Teaching the art of being a 'natural connector'

Paul Swift, Community Connecting Research and Development Consultant, talks about our workshops which teach the skill of connecting.

We’ve all come across someone we might consider a ‘natural connector’ – the sort of person who finds it easy to make new relationships, who just seems to be good at handling social situations that make others feel anxious or uncomfortable. From my vantage point, standing in the kitchen, I see them moving easily about the party – ‘the life and soul’ – always finding something to say, asking the right questions, putting people at ease with their gestures, expressions or reassuring tone of voice. Is this a gift that those people happen to be born with or is it something that anyone can learn?

Last week we ran the first of a series of workshops for people wanting to use connecting in their day-to-day work. We started by practicing one of the key aspects of relationship-building, and therefore connecting: introductions. How we introduce ourselves, how we introduce people to each other. The exercise required participants to reflect upon their use of the social skills that we all take for granted until we are asked to employ them in new or ‘unnatural’ situations. For example, one person was given the task of introducing themselves to someone, and discovering a shared interest not related to the jobs that either of them do. After 15 minutes they were supposed to have found a contact (a person or organisation) or idea that would allow either of them to further the shared interest. Quite apart from the skills required to initiate and guide this conversation, the task required concentration and creativity. Of course some found it harder to do than others.

There can be little doubt that having good relationship-building skills, and the ability to use them creatively, is advantageous in a whole range of vocational roles. A few days after the workshop my wife asked me to help her with the layout of presentation she was preparing. She is a clinical psychologist and had been asked to run a training session on ‘active listening and attending’ for peer mentors in the service she works for. I noticed that her opening gambit went like this:

How many times have you heard someone say ‘you’re not listening to me’ and the other person says ‘yes I am, I can repeat word for word everything you have said’. The person speaking is not comforted. What people look for in attending and listening is not that the other person can repeat their words but the want the listener to be present psychologically, socially and emotionally… Listening is such an important skill, yet we tend to take it for granted. We tend to think of listening as being the same as hearing, and so it can lead you to believe that effective listening is instinctive. As a result, most people make little effort to learn or develop listening skills. In fact – whole books have been devoted to how to be an effective listener.”

I was immediately reminded of a piece of research I did at Bristol University back in the mid 90’s. The idea was to come up with a tool for assessing social work students based on what ‘clients’ want from their social workers. Even then there was a stack of research evidence going back 30 years that people wanted their social workers to be good listeners, empathetic, warm, open and so on. In other words, people who are good at making and sustaining a relationship. The assessment tool was not widely adopted, although 10 years later I was asked to reprise the findings of this work for a social training initiative by the Department of Health. Yet the profile of skills training in the curriculum remained low for the reasons, I suspect, outlined already – social skills may be recognised as important, but we take it for granted that it is not something that we have to work at.

So, while the role and function of a connector may differ from that of a peer mentor or social worker, they share – along with any number of health and social care professions – a core set of skills in relationship-building. We may or may not be lucky enough to be a ‘natural’ when it comes to parties, but we all need firstly, to value the skills that can help us be good connectors, and secondly, to recognise that to be truly effective we must work at them, practice, and adapt them to the particular demands of connecting.