An Exercise in Active Listening

What are the two most important words in the world?

It depends who you ask, as the answer if different for everyone.  The answer is: Their Name.

It is one of the first words you hear and the first that you learn to spell.  You take stock by it and it becomes a crucial part of your identity.  We can even pick out our name in a noisy room due to the Cocktail Party Effect.

People respond positively when you use their name.  It creates trust and rapport.

So why do we have such trouble remembering names?

There are a number of variables but it really boils down to two things:

  1. A lack of focus
  2. Not having a system in place

By concentrating on the system the focus will develop as a result.  Good Communicators are good listeners.  Period.  It is impossible to be effective if you are:

  • communicating the wrong thing
  • to the wrong person
  • at the wrong time

All of these pitfalls can be avoided by actively listening to what the other person is saying, digesting the information, and asking for clarification if needed.

How does remembering names help?

We meet new people on a daily basis and will learn their name during that first interaction.  It is the perfect time to practice the art of active listening by remembering their name.

I’m not perfect at this, but I do work on it every chance I get.  Some days when I’m tired or have something else on my mind I’ll meet somebody and their name just slides right off.  Two minutes later and it’s totally gone.  Compare that to somebody like Bill Clinton, who is famous for remembering peoples names, even years later!  And look where that got him.

Not only is it a great way to connect with people, it is a daily practice in strengthening your focus.

So how do I do it?

It all starts with actually giving a damn.  Your reason could simply be to improve your memory, although hopefully it will come from somewhere a little deeper.  Either way, once your intention is set there are a few effective steps to take.

  1. Greet and Repeat – during the handshake or the first hello, make sure to repeat the persons name.  This helps to anchor it in your mind.
  2. Spell it out – ask them to spell their name for you, especially if it is unusual.  Even if it is fairly common it will help you to differentiate the Sean’s from the Shaun’s from the Shawn’s.  (I know a lot of each!)
  3. Create an association – this really does work.  In the art of mnemonics it is taught that the more crazy or unusual the association, the stronger the bond.  Our minds ignore the commonplace and are drawn to vivid imagery.  For example, if you didn’t know Donald Trump from Adam you could picture him in a Donald Duck outfit throwing down a full house.
  4. Create a trigger – I find this works really well.  Figure out what the person loves to do, then associate their name with that activity.  So you can use, say snowmobiling, as the trigger and associate the name with that.  It works well because I can usually remember the conversation thread from the last time we spoke, recall their favorite activity, then that will trigger the name.
  5. Use it or lose it – repeat the name during the conversation.  Just don’t get weird about it.

By working to remember names you are taking a solid step towards actively listening to people, recalling information better, and becoming a better communicator.  It is a skill that you can work on daily and build on over your lifetime.

What techniques do you use to remember names?  How has remembering names helped you in other areas of life?


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