What's the point in learning names?

Some people are brilliant at remembering names, but for some people it can be a source of much stress, anxiety and even embarrassment.

But why is it even worth spending energy on it? And what can you do about it if you’re rubbish at it?

Well the good news is that it is a skill that can be learnt. I used to be pretty average at remembering names but over the last few years I've developed a strategy which helps me do it really easily so that now I hardly have to think about it.

To write this post I've used a technique called NLP modelling to analyse exactly how I do it and I’ve converted the model into a set of instructions that anyone can follow. Obviously this is just one way of doing it – my way! There will be an infinite number of other ways so please do share in the comments box if you have any tips or tricks of your own.

My own learnt ability to remember names originates from when I first started providing training to the construction industry. The first business I set up involved delivering practical training to Civil Engineers. Part of the training course was classroom based, but for the most part, the students were spread out across a big field and were constantly moving around. I needed to remember everyone’s name so that I could give them the correct mark based on how they had performed in the practical work. The course lasted 5 days and I aimed to learn everyone’s name within the first 2 days.

I noticed how the atmosphere started to change as I began to learn people’s names. The delegates became more chatty and relaxed and seemed to show much more confidence. They also began to ask more questions and asked for more help. I wondered if this was connected to me remembering their name or simply due to the fact that they had got to know me a bit better and settled into the learning environment, so I began to play around with it.

I discovered that the sooner I learnt the names the sooner the atmosphere changed and I realised I could basically accelerate the presence of the positive learning state for the delegates by simply learning their names. It also helped them to learn each other’s names and begin to connect with each other. These days I aim to remember every name by morning break on the first day.

Why learn the skill?

Learning someone’s name is a great way of instantly building rapport and getting the best out of any situation.

No matter whether you are in a meeting, a networking or social situation the benefits are massive. Nobody likes to feel like they are fading into the background in a swirling mass of nameless faces. By making the effort to remember someone’s name you can:

  • enhance their mood
  • help them learn better
  • help them think more creatively
  • help them to be more resourceful i.e. access their inner resources more easily
  • help them to be more open to compromise
  • connect with them at identity level and understand their point of view

What’s involved?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m going to share with you my strategy for remembering names. You will already have your own strategy which may or may not be working well. You can use my model in full or you can take bits and pieces of it to enhance your own model.

A strategy for remembering names

The first condition that must be met is that you must WANT to learn this skill. You need to be able to see the benefits. If not then there’s no point in learning the skill and it won’t work anyway!

So imagine a meeting taking place, where none of the people in the meeting know each other’s name.

Now imagine a meeting where people have made the effort to remember the names of every other person in the room.

What differences do you notice between the two situations? Which scenario feels the most productive and creative? In which situation do see the most progress being made and the most solutions found?

So here are the steps of the strategy (the following all takes place in the space of a few seconds. You can get better and quicker at it with practice):

  1. Be in a relaxed state. If you are tense or anxious remembering anything that doesn't involve immediate survival is much more difficult. You are in fight or flight mode. You might not actually be preparing to punch somebody in the face or sprint off and perform a rolling dive out of the boardroom doorway, but nevertheless, your body and brain experience a milder version of this situation. When you are in this state, you are focussed on survival (at the expense of openness, creativity, progress, productivity or whatever your desired outcome is). Your muscles are tense which emanates from your body language whether you and others in the room are consciously aware of it or not. Remembering names is going to be way down in your priority list!
  2. Imagine that there is only you and that one other person in the room at that moment in time. Just you and them having a one to one conversation. Do this step whether you are in a room full of people who are ‘mingling’, sitting in a meeting sitting round a table or standing in front of a room of people.
  3. Get in there first by asking their name (I used to find this quite a challenge but maybe comes from having an unusual name that, as a child, would generate unwanted questions or comments without fail!)
  4. Look at the person in sufficient detail that you would be able to give a description of them so that a good police identikit picture could be created. Notice the shape of their face, their skin colour, their hair colour, how the hair frames their face or not, the size, shape and colour of their eyes, their body language, how they are sitting, what they are wearing, make a judgement on it (do you like it?) do they look smart or scruffy. What kind of personality might they have based on their appearance.
  5. Look at their name board or badge if they have one. What kind of writing have they used, what colour pen is it in? Thick or thin? Small or large? Capitals? Joined up writing? Make an image in your head of their headshot with the image of the board or badge underneath.
  6. Say their name in your head. If it is appropriate say their name out loud. Either by repeating it to show that you are committing it to memory, or by working it into a sentence. “Great to have you with us today Kieran.”
  7. Whilst doing this, make a connection between the visual image and the name. Keep going back and forth until the connection is so strong that they happen at once.
  8. Connect the name to something in your mind. Here’s an example: Last night at choir practice I found myself sitting in between two people who were there for the first time. I started a conversation to the lady to the left of me. She was Irish and had a lovely lilting voice. Her name was Julieanne. I made the connection in my mind that I know two other people called Julieanne and they are both Irish. Once I had made that connection I her name was stored for good in my mind. The lady to the right of me was called Anne Marie. I know one other person called Anne Marie and noticed that this lady was a similar height and had straight bobbed hair the same as the other Anne Marie. So again, I knew then that it was stored for good.
  9. Feel a connection between you and the person. I imagine a connection of love going from my heart to theirs, like we are joined by a straight line of swirling light and energy and in that moment we have known each other all our lives and at the same time are both anticipating all of the amazing things that are going to come out of this new found relationship that was created by destiny. Whether the relationship is founded learning, inspiration, progress on a project, resolution of an ongoing problem, new ideas or even just having met one extra person in your life that adds to you in some way, find a connection to focus on.
  10. Now do a check to see if you have successfully stored the name in your memory. Look up to the left and recreate a picture of their face, notice if the name sign is clearly visible and you can hear the name in your head. If so, you have completed stage 1 of the name remembering process for this person. If not, then look back at the person and say their names a couple more times. Ideally out loud. Funnily enough people don’t seem to mind you making a point of remembering their name and if anything, it shows them that you are making a special effort.
  11. Stage 2 is to really embed the name in your mind. From this point on use the person’s name when you speak to them or refer to them until it is as firmly embedded as your best friend’s name (obviously only as much is appropriate without detracting from the matter in hand or freaking them out in some way!)

What are your tips and tricks for remembering names? What difference have you found that it makes? Share your experiences in the comments box.

Saffron Grant specialises in improving business performance by improving employee wellbeing. She provides resilience training, executive coaching and can help you to create the perfect Employee Wellbeing Strategy for your organisation.

Saffron is the author of A Practical Guide to Employee Wellbeing - How to create your strategy’ which can be downloaded for free here. You can sign up to have her new book 10 Steps to Resilience - A step by step guide anyone can use’ sent to you as soon as it is released in January 2015.

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