What don’t you know about the people you know?

Since moving to a social housing estate in East London, a combination of architecture — a space that forces us to bump into each other; and young children — they’ll speak to anyone below waist height — has meant that, for the first time in several years of living in big cities across the globe we’re actually meeting our neighbours. Earlier this week, I had coffee with one of those neighbours. His name is Dr Rafael Hortala-Vallve and he is Associate Professor in Political Science and Public Policy at London School of Economics. I had no idea where the conversation was going to go but I just figured it was going to be interesting.

It was certainly interesting, it just took a rather unexpected turn.

We spoke about his work on game theory in politics and explored how the rise of big -data and computing power were both positively and negatively impacting the field of Political Science. We contemplated the decision of LSE to expand their Department of Social Psychology to become the ‘Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science’. We considered why many academic institutions are still so terrible at sharing information and creating collaboration across disciplines and whether such silos are in fact necessary for great research. In short, the topics we explored revolved around what I thought I knew about him (his role at LSE) and what he thought he new about me (my work around connectivity and serendipity). The unexpected turn happened when he mentioned his photo booth business — Photomāniqua.

Now, of course it’s perfectly acceptable for an Associate Professor in Political Science and Public Policy to own a photo booth business. It’s just that, in hindsight, if you’d asked me to guess what else he does when he’s not doing his academic work, that’s probably not the thing I would have guessed.

It got me thinking about how quick we are to judge others based on the initial tag or sorting criteria we use to log them in our neural filofax.

“Oh, you’re that kind of person” is an automatic response. It’s how we make sense of the world. It allows us to store a person’s information in the right place in our heads for later retrieval. Left unchecked and unchallenged, it can also be dangerous in that it creates a considerable opportunity cost. By simply assuming that someone is ‘that kind of person’ often means that we eliminate the possibility of finding out other, potentially more interesting or valuable, information about them. Worse still, we often extrapolate from the initial tag to make all kinds of assumptions about what they must be like. Assumptions that often turn out to be false.

This behaviour is notorious at networking events. We read a person’s name badge and infer — based on their name, their job title and all other available data points (e.g. their body language, their physical features, how they’re dressed, who they’re with) — what ‘kind’ of person they must be; and therefore, if it is worth speaking to them. In a split second we are asking ourselves whether engaging in conversation with them will be a valuable investment of our time.

The problem is that, just as they are not mono-dimensional, neither are we. Yes, we might be at a law conference or a media conference, surrounded by other lawyers or media professionals. Yes, the obvious reasons we are there may be to make professional connections, gain industry knowledge and find future talent or work opportunities. However, most of us also have multiple other needs, both professional and personal, that may be equally or more pressing. Perhaps you’re looking for a trustworthy contractor for a building project or a babysitter for your children. While the person next to you may not be obviously relevant in context of the event that you’re at (they are not a potential client, expert or future colleague), they may know exactly the person you’re looking for to meet another need.

But if you don’t dig deeper than the information on their name badge, you’re never going to find that out.

As our lives become increasingly complex and non-linear, our respective needs also increase in their variety and number. We don’t know who we’re going to need to know or what we’re going to need to know about them, to solve our next challenge or to open the doorway to our next opportunity. At the same time, it’s simply not humanly possible to know everything about everyone we’re connected to. So what can we do about it?

In my experience, there are a few things we can practice that will lead to more authentic conversations and relationships. They also significantly increase the likelihood of finding out more about the people we think we know and those we are trying to get to know.

  1. Defer judgement
    The first and most obvious — but also arguably the most difficult — is to defer judgement. Try not to be fooled by the name badge, the fashion sense, the accent, or any other initial cues and just listen to what they have to say. Rather than seeing them as a completed story, consider them instead to be just a book cover within which you will, over time, fill with chapters. Most importantly, keep an open mind.
  2. Be curious and be open
    Make it a personal challenge to find out the most interesting thing you can about everyone you meet. Don’t settle for the obvious. Dig deeper.
  3. Pay attention and ask better questions
    Whatever you do, never start a conversation with the awful question: “So, what do you do?”, or it’s slightly less awkward but equally assumption-forming cousins “Where do you work?” or “What line of work are you in?”. I also don’t believe in emotionally charged and cringe-worthy openers like “What are you passionate about?” or “What gets you out of bed in the morning?”. Instead, ask about things you’re genuinely interested in, whether they relate to the event you’re at or not.
  4. Add others to the conversation
    One of the best way to think of questions that you normally wouldn’t think to ask is to have someone else ask them for you. By adding a third person to any conversation, you’re adding a new dimension of thought. I am constantly learning new things about people I know really well simply from the questions that other people are asking of them.

Since my initial coffee and conversation with Rafael, things became even more intriguing. It turns out he also has an interesting annual project called Xmas Tables which is just as it sounds. People from across the world send photos of their Christmas table setting (without people, and before food or drink is served) and he assembles them in a blog. This is a project that I would have been even less likely to guess than his photo booth business. I’m sure that these are just two of many unexpected insights I will gain as we continue to cross paths. I just need to keep an open mind.