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Confession: I’m an extrovert who dislikes networking events. I like meeting new people, but I find making small talk tedious within a few minutes of arriving. Superficial chat exhausts me, and it’s rare to make a true connection at most business events or parties. Achim Nowack knows why.
Nowack is the author of Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within. His book outlines the principles of connection and how to form deeper connections with people we know and care about – or people we have just met.
His first chapter is about conversation, and he says everything we think we know about conversing is wrong, including the first (mis)directive of conversation: Find Common Ground as quickly as possible. Nowack recalls spending time with some young people in a training program. As they bonded through conversation, the subject of music almost always came up. Most of the kids (unsurprisingly) favored rap and hip hop, music that Nowack abhorred. He quickly decided to simply listen to their likes and then talk about the kind of music he liked.
“These conversations often became much richer than if we actually liked the same music,” he writes. “It made us dig deep to explain what we liked about our music, how it made us feel, and why we chose to listen to it. How rewarding those conversations were!” The common ground turned out to be why we listen to music, not the music itself.
The challenge with these kinds of conversations is that most of us don’t have the vocabulary or the insight to address deeper issues. It requires introspection, something most of us spend almost no time on. To form thoughtful opinions, we need time, space, and quiet. Those three things are almost completely absent from most people’s busy, loud, screen time-obsessed lives. Here’s a quick test: if I asked you how your favorite music makes you feel, what would you say?
Another sacred cow Nowack takes on is vulnerability. We learn to be wary – even fearful – of letting others see our flaws. Nowack writes: “My vulnerability may mean that you like me less because I don’t have the answer you seek. You may like me less because I am not the idealized person you desire. You may like me less because I choose not to play nice. You may like me less because I reveal the very flaws you seek to hide within yourself.”
So we armor up in social situations, providing a slick and edited version of ourselves that makes it hard for anyone to connect to us authentically. And this is not merely a lack of confidence that we outgrow as we mature; in fact it can get worse as you become more successful. Nowack writes: “The more successful I am in life, the greater the risk in the vulnerable moment. If I screw it up, I can screw up a lot of things, big time. But every time I show up with my social blinds drawn tight, I perpetuate a relationship that keeps out the light. Not taking any risks in showing the personal cracks guarantees that I will be viewed as a business robot that nobody really wants to work with.”
Nowack wants to make sure you don’t confuse vulnerability with oversharing; the object isn’t to bare all in front of new acquaintances. Oversharing puts people off and damages your professional image. Being vulnerable is admitting that you might not have all the answers, that you, too, are a work in progress, that you struggle with the same things others do. When you can open up to admit your imperfection, people can open up to you. And together, you can create real, meaningful common ground.