I’m sitting on the plane right now, on my way to High Point, NC, where three or four times a year I come to trade shows for home furnishings and textile markets. Highpoint shows are really big. People from every aspect of the design industry go there to conduct business. From celebrity to rookie designers, to owners of giant retail stores and upscale boutiques, to furniture manufactures, up-and-coming brands and everyone in between.
At first, coming to these shows to conduct business was a nerve-wracking experience, to say the least. It was not unusual to find myself in a meeting with serious business people— CEOs, CMOs and buyers of huge retail chains. These were meetings that, if they went well, could put me on the map, mean significant financial gains, and help my business up-level.
Often times my agent and I were the only women in these meetings, the youngest people at the table, and I am almost always the only person of color. The home furnishing industry is dominated by, as the adage goes, “old white guys” and at first it was easy for me to feel like a fish out of water, and like I had little in common with the people I found myself pitching ideas and potential partnerships to. The meetings would often begin with smalltalk and I quickly learned that finding common ground with these folks was imperative to building meaningful business relationships. I knew from the years of growing my social media audiences shared experiences help build connection, and if I can connect with you on a personal level, you’ll be more open to connecting with my business, too. So how was I going to quickly find common ground to make sure I connect with someone who, on the surface, I have little in common with?
On my fourth or fifth trip to High Point Market, I really began to hone in on what I know call my Common Ground Schema. This is, quite simply, a short list of things in my back pocket to pull out to help me find common ground with other business people when I only have a few minutes to make a lasting impression. So for example, one thing I have in common with a lot of adults is that I’m a parent. During small talk I may inquire if they have children, or how old they are etc. Being a parent is great common ground to start out on.
But ideally, I like to dig in more— because I find that the more nuanced the commonality, the tighter the initial bond seems to be. (Ever wonder why so many people break the ice talking about the weather or traffic? It’s something everyone is the room has in common and can relate to). So after the more general commonalities are established I try and segue into slightly more personal topics, that are still pretty general, for example, I may mention the university I went to (UCLA). Often that spawns some kind of university connection (“my daughter is a Bruin!”), or even a Los Angeles connection—and that can help to break the ice too. Other things I sometimes have in common are the years I spent living in Italy, my ability to speak several other languages or when all else fails I may turn to a favorite TV show (do old white guys watch Game Of Thrones? Inquiring minds want to know).
All jokes aside, what I’ve found through years of meetings and building meaningful relationships with people from all walks of life is that while we are all deeply different…we are all also deeply similar, and uncovering what makes us similar can be a powerful tool in work and in life.
Try creating your own Common Ground Schema by drawing out a pyramid divided into three section. The bottom level is for “Macro Commonalities”. The middle level is for “Micro Commonalities” and the top row is for “Personal Commonalities.” So on the Macro level, start with the most general/universal commonalities. Maybe, like me, it’s being a parent, maybe it’s the state you’re from, or maybe it’s situational to the event you’re attending or the city you’re in, or maybe it pertains to pop culture–something that they are likely to have heard about.
Then on the micro level maybe it’s the city or town you grew up in, the school you attended, a favorite sports team, a language you speak, a musical instrument that you play, a place you recently visited, a unusual food you tried recently or even your star sign! It could be anything. One level up from there are the most intimate connections, and this may require some research, but maybe there is a person you know in common (LinkedIn can normally help pinpoint these connections).
I’ve found, that the higher up on the pyramid the commonalities, the more likely it is that you can get someones attention and perhaps leave a lasting impression.
How do you navigate in circles when you feel like an ‘outsider’? Do you have tools that you use to navigate these situations in your work life? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The Business of Being Boho is a column by Justina Blakeney discussing a wide variety of business topics from her perspective as a female business owner and as a person of color. Got a biz question for Justina? Leave a question here and we may tackle your question in a future installment.