the safe space.
By the way, did you know that the taxman was at his best was when he took those tomatoes to the retirement home in his neighborhood and taught a group of 80 year old women how to whip up some delicious pasta sauce? If he told you that story, you might have seen how caring, charming, and thoughtful he is, and meeting him would have been positive and unforgettable. Who knows, you might have told a moving story too and that could have sparked the start of a great friendship!
Michelle Gielan, a former CBS network news anchor, is pursuing a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
A special thanks to James Pawelski, Director of Education and Senior Scholar in the Positive Psychology Center (and our professor!), for creating such a positive environment in which to share our stories.