How to Reclaim the Power of Human Contact – with Susan McPherson
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Networking is often considered a necessary evil, but with platforms like LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook at our disposal, reaching peers, investors, clients or employers is that much easier.
Yet, these connections often feel transactional, agenda-driven, and dehumanizing, leaving professionals feeling burnt out and stressed out – even more so now as remote work limits our human interaction.
Today’s episode of Women Amplified, which is a replay of a session from the 2021 Massachusetts Conference for Women, will guide you through “serial connector” Susan McPherson’s 3-step “Gather, Ask, Do” methodology to help you uncover a new meaningful way to network and connect. You will learn how to reclaim the power of human contact even in this hybrid world where in-person interactions are still limited.
SUSAN MCPHERSON is a serial connector, seasoned communicator and founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies, a communications consultancy focused on the intersection of brands and social impact. She is the author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Relationships (March 23, 2020; McGraw-Hill). McPherson has more than 25 years of experience in marketing, public relations, and sustainability communications, speaking regularly at industry conferences, and contributing to the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Forbes. She has appeared on NPR, CNN, USA Today, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. McPherson is a Vital Voices global corporate ambassador, and has received numerous accolades for her voice on social media platforms from Fortune magazine, Fast Company, and Elle magazine. She resides in Brooklyn. @susanmcp1
Celeste Headlee is a communication and human nature expert, and an award-winning journalist. She is a professional speaker, and also the author of Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—and How to Do It, Do Nothing, Heard Mentality, and We Need to Talk. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has been the executive producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio, and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as cohost of the national morning news show The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Headlee’s TEDx talk sharing ten ways to have a better conversation has over twenty million total views to date. @CelesteHeadlee
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Transcript of Susan McPherson’s Talk on Human Connection in 2021
Good afternoon. I’m Susan McPherson, the founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies and the new author of The Lost Art of Connecting. I am thrilled and honored to be with you today. And what a tremendous conference. This afternoon, I’m going to share my tips and tricks for building meaningful connections, especially after the last 18 months of isolation that so many of us have felt.
Long before the pandemic, I was talking about The Lost Art of Connecting. In fact, I have been making connections as far back as I can remember. And even a few years ago, my name plate at a wedding said Susan, the connector. But over the past several years, there was a growing emphasis on technology, clicks, likes followers versus true human connection. We would gauge our success in networking by the numbers of followers we had or the numbers of clicks and likes on a particular post we shared. Myself included.
I started to wonder, where was the humanity? Where had it gone? A friend of mine shared how she would take her children to the school bus stop and hug them goodbye. As soon as the 10-year-old and the 12 year old stepped up on the school bus and took their respective seats, their heads would bop down to look at their phones and every single child on the school bus did the same thing.
Now mind you, my school bus memories aren’t all a glow, but at least I recall always chatting with my fellow classmates. Something was wrong and I was a bit nervous. Hence, one of the many reasons that propelled me to write my book, The Lost Art of Connecting. The pandemic opened up the conversation around truly connecting with meaning. Technology became the means to not only connect, but build relationships.
And in December of 2020, 72% of Americans said they felt a strong desire for more human interaction during the pandemic illuminating a continuing pervasive sense of loneliness that has no doubt and dire effects on all of us. Now, almost 18 months later, we are craving connection more than ever. And hopefully, hopefully we are moving to the end of the damn thing and we can start thinking about our future connections and relationships.
So today, I’m going to talk about meaningful connection building, not networking. There is a difference between the two and there’s a difference between a relationship and a contact. A contact is someone who accepts your LinkedIn connection. A relationship is someone you can tap for advice, support, and help, but also someone you can support, advise, and connect to others.
Networking of course is important and we will continue to do it personally and professionally. But I like to think of connecting as something deeper, less transactional, and yes, more meaningful. I learned this very early on at the breakfast table and 50 plus years later, I have made it my calling card.
I was the child of parents who were true serial connectors. My mom ran public relations for various PBS stations and my dad was a professor at a woman’s college for close to 40 years. Every morning, I would literally buy for real estate for my bowl of cereal because my parents would have the five local newspapers plus yesterday’s New York Times and the day before is Boston Globe splayed out on the counter or on the table.
They would be clipping and cutting articles of interest that they would then go to their manual typewriters and type short little missives, place those missives and envelopes and send them off into the US mail. These would be going to colleagues, friends, relatives. In my mom’s case, journalists. After all, she worked in public relations. And to my father, he would be sending the articles to students, daughters of students, granddaughters, of students because he kept in touch with all of them until the day he passed in 2008.
By the time I was in my 20s, after this crazy childhood where I thought everybody’s parents did that, I landed my first fax machine. And all of a sudden I could do what my parents did in real time simultaneously. Although, I have to believe that those faxes might never have gotten to those destinations because I could never figure out how to really use the fax machine.
But as I was growing up, I looked to create constellations of connections, not static networks. I thought of overlapping friends, colleagues, and contacts. I used to think actually of creating constellations that would be able to create meaningful impact when they were threaded together thoughtfully and intentionally. And I was lucky because my parents were blind to the differences between coworkers, neighbors, friends, or family. People were people.
They deeply embedded in me the thought that every single person was worthy of connection, compassion, depth, and care. Each one was a human, someone who could add breadth and vitality to your network, your community, regardless of how you met. So I like to think that a connection that ends after an ask is not a connection, but rather a business transaction.
May I suggest to you all that we should aim to consistently deepen the connections that we have, build new ones and tend to dormant ones. In that way, your relationships will unfold organically. And in case you’re already thinking, why is this worth the effort? Well, in research for my book, I learned that placing priority on building meaningful relationships will actually extend your life.
Of course, all things being equal. Yes, it’s actually healthy for us even more so than eating kale running every day. Albeit I do love kale. After all, I live in Brooklyn. I was asked for years, “Susan, how do you connect so effectively?” And it was all the way back in 2007, I actually found the guts to state, “Hi, I’m Susan McPherson and I’m a serial connector,” even though I had been in connecting people since I was 15 years old.
I had gone away for a weekend with seven dear friends and our goal was to collectively articulate our elevator speeches. By Sunday, thanks to the confidence from my girlfriends, I was able to say it, “Hi, I’m Susan McPherson and I’m a serial connector.” Although I have to admit, I almost peed in my pants when I said it because it sounded so ridiculous.
But fast forward a few years, and after doing some deep reflection, I realized I had a methodology, but I had just never referred to it as such. It was time to share that with others so that they could reap the benefits of building lasting meaningful relationships. I had founded my company at age 48 and by the time I was 55, I realized that 90% of our business was inbound.
There was something there, there to all those connections I had made in my 20s, in my 30s and even a good part of my 40s. So what is this methodology? It’s called gather, ask, do. And my book goes into great detail on each section, but I will go ahead and give you a 30,000 foot view of each.
In the gather phase, you do some self-reflection to define your business goals and your values. You determine how you can help and whom and who would help you grow. You also think about the ways you can expand your community beyond those who look like you, sound like you, the same age as you, the same race and cultural heritage as you. And you think about what is the community you want to build around yourself in one year, three years, five years?
Once you do that, I recommend that you center yourself around the question of how can I help? Also in the gather phase, you think about what your superpowers are. And I will tell you that every single person in this audience today has superpowers in many of them.
In the ask phase, you deepen your relationships by asking meaningful questions of others to learn what are their hopes and dreams. And if you listen carefully, which believe me is ever so challenging to do, myself included, you get to go to the do phase.
Once in the do phase, that is where you take action. You take all of what you heard and listened to and then you follow through and you follow up. By doing that, you build trust, confidence, become reliable and dependable all the while deep opening your connections.
Before going into these actual steps, my first recommendation is to change your mindset about how you center yourself. Think about how the world looks when you walk into a room, whether it’s a virtual room or a real live room with the mindset, how can I be helpful? Rather than what can I get? What can I accomplish?
Asking how I can help is an invitation for synergy. It sends the message. I am interested in what you do and who you are. This is an essential framework to approach all relationships and deeply embedded throughout my book. Regardless of which phase you are in, it’s vitally important to always be nurturing and leading with kindness. This is a lifelong methodology. You don’t just do this for a year and then stop.
I’ve been fine-tuning my approach to connecting my entire career. Back in the early ’90s when I was starting professionally, back when I had that fax machine, just to check in and see how my clients and prospects were doing, I would call my entire Rolodex monthly. No agenda, no ask. It was my way of showing up.
Fast forward to the last 10 years, we now have so many ways to connect with others. We have the power of social media to send direct messages. We have emails. We have texts to build relationships, both inside and outside of what used to only be business conversations.
Touchpoints such as birthdays and wins shared on LinkedIn and Facebook are opportunities to connect beyond a cursory note. Technology can be a good thing if used with intentionality and kindness. We also have the power to showcase others via these social media platforms, which helps shine positivity on our connections, and those we hope to connect with.
Over the past 18 months during this pandemic when I was completely alone, I don’t have parents. I don’t have kids and I don’t have a partner or spouse, but I made a habit of texting using WhatsApp and possibly calling at least three to four friends or colleagues every day to just say, “I’m thinking of you, asking about you.” Or sometimes just to throw my hands up in the air and say, “I’m here. Don’t forget me.” I’m often asked by people, “How do you have the time?” And I often will respond and say, “Well, I have time to brush my teeth. I have time to brush my hair.”
So today hopefully we are moving beyond these 18 months of isolation. Believe it or not, there was a loneliness epidemic long before March of 2020, and it wasn’t just afflicting the elderly, but Gen Z and Millennials. And that loneliness was only exacerbated. During the pandemic, many of us, most of us have felt isolated, separated, and now many of us feel completely downright out of practice to go to in-person events.
Thinking about the future, how do we help reduce some of that when we have been so very far apart? How do we plan to build new connections going forward and resurrect old ones? Think letting yourself be a little bit vulnerable and possibly trying the methodology I described earlier, gather, ask, do.
I fervently believe that closeness, vulnerability, and business can intersect. According to a study published in the journal, Communication Theory a couple years back, there are five different layers of talk. Impersonal communications, small talk catching up, laughing and joking around, gossip, meaningful talk, self-disclosure, and affection.
As you might suspect, the reward in terms of the depth of your relationship is lowest with impersonal communications and highest with affection. But guess switch kinds of talk we engage in most frequently? Yep, small talk. I call it the weather talk. That is what we do most frequently. “How is your weekend?” “Great.” “How is your lunch?” “Yummy.” It provides least amount of value in our relationships, yet it feels the safest.
Self-disclosure and affection require vulnerability. Something many of us try to avoid, simply understanding these different types of communication and the impact each one has on the depth and quality of your relationships can impact the way you relate to people. You want to move further along to the more meaningful types of communication as appropriate. And of course, as feels comfortable, and safe.
If you can open up a wee bit more both in the workplace and when you meet new people, you will notice something remarkable. Others warm up to you. Through its transparency, vulnerability is also an opportunity to discover new ways to collaborate with your connections. Once you open up and ask questions of others like in the ask phase, it’s important to listen.
Listening requires a hundred percent of our attention. Unfortunately, what most people do is faux or partial listening. And yes, I have been guilty of that myself. Think about a time in a recent business conversation or meeting where you were half listening. What might you have missed? A key insight? A vitally important fact? A basic tidbit about someone’s personal life?
On Zoom and on conference calls, hold yourself accountable by trying to minimize distractions, hiding your self-view, if that makes it easier and helping yourself not get pulled away. As Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People said, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply. Whether you’re meeting in person or on a video call, it is really that simple. Take yourself out of the equation.”
I do this by repeating my mantra, “How can I help?” And when I’m listen, listening, really listening for that answer, a conversation naturally occurs. I lose focus on what my reply is going to be. Use the note sections in your phone or have a running Google Doc where you can track specific things your partners and clients say about their personal lives or preferences.
Do this the first time you meet people too. I often pause the conversation to make sure I’ve understood everything the person shared because learning more about our world and the people around us is actually a gift. I will even say, “Oh my gosh, can you repeat that?” And then I’ll jot it down or put it in my phone. Then when I go to follow up with the person or introduce them to someone else, I will have accurate details.
Another great tip for building meaningful connections both virtually and in person is acknowledging everyone in the room. Especially those hired to support the event who are often overlooked. Remember, every single person deserves attention, kindness, consideration, and compassion. And this can be done in virtual rooms too. This doesn’t mean you have to go and speak with every single person in the room, but eye contact and a smile can go a very long way.
So what about if you are shy or introverted? Well, a couple of things. One, my methodology actually encourages you to ask questions of others. So once you do, guess what? You can sit back and just listen, which can be far less scary. And two, use whatever means you can find out who will be in the room before you attend, virtually or in real life. And I will tell you, years ago, if I wanted to research someone in the room, there was no way, I could. So you have all the tools at your disposal now to at least find out in advance.
I would also suggest you try what I term the power of three. When you are heading to event, whether it’s virtual or in person, think of it as meeting three people, sharing three things about out yourself and learning three things about the people you meet. And then you can go hide in the bathroom. I’m kidding, of course. And three, find the super connector in the room and draft off them.
So earlier I spoke about the gather and ask phase. :et’s Spend a little bit more time in the do phase. Of course, after doing everything that you can to be a better listener. The do phase is vitally important to establish trust, reliability, and dependability. All vitally important traits we aspire to have. When you first meet someone, especially if it’s someone you feel a connection with or a shared passion or goal in business try to act right away once the doorway to a relationship has been opened to deepen that connection.
What did you talk about? Is there a passion you shared? Does this person have knowledge about a topic you would like to learn more about? Follow up as quickly as is possible as a way to solidify that connection. You want that person to have a way to remember you beyond. “Oh yeah, we met at that dinner.” Or, “We met at that Google Hangout chat about the new acquisition by the company.”
Remember, each of us can be helpful and supportive. We do not have to be millionaires or heiresses. This applies to recent college graduates and those approaching retirements. Remember, we all have superpowers. So everyone has something to offer and it is a great way for your follow-up and actually doing.
I like to think that each person has what I call a chief differentiating factor. I see it as that person’s specific expertise or as mentioned, secret sauce that makes each of us unique. As you pay attention to the depth and quality of your relationships, ask yourself, what is that person’s chief differentiating factor? What is that person’s unique asset or set of characteristics? Because once you learn someone’s chief differentiating factor, it’s your job to remind them of it.
If you can reflect back on someone’s specialness in a way that they can clearly see, they will be forever grateful. By remembering the key important bullets from their lives and careers, you can then share their Oscar speech when you introduce them to others and introduce them to new connections.
I recommend keep building relationships. It’s okay to reach out to current and former colleagues and acquaintances and just say, “I’d like to get to know you.” When I asked several years ago, my good friend, Anne Schuchat about building meaningful connections, she told of me that she would never forget the way I just reached out to her and said, “I would love to get to know you. I don’t know where it’s going to go or what we can do for each other, but let’s just have coffee.”
When you genuinely view people as a gateway to deeper learning, your perception will be different. What might have previously been seen as dollar signs or a tally against your sales quota becomes something much greater. Vignettes and jumping off points for collaboration on a grand scale.
And do away with your preconceived notions. Every single person deserves our attention, our curiosity, our compassion and kindness. Don’t assume because someone has a particular job or from a particular location in the world that they can’t be helpful or vice versa. You can’t support them.
Remember, my parents embedded in me this notion way back way when. And believe it or not in 2017, I was reminded of this fact, “Susan, get rid of preconceived notions.” It was that year I received an email from a friend asking if I would help her friend, a filmmaker get into a refugee camp in Greece the next day.
To level-set, one of the boards I serve on is the UN High Commission for Refugees. And this was at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. So the request wasn’t completely out of left field, but I stopped for a minute and thought two things. One, I was super busy and I had a meeting in the next 20 minutes. And two, I kept thinking the last thing the world needed was another documentary film about refugees that no one would see.
But in the few minutes I had at my disposal, I decided, “Why not make a few calls, Susan?” I went forward and actually was able to make it happen. My friend’s friend was able to take a tour of a refugee camp in Lesbos off the coast of Greece. The next day.
I learned two weeks later that the fellow who I got into that camp was not a documentary filmmaker, but rather a big budget, Hollywood director and producer who had previously done several Tom Cruise films. And then a month later, I received a call from another friend who was a consultant to CARE, the global NGO. She said, “Susan, do you happen to know any filmmakers who might be willing to train Syrian youth how to make films to help tell their stories of escaping from their war-torn country in a refugee camp in Jordan?”
Well, guess what? I knew someone. I called Brandt Andersen, that fellow filmmaker, and within five minutes he said, “Yes.” Not only that, he ended up bringing eight other Hollywood filmmakers with him and they spent two weeks at the Azraq refugee camp on the Syrian border in Jordan training the kids.
But there’s more. Brandt went on to create a narrative feature film called Refugee that Angelina Jolie caught wind of and happened to see. And for the last two years, she in her role with the UN High Commission for Refugees has been taking that film to global leaders around the world to ensure they continue to understand the challenges associated with the global refugee crisis, which still is very much happening today.
Four years later, I will never forget the good that came from that introduction and might not have transpired if I had listened to my preconceived notions.
So in closing, I want to suggest that as we move out of this 18-month vortex, be gentle on yourself. You don’t have to run out to every dinner invitation you receive. You don’t have to run out to every gathering you are invited to, but commit to try being a better connector.
Start small. I promise you, so much good will come from it. Dare I say, I guarantee you because just remember, you’ll also be doing something as healthy for you as eating kale and going for a run. So what is stopping you?
To reiterate, gather, ask, do is not a once or done method. This is something you can utilize throughout your career. Rinse and repeat. And given the times we’re living in, it might be a perfect time to try your gather, ask, do. I challenge you all to reach out to a dormant connection or someone you have been wanting to meet. Check-in, ask them how they are doing or send them an interesting article or post. Perhaps, hint how you can be helpful to them. What is the worst that can happen? But more importantly, think about the good that potentially could come.
Thank you and happy connecting!