Do you consider yourself bad with names? Are you convinced that it’s a special skill that some people have, just not you? You might be unintentionally offending the people around you or missing opportunities to make important connections. Influence skills are key in most jobs, but they’re especially important when doing process improvement work. Remembering people’s names is a foundational skill.
I was once running a workshop with a colleague and early during our first day we asked all fifty participants to stand in a circle and introduce themselves. I listened carefully and when we got to the last person, my colleague said, with a bit of fanfare, “Okay everyone, now take off your name tags and throw them on the floor in the middle of the circle.” He then proceeded to walk around the circle and name all fifty participants.
For the rest of the 3-day workshop, he continued to courteously address each person by name, while I tentatively tapped on shoulders mumbling, “Excuse me.” I felt mortified by my cloddish behavior, but as with all tough moments, I sensed a great learning opportunity. How did my colleague remember all those names? How could he possibly have memorized all fifty in such a short time? I was determined and a bit excited to figure out his secret.
Step 1: Have Intent
When I asked him, after complaining bitterly about his decision to trash the name tags, he maintained that most of the time when meeting people we’re not focused on remembering their names, so we have to change that. We have to decide that we intend to remember.
I mentioned this to my husband who swears that he’s “just bad at names.” He relies heavily on me at gatherings and requires a “name primer” before walking into a party. Upon reflection he acknowledged that when he was a bartender he remembered not only everyone’s names but the names of their drinks as well. He was rear-ended once at an intersection and when he looked into the rear-view mirror he thought, “Apricot Sour!” I’m not entirely sure if this helped resolve the accident, but the point is there was nothing wrong with his memory.
Step 2: Fight Your Brain
Once someone is introduced to you, it’s your turn. But as soon as you say your name, your brain recognizes it and focuses on you instead. In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Malia Wollan points out that “neuroimaging studies show that the sound of your own name produces distinct activities in the regions of our brains responsible for sense of self.” The sound of your own name changes the topic to you. You have to move past that moment and return to the person in front of you.
Step 3: Ask for Clarification
As I started to put my friend’s guidance into practice in my own workshops, I found that sometimes the person had a uniquely pronounced name, a foreign name or, for whatever reason, a name I didn’t get the first time around. It’s really okay to ask people to repeat themselves or ask them for help with pronunciation. It helps you to remember and they’ll appreciate the effort. Which brings us to the next tip for remembering names.
Step 4: Repeat It
Repetition is key. Once I’ve heard a person’s name I say it again to myself. I might even say it back to them out loud. Then I repeat it to myself again after I say my own name because I’m savvy to my brain’s inclination to say, “Hey, that’s me!” once I’ve offered my own introduction.
Even hotels know that using peoples’ names is a good way to connect with guests. Many chains require that front desk clerks say each guest’s name three times during check-in. It makes people feel noticed which is key in the hospitality industry.
Step 5: Make Associations
It’s important to quickly form some kind of connection between the person’s name and their image. Sometimes the person might remind you of someone you know with the same name – it could be a friend or a famous person. In Malia Wollan’s article, she references taking a mental “snapshot” of the person in order to register their uniqueness with their name. In my own practice my techniques can be silly or nonsensical but that’s fine as long as it works. Kurt happened to be an inch shorter than me – curt…short… “Hello Kurt!”
All of these steps hinge on the first one, intent. Remember the “Apricot Sour”? My husband knew his customer’s drink and her name because it helped him to do his job better. And it’s the same for the rest of us. Remembering someone’s name makes a big difference in how people feel treated as colleagues, participants, stakeholders and customers. And how you treat people impacts their inclination to help you, work with you, give you information or just simply listen to you.