June 8, 2011

Remembering People

I have had several requests to share what I have learned about learning people's names and remembering important things about them so that when we meet again I can feel confident speaking knowledgeably with them.

I used to forget the names of people I knew that I knew. I would see people week after week at church and be very familiar with their faces, but I would not know their names or remember what has been going on in their lives. This made me very nervous and uncomfortable speaking with them, for I might say something very inappropriate. What if their mother had recently passed and everyone in the church knew this, but I forgot and somehow started talking about how wonderful it is to have my mother so close to be able to spend time with my children? I lived in constant fear of saying the wrong thing. I worried I would call someone by the wrong name and I often did. A number of years back, I just decided to admit my weakness to people and ask them their names over and over again, but it is hard to swallow one's pride so regularly. However, most people in turn confess to me that they also struggle with the same thing.

One thing I would do to avoid feeling embarrassed for not knowing much about someone was to keep talking about things I was familiar with. I would listen for things I could connect with and join in and share on those points, so I wasn't really listening to learn, rather I was listening to connect.

Now I use my mouth and my body to help me remember people's names and remember some of what they tell me. I really listen to what people tell me and I repeat back much of what they tell me. When someone tells me their name, I say their name and I ask them how they spell it. I ask them what their last name is. I say their whole name out loud and ask if I pronounced it correctly. I might tell them what a beautiful name they have and ask how they got such an unusual name or what ethnicity is their name. I ask where they moved from or where they were born or how they came to be in Houston. I confirm what they tell me, which gives me an opportunity to say out loud the very same information I just heard so it has a second opportunity to stick.

When listening only, you have put the information into your mind only once and using only your ears. When repeating what someone has told you, you are using two to four modalities to imprint it into your mind. I say it with my mouth and hear my own voice with my ears. That's two. Often when I talk, I will use my hands and of course my eyes see the other person's face and also what my hand's are doing. I might point to the person or shake their hand when I repeat their name back to them. It all looks and feels natural and the other person is blessed because, admit it, we all love it when someone else takes a special interest in us and really listens to what we have to say. When I repeat something back to someone and confirm what they have just told me, they know that I am really listening and that I really care. It works out great for everyone because I remember what I need to remember and the other person knows that I care enough to get it right.

So here's the deal. I used to listen passively, taking in all manner of information using only my ears while panicking on the inside because I knew I would never remember much, if anything. I listened selfishly, looking for things I could connect with so I could talk about things I felt comfortable talking about, all the while worrying about what the other person thought of me. Now I listen actively, purposing to take in information. I ask lots of questions and confirm the answers in order to make lots of connections in my mind, all the while looking at the face of the one I am talking with. I do not worry what the other person is thinking of me because we are not talking about me and I know that the person will think well of me because I took an interest in them. Pretty cool deal!

Update: The day after I posted this, I was listening to a seminar (about listening being the most important communication skill) by Jeff Meyers and interestingly enough he confirmed that nearly all of what I have learned on my own is true for others as well. We differed on at least one point, plus he knew stuff I had not yet figured out for myself. He said to ask "infrequent" questions. I wrote that I ask lots of questions. I thought I should clarify that I ask lots of questions at the beginning of the conversation to help me remember names and a few details about the individual, but after the initial introduction it is mostly listening. I do interact by confirming that I have heard things correctly and by checking on the meaning of what they are saying. Paraphrasing what someone has said helps the other person to be confident that you heard and understood what they have said, gives them an opportunity to clarify anything that was not understood correctly, and helps you to stay engaged in the conversation, which in turn helps you to remember the conversation.

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