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The Art of Making Real Connections

The key to making valuable connections involves conveying to others a sense of having truly noticed and listened to them. 

We live in a connected world. Certainly anecdotal and research evidence exists indicating that internet connections can enhance perceptions of social-connectedness. Advice abounds regarding how to best use LinkedIn, for example, in terms of with whom to connect and how to benefit from those connections.


We’re all familiar with the phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know that counts.”  And often that is indeed the case, especially in highly political organizations. What we often fail to consider, however, is that the “who you know rule” only works well when the emphasis is on “know.” It is not the “who you meet” rule. It’s one thing to have met someone in passing, and another thing entirely to actually know that person. In the latter case, a relationship has been established — even if it’s a relatively new one.

Having been a colleague for years with the late Warren Bennis, leadership expert and distinguished professor at the University of Southern California, I had the privilege of his mentorship during my career. Warren was a man of many connections — but in the best sense of the term. He remembered names, stories, interests, concerns, and many other personal and professional attributes of those he met and in whom he took an interest. One day when walking back from lunch, he told me that he took a couple of hours each week to re-connect with people by sending an article of interest, a personal note, a signed copy of one of his books, or to ask about a personal issue or family. He was a master at making and maintaining connections long before the internet provided so many less personal ways of doing so.

While writing It’s All Politics, I met with Horace Deets, then executive director of the American Association of Retired Persons. Fortune magazine had ranked AARP the strongest lobby in Washington, D.C., for three consecutive years. Deets had enviable access to people on Capitol Hill. He explained, however, that such access is effective only to the extent that people you’re accessing consider you reliable, consistent, and professional. 

“You learn things about people when you really get to know them,” Deets told me. He told me of his first impression of Newt Gingrich. “I thought he would be impossible to work with, and I believe he thought the same of me. But we got to know each other.” Deets added, “I’ve done a complete 180-degree turn on what I think of him. I believe he’s done the same regarding me and AARP.”

The key to making valuable connections, according to both Bennis and Deets, involves conveying to others a sense of having truly noticed and listened to them. This is very difficult to do by simply clicking “Like” on LinkedIn or Facebook. 

Often people tell me that they can’t remember much about the people they meet, including their names. The politically adept among us find something intriguing about each person they meet. By making contact through notes or articles of interest, Bennis not only communicated that he’d listened to the recipient when they’d last met, but also reminded himself of who they were and how they impressed him. Additionally, people connected in this way are more inclined to help each other should the need for a favor arise. This last benefit may seem manipulative. But if the intention is not self-serving, then it is a collateral rather than contrived potential benefit. 

Harvey Mackay shared how he built an empire selling envelopes, not the most glamorous of products. He taught his salespeople to listen to customers. What he shared in his 1989 HBR article is as true today as it was then. Learn all you can about your customers. He explained: “Leaders learn to pay attention to what’s important in other people’s lives. That means keeping your antennae up and noticing the details.”

Think about the last time someone’s eyes lit up as they listened to you — the last time a person took a real interest in what you had to say. It’s a rare gift. 

Perhaps the next time you assess your connectedness, it should not be based on whether you’re “followed” via the internet by hundreds, but whether you remember at least once a week to connect with people whose friendship is not only a pleasure to have, but also potentially helpful when you least expect it. 

Kathleen also blogs on communication, influence and politics here.

Photo: solarseven/Shutterstock.com

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