You see him from across the room. You know him, but you can’t remember how you know him. Now you have a problem: you want to break the ice but your uncertainty is holding you back. Uh oh, he’s heading in your direction. What do you do?!
If you’ve ever been in this situation before, you know how uncomfortable it can get – especially if you really should know who the person is. What’s more, it’s not uncommon to evade those whom you cannot remember for the fear of embarrassment.
But your uncertainty shouldn’t generate a ‘Please Don’t Let This Person Talk To Me’ attitude. That would hinder your approachability. People forget people everyday. But with the right attitude, questioning, conversational direction and communication tools, the following techniques will help you pinpoint who you’re talking to without risking total embarrassment.
Like every other skill in the world, this too starts with attitude. Don’t dwell on the fact that you have no idea who the heck you’re talking to. Empty your mind of distracting thoughts like, ‘This guy’s office has been down the hall from mine for 11 years,’ or ‘How could I forget her name? She’s my sister!’ These self-loathing thoughts will impede you from actively listening to what people are saying, the contents of which may contain a valuable clue.
So don’t feel bad when you blank on someone’s name, occupation or the time when you first met. Remember: everyone’s been there before. It’s not the end of the world!
Iceberg Right Ahead
Here’s a full-proof tool for figuring out who people are. You can’t buy it at a store or find it in a Land’s End Catalog. In fact, every year millions of people fail to communicate effectively because they forget to use this tool. So if you want to learn information about the person you’re talking to, open up. Your ears, that is.
Listen for iceberg statements. These are key words, phrases or sentences under which 90% of the important information awaits your discovery. But be patient. And as soon as you hear that iceberg statement, follow it up with a probing question that will dive beneath the surface. In time, what you need to remember about someone will be revealed to you.
Know the Questions, Not the Answers
Let’s say you’re already talking to someone, but you can’t remember who they are. And, you aren’t comfortable admitting to your memory lapse. In this situation, the most effective technique is to ask open ended questions to encourage people to disclose who they are.
But beware! Don’t get haunted by the ‘How Are You Ghost.’ He’ll get you every time! Instead, ask open ended, not overly specific questions that probe for information. More often than not, your inquiry will empower them to open up and something will jar your memory.
For example, imagine that you can’t remember where someone works. Simply ask her questions that allude to general scheduling like, ‘What’s on tap for this week?’ or ‘What projects are keeping you busy?’ Another great topic that’s bound to narrow down job possibilities is travel: ‘Any trips or travel plans coming up?’
Offer Free Information First
In a classic episode of Seinfeld, Jerry was unsure of a certain woman’s name. So, during their conversation he told a story about various nicknames he had as a kid. Then he asked her if she had any nicknames. This is a great example (albeit an over exaggerated one) of how self-disclosure provides an outlet through which one party will reveal the exact same information that is so desperately needed by the other.
Therefore, if you need to know a specific fact about someone, offer your free information first. Make a reference to that which you seek to discover and follow it with an inquiry that will empower the other person to reveal the same. And because self-disclosure is reciprocal, you will hear key words and phrases that will restore your memory and rescue you from embarrassment.
Use a Third Party
Every book written on how to remember names, faces, people, etc. will tell you to introduce them to a third party. This works every time. If you can’t place a person’s name, position, company, family, then use your socializing skills to bring two new people together. Tell the person whose information you’ve misplaced, ‘I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. This is Gary, we work together at Amcorp.’ (Before you do this, signal or whisper to Gary that you need his help with the other person’s information.) Gary, being the polite conversationalist he is, will elicit an introduction and a conversation that will eventually draw out the information you need.
Now, if someone across the room catches your eye but you can’t seem to remember them, third parties are perfect for pre-conversation preparation. Before approaching the pseudo-stranger, find someone else you KNOW and ask them all about your forgotten friend. With a few simple questions, you will easily gain the knowledge to become more approachable so you can connect and communicate with anybody – even the people you forgot.
If you’ve reached a point in the conversation where you don’t feel comfortable admitting you forgot, can’t think of any open ended questions or don’t have access to a third party, there’s always props. The most effective prop is someone’s business card. It contains all the pertinent names, logos, websites and other visual ‘Ah ha’s!’ that will lubricate the hamster wheel known as your brain. But don’t tell them you lost their card – that’s just as bad as saying you ‘forgot’ their name. Simply request another card and quickly glace at it while you thank them and put it in your pocket.
Depending on where you are, dozens of other props are useful for jarring your memory as well: nametags, promotional items, briefcases, table tents, etc. The point is that people remember that which appeals to their visual sense three times more than the other senses. So use props when you can!
Honesty is the Best Policy
The easiest and most gracious technique for finding out how you know someone is honesty. It’s always the best policy. And it’s like the old saying goes: ‘If you’re honest, you don’t have to remember anything.’ Now obviously, the willingness to admit you’ve forgotten something – or in this case, someone – is not an easy thing to do. In fact, sometimes it’s downright humiliating! But honesty is the quickest way to solve a conversational mystery. So if you don’t have a problem flat-out telling people you can’t remember who they are or how you know them, here’s how to take one for the team.
First and foremost, DON’T say the word ‘forget.’ That will only make someone feel unimportant. It’s less offensive when you use polite verbiage that downplays the idea of ‘forgetting’ with such phrases as ‘Please remind me,’ ‘Could you help me with,’ ‘I’m terrible with remembering,’ and ‘It slipped my mind.’ People will be glad to offer the information you have misplaced in exchange for you admittance of a temporary brain poof.
I Know I Know You
The longer you interact without knowing who you’re talking to, the more uncomfortable you will become. Uncertainty is a communication barrier that hinders approachability, and the only way to reduce it is to identify and extract information about people. Use the techniques of questioning, free information, third parties, props and active listening. (If all else fails, just admit that you’ve suffered a memory lapse!) And with practice and the right attitude, you’ll never have to say ‘There goes what’s-her-name from that thing with the guy at the place’ again.
LET ME ASK YA THIS…
Have you ever done detective work to figure out who someone was?