On my first Semester at Sea Voyage in 2009, I sailed around the Mediterranean visiting ten countries along the way. Every student on the ship had to take what was dubbed as Global Studies, an interdisciplinary course that allows you to learn in context about the countries and cultures you engage with on your journey. To be honest, I don’t remember much from the course, except for two lessons: a “dumb trade” and how strangers became friends in history. This post is about the later, but in case I sparked your interest in what a “dumb trade” is, email me and I will educate you. Anyways, in the olden times, when two strangers would meet each other on a journey they would immediately know to do the same thing. They would recite their personal history to include where they are from, lineage, trade, and keep going back further until they found a point of intersection. This may be a related relative, craft, or connected history. This process of sharing ones history orally was a result of years of learning and practice in order to best know how to treat others you would meet. The strangers could discover if they are friends, enemies, potential business partners, or even family. The funny thing is, we do the same thing today – except we use Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to find out about a new person we met or will meet. But what if you didn’t have the Internet for your discovery? Could you do what these nomads did in the past?
In each country I usually chose a different travel buddy so I can learn more about someone beyond the day to day. My travel buddies for Greece: Braeden and Carlyn Spangler or as I like to call them, the twins.
In Greece we saw the birthplace of democracy, the Olympics, and the unrivaled beauty of the Greek islands. The twins and I got into our fair share of trouble, holding up tours, being admonished by security for standing on a historic monument unknowingly, and wandering off in search of food when we should have been paying attention to more “important” things.
However, one of the greatest memories I have of that trip wasn’t necessarily what I saw and it wasn’t even the amazing food I ate. It came in the form of a simple exchange I witnessed between Carlyn and a bookkeeper at Atlantis Books while we spent the day at Santorini. P.S. Santorini is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, amazing little island.
I was browsing the rare bookshop looking for a tattered book that would fit well within my father’s library, but got distracted when I heard Carlyn engage one of the bookkeepers in the following conversation:
Carlyn: “Do you play lacrosse at Stanford?” (Pointing to his shirt)
Bookkeeper: “I played for their club team, but graduated a while ago. I am here for the summer to work at the shop”
Carlyn: “Oh cool, I played field hockey at Mansfield, but now I go to Sac State – we are here traveling with Semester at Sea. How did you decide to work here?”
Bookkeeper: “Oh awesome, we get a lot of students coming in each summer from Semester at Sea. I am actually one of the owners; we started this bookstore years ago after visiting Santorini while we were in college. We all take turns working different seasons and sleep in the shop” (pointing to a small crawlspace with a bed above the shelves)
The conversation went on as the owner took us on a tour of the shop and told us about how he came to start the bookstore and all about Santorini. Granted, this was a simple exchange and it was easy to see what sparked the conversation. But after we left I had an interesting conversation with the twins. I asked why Carlyn started the conversation. Partly, it was because I dragged her into a store that she wasn’t interested in and was bored, but mainly it was because she noticed the bookkeepers shirt. They told me about how when they were little girls their father put them in every single extra curricular activity, sport, and opportunity to do and experience something. The twins continued this practice as they grew older taking advantage of a diverse set of experiences and travels. They said that the goal all along was not only to figure out what they were passionate about, but to have so many experiences that they would be able to relate to anyone on any topic. This meant being able to carry a conversation beyond the niceties to something of substance that would generate a real relationship. In doing so, they learned something beyond what they anticipated and have met a new friend.
I think back to this lesson often. I pride myself in an ability to build relationships with others around what they care about because I find a way to meet them where they are, not necessarily meet the people who are where I am. I would rather go on a journey with someone from where they are and generate a relationship in the process, than continue to meet the same people over and over. This practice is something I have employed for years and found a shared appreciation with the twins around this model of building relationships. It requires an ability to be intentional about your experiences, the knowledge you consume and the topics you choose to understand. Beyond that, it takes an initiative to notice the little things about people and pick up on what they care about as you engage and ask questions to discover your intersections.
With the internet at our fingertips, there is no reason why any of us shouldn’t actively engage in this process. Constantly learning about things we wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to experience or understand so that one day, maybe, just maybe, we may have a chance to relate to someone around what they care about and be able to say something beyond: “Tell me more about that.” Be more intentional than researching your blind date, friend in class, or new boss on Google. Take stock of everything you know and have done and keep adding to it – paying attention for how those experiences show up in others. Then start where they are.
Business should be doing the same thing. Research your customers individually, find out what they like, outside of your product or your sphere of service. Figure out what they care about, believe in, and are working towards – then before you sell to them – build a relationship around what they care about, not what you are selling. After you sell them something, continue to contribute to WHO they are and who they seek to become– not to sell more but to care more. They will begin to care about you because you care about them as a person, not just as a customer.