We are often told not to make things personal, yet it is personal.
A good example. Recently, I received the following email:
“I came across Michelle Gibbings and saw that you are into theatre shows. Although theatre is an enchanting industry, I believe that your shows can benefit from having a wider range of audience and a ton more monetization gateways“.
I do like the theatre, but I am certainly not a producer of ‘shows’. The email was funny because it was so off the mark. If the writer had taken more time (just a bit) and researched, they would have known more about who I am and my work.
In contrast, Craig and I recently dined at a new Japanese restaurant. The hosts knew neither of us, yet we were made to feel special. They were interested and attentive without being intrusive.
They made it personal without getting personal. It’s a delicate balance.
We all want to matter. It’s neurobiologically wired into us because we live, work and survive in groups.
Picture this… it’s a crowded room, and someone across the room says your name. Despite the crowd and noise, you hear it. This is commonly referred to as the cocktail party effect, our ability to focus on a single source of auditory input, despite the background noise and distractions.
It works like this. When we hear our name, it triggers a unique and automatic response in our brain, causing us to pay immediate attention. It’s a beneficial survival instinct because it helps us quickly respond to threats or opportunities around us.
Research shows that this phenomenon occurs due to a combination of psychological and neurological factors. Hearing your name activates brain regions associated with social processing and self-awareness. It’s a small example of how we put ourselves front and centre.
In interactions, we want to be noticed, to feel special and to matter. In short, we want it personalised.
Make it personal
In a business context, personalisation is about tailoring products, services, or experiences to meet an individual customer or user’s specific needs, preferences, and characteristics.
The company or organisation uses data and insights about people’s behaviour and preferences to create a customised experience. You see this all the time online. If you’ve bought a product online, the company will recommend products based on your past purchases or browsing history. In healthcare, it can involve developing treatment plans that consider a patient’s medical history, lifestyle, and personal preferences. In education, it can be used to target learning programs according to a person’s goals and learning styles. Participants can choose their learning path.
All of this is enabled by technology, which is underpinned by machine learning, data analytics, and customer relationship management software, which is why organisations love collecting data on us. They use that data to better target and sell to you and, sadly, at times, other nefarious purposes (of which I am sure you are well aware).
In our day-to-day interaction with people, we also collect data. We collect information on what someone is like, their personality and preferences, lifestyle and interests and over time, how they feel, think and act.
These data points build a picture that we use to assess a person and whether we like them and ultimately trust them. However, our data gathering can be skewed and bias-ridden, so we have to be careful what we curate and store. We also need to be open to deleting some of the data our brain has stored as we deepen our understanding of a person.
It’s about focusing on our common humanity – understanding ourselves and the other person – and taking the time to be genuinely interested.
Keep it human
Being personable and interested in others is foundational in building relationships.
You know when someone tries to ‘network’ with you and the relationship feels fake or disingenuous. We also immediately recoil at acts that feel false. Remember those so-called random acts of kindness that people filmed themselves doing during lockdowns? If not, here’s a reminder.
We all want to feel seen and heard.
You know what it feels like when an opportunity for connection is missed. You may have reached out for support, and the request has been dismissed. You might feel hurt or sad because something tragic has happened, and people, giving preference to their discomfort, turn away.
And yet, the best thing we can do in all these circumstances is to be with the person and start a conversation. As this New York Times article reminds us one of the most potent ways to support someone is to talk with them.
This is empathy at work. You aren’t solving their problem. You are present and listening. You are validating how they feel.
Cooperate rather than compete
Being personal matters in team settings too.
People in your team want to feel like they belong. With hybrid working arrangements, this is more important than ever. Set aside regular times for social engagements and opportunities where the team can share, laugh and connect with each other. Maintaining strong connections with work colleagues – sharing how you feel, talking to people and being open about experiences is critical for your health and well-being. When the team connects, it creates positive energy, which aids motivation.
As a leader, it’s crucial to focus on building cooperation at work – across your team, with peers and colleagues and throughout the organisation.
As Australian social psychologist and author Hugh Mackay wrote in his book The Kindness Revolution, “When we are competing rather than cooperating, we are denying the noblest aspect of our nature and indulging the ego-driven desire to win, to maximise the benefit to us – whether financial or otherwise – rather than contributing to human well-being and social harmony“.
Humans have survived as a species because of our ability to cooperate. We achieve and progress through cooperation. We enjoy life and the best connections through collaboration. If you want further evidence that cooperating is good for us, you’ll love to know that when we cooperate, it fires off the same happy brain circuitry (the brain’s reward system) as when eating chocolate or having sex.
There is also research, which highlights that cooperating elevates our cognitive capacity and leads to better results on tasks.
Cooperation is elevated when there is trust, and trust is elevated when there is cooperation. So the two elements work hand in hand. Trust builds over time when we are willing to share aspects of who we are. That is when we are willing to make it personal and strive for connection.
The joy of strangers
Social interaction is crucial for our health and well-being, so seek out opportunities to make it personal.
It’s not just interactions with people we know well. It’s also interactions with strangers and casual acquaintances. It can be a casual conversation with someone you’ve met at the park, your local barista or the employee at the supermarket. These are all opportunities to create connections.
In those moments, you may learn something new, create space in your day to pause and notice what’s in front of you, or just have made someone else’s day a little better. Take a moment to smile, perhaps laugh, but above all else, be personal.
As travel writer Laurie McAndish King explains in her article about the joy of talking with strangers, “None of those interactions required my fluency in the local language, but they did require me – an introvert – to step out of my comfort zone. Each one started out a little awkwardly as I connected with a stranger – and each left me with lasting memories“.
If you find it hard when meeting people for the first time, then here is a list of 60 questions you can ask that help you get to know someone better. Of course, it’s not just about the questions you ask, but about how you listen, how you place the question and how focused and present you are throughout the conversation.
The opportunities for personal connections are endless, so where will you make it personal today?
Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®
Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.