Building Bridges to Others
The most frequent question I get from attendees at my “Conversation Mastery” seminars is “What do I say to connect with someone I don't know?” My response is this: “Say something that builds a bridge across the divide between two strangers.”
My father Elton was a master at bridge-building. I observed his approaches when I was a small boy and he was running for the office of Douglas County Sheriff in northern Wisconsin Then he'd bring me along as company, and also to demonstrate that he was a “family man” with a curly-headed little kid at his side. I'd accompany him as he drove from farmhouse to farmhouse doing his “electioneering.”
In those days of the early 1940s, most of the rural constituents were European immigrants from Scandinavia, Belgium, Poland, and Serbia making a living and a life far from the economic hardships of the “old country.” Some were quite clannish and suspicious of strangers coming up the road to their farmhouse.
As an immigrant boy himself, my father had learned – and remembered – bits of the other immigrant languages. His mother spoke Swedish in the home, but from schoolmates and neighborhood boys he learned a bit of Flemish, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Norwegian, and Finnish. Therefore he could greet the voters on their own terms, in their own language. They appreciated the gesture and usually warmed up to us appearing on their doorstep.
Then, whenever possible, he'd create another linkage by mentioning a related person, such as “I was talking to your son Toivo last week, and he told me you hadn't been feeling well.” These comments provided additional support for the bridge he was building.
Often, he'd ask them about the crops, or the season, or their equipment. Then he'd listen as they responded in a mixture of English and their native language. Dad understood the sage advice that says: “Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.”
Soon he'd made the connection, established rapport, and then he would offer his card and solicit their vote. Sometimes he'd be offered coffee, and me a glass of milk and a cookie. (I should also add that he won his first election and other elections later on, so his retail political methods proved effective in those days before radio and television advertising.)
My father had only an 8 th grade education, and I am Sure he had not read Dale Carnegie's popular “How to Make Friends and Influence People.” He had not book-learned the Carnegie principles to “Become genuinely interested in other people” and to “Talk in terms of the other person's interests.” Instead, he had learned how to talk to people in blue-collar immigrant neighborhoods, at church basement charity suppers, on dairy farms pitching hay, and on the foundry floor and in the flour mill where he had worked.
How about us non-politicians? Don't we also want to elicit trust, liking, and friendship in our business and personal lives? Don't we hope for the cooperation of the strangers we meet. To accomplish these results, I suggest that we approach our meeting as if we are bridge-building, with us initiating the construction and laying down the first pillars and planks by talking in their terms and to their interests.