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Connecting Better

By Marty Nemko

Want better chemistry with your boss, coworkers, or customers? Me too.

My co-author on “Cool Careers for Dummies,” Paul Edwards said he had tried many approaches, and for him, the most useful has been neurolinguistic programming. I had heard of it for decades, but was turned off by its pseudo-scientific, Brave New World-like name, so I never bothered to learn anything about it.

But on Paul’s say-so, I figured it was at least worth a quick look. So I went to, searched on “neurolinguistic programming” and found Rob McCarter’s People Skills. It was just 24 pages long. Perfect.

After reading it, I felt a little embarrassed to have liked it. Its advice is so simple, written so a sixth grader can understand it. But on reflection, having read many complicated books on people skills, most of the key truths are in those 24 pages.

Most of its ideas aren’t new, but are worth remembering. Here are the booklet’s essential points, usually with my expansions.

In conversation, try to match your counterpart’s posture, gestures, and verbal style. It builds rapport. For example, if a person’s utterances are short, make yours short. If they’re filled with facts, focus on the facts, not the emotions. If your counterpart speaks slowly, try to match his pace.

You often can motivate a person by appealing to one of his or her core values. How do you discover them? Ask the person about something he likes. For example, ask three authors why they wrote their book, and one might say, “I love creative expression.” Another might respond, “I want to make a difference in the world,” or “It’s a marketing tool to build my consulting business,” Couch subsequent requests to reflect a person’s core value and you’ll more likely get a yes.

Give your counterpart two good choices and ask which she prefers. I used to do this with my daughter when she was a toddler. She insisted, “I don’t want to wear pajamas!” I responded, “Would you like the red ones or the blue ones?” She’d usually pick one. The same technique often works with grown-ups. “I don’t want to put in overtime.” Response: “I, of course, understand. But if it became unavoidable, would you rather stay late Friday night or come in Saturday morning?”

To get what you want, first help other people get what they want. For example, you’re trying to sell a customer a widget. Whether she buys the widget from you or from a competitor may not be high priority for him. More likely to be high priority is that he’s afraid of losing his job or that she has a suspicious mole. Following the obligatory, “How are you?” “Fine.” with something like, “You seem a little frazzled (or blue). What’s going on?” That can often reveal the person’s high priority. Spend a little time helping the person with that, if only by being an empathic listener, and you’re more likely to sell your widget. And you’ll probably have had a more rewarding interaction than if you only focused on your widget.

Similarly, let’s say you’re trying to get a supervisee to work more carefully. That may not be high priority for him. Start with something like, “I’ve noticed your work has quite a few errors in it. Is everything okay?” That opens the door for the person to discuss his higher priority issue. Perhaps he’s having problems with his child or a bout with depression. Try to help a bit with that and he may be more open to working more carefully. You may, however, want to set limits on your understanding or you may find yourself excusing lots of bad work and spending too much time as amateur shrink rather than as boss.

McCarter writes, “The foundational people skill is your ability to impress others.” One way to impress is to be enthusiastic about most things. Of course, if you think something is bad, you might share your concern, but in general, err on the side of optimism. Side benefit: you’ll be a happier person.

McCarter also says, “Contrary to popular belief, continuous eye contact isn’t necessary for effective listening. It tends to make the other person uncomfortable—it’s better to repeatedly gaze briefly at them and then look away.”

A final of McCarter’s simple but powerful ideas: “Look for opportunities to thank others in every area of your life,” from your boss to a helpful Wal-Mart clerk. And don’t forget your romantic partner.

Advice I’d Give My Child

People skills are all well and good, but sometimes they can be a crutch to hide incompetence. Amy, be sure you’re substantive; then worry about the people skills.

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