I was in New York as part of a project defining the future of Xbox and Kinect. Three of us walked through the security gates in the central part of Manhattan t0 meet a highly accomplished and busy man for an interview. He was in his 50s, warm and answering questions with poise. Half an hour into the session he began to feel more comfortable and started talking well beyond the subject matter. We learned that he was a wine enthusiast and along with his wife, makes a trip to wineries in Europe and on the west coast every year. It was nothing out of the ordinary; just a well to do guy talking about wine. Then he started talking about gardening. Now things did not add up. What kind of a garden can you have in Manhattan, I thought. Our interview that was scheduled for an hour and a half went on for 3 hours. He showed us his wine and got us some food. The best part of the session came right when we were about to leave: he asked if we wanted to see the garden. We looked at each other and nodded. We did not realize that we were in for the biggest surprise yet. He owned the next door apartment. Our friend converted the whole thousand something square feet of space into a fantastic garden with artificial lighting and automated watering!
Last year, I was part of a team working on mobile lifestyles. We had very long research sessions around the San Francisco area and were talking to a very religious family. Both the mom and dad were active at their church. They mentored and taught many kids about the Bible. Hence we talked about their various activities, community service, and bringing up kids. At dinner time, I decided to accompany their teenage daughter to pick up pizza. The moment I sat in her car, she shows me a medical marijuana card. This a complete u-turn from all that I had learned for the 6 hours prior. My first reaction was to think about how I might have to deal with something like this as a parent. Then the researcher within me started asking ‘why’ questions. She explained how she and her friends would go to a particular spot to smoke, and how the pot is so good in California. I also learned that every one of her friends smoked pot and that it is easier to get than a cigarette. The discussion fertilized my mind, and I had even more questions and thoughts.
When and Why do people open up to strangers?
What are the circumstances in which they talk about their dreams and fears? How can you have a genuine connection with people? How can you connect emotionally with users?
During conversations you want people to not only have short answers, but tell you stories. Over the 15 plus years of talking to people for a living, I have learned a few things about meaningful conversations. The most important learning is that you cannot fake genuine interest in people. It is an intentional shift in mindset that benefits everyone involved.
Here are a top 3 things that I do:
- The first 5 minutes of any conversation is critical. I think that there is nothing beyond the person you are speaking in that moment. Practice active listening. Turn off your phone. How would you talk to an individual if you knew that they were the only person left in this world, and that you will have to spend the rest of your life with them?
- Nervousness comes in the way of being natural. I practice the first fewquestions I ask. It helps me set the tone and gets past the uncomfortable first few minutes. “Tell me a bit about you” is a bit too generic for me. I always tend to ask people I meet questions that make them pause and think; Where do you come from? What are you passionate about? What made you who you are today?
- Curiosity is essential. You do not need any common ground. You just have to be human. I believe that it is OK just to be curious without putting yourself in the person’s shoes. I might never experience what another person has, and hence can never empathize entirely. However, my curiosity is authentic, and it will show.