Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

End the Name Blame Game: Be a Hero

Posted by debrahelwig on March 19, 2013

SuperheroOver the years, I’ve wished over and over for a very specific superpower. And if it comes with spandex tights, mask, and cape, so be it.

It’s not flight. Not super strength. Not plasti-girl flexibility.

I want the superpower to remember people’s names.

I live a public life. I see people all the time at networking events, at conferences, at my kids’ school, at church. I know who they are. I know who they’re connected with. I know something about them.

But their names?  Far too often, they’ve blown away like smoke on a windy day.

Sometimes, the problem is contextual, like seeing an always-elegant work contact in their sweats and sneakers at the grocery. That sort of missed connection makes sense. But what I’m talking about here is more blatant. My best client’s business partner. The person who sat in the front row at two of my recent conferences and asked good questions. The mom of my kids’ classmate, who I see every weekday when I walk the kids to school. The person I see and speak to at church EVERY WEEK.

Faces I know. Names I should know.

Here’s a great example: I was volunteering at a church workday this past Saturday, polishing brass, and two other women came into my workspace to help. I know both of them.  I’ve been attending this church for SEVEN YEARS. I see them every Sunday.

Names?  Dang it, I couldn’t recall either of them.

Over the years, the primary tool I’ve used in covering this weakness has been my status as a woman of the American South.  Because I am a girl from Georgia, with an accent to match, people assume that it’s just normal for me to use “Honey,” “Sweetie,” “Sugar,” or “Darlin,” instead of a name.  I cover my lapses with whichever pleasantry comes to mind first.  But this day, I knew it wouldn’t work, not on two at once – especially since both were Southern women themselves. They’d know in a heartbeat what I was up to. There was nothing to do but suck up the embarrassment and admit my fault.

But it turns out that the way I did it sparked a whole new way of thinking about my name-centered memory lapses – one that benefited both me AND them – and that might benefit you too.

I did something far different than simply plead amnesia.  I prefaced my confession by telling them what I did remember.

To Gal One, I said, “I know you’re a dental hygienist, and you always wear the most beautiful jewel tones, but for the life of me I cannot remember your name.”

Her reaction? “Oh my gosh, it’s so sweet of you to remember all that about me! I’m Kathy.”

Wow.  I did not dissolve into a puddle of embarrassment.  The world did not explode.

I kept going to Gal Two: “And you sit in the front pew every week, and you always have a big smile for me.”

She said, “I’m Kenny, Debra. I’m glad you remember my smile.”

Holy Moley. It worked. No angst. No pain.  And in reflecting on it later, I figured out why it worked then and (more important!) why it will work in the future.

Saying what I do know makes all the difference. You see, one of the biggest perceived slights in forgetting a name is the feeling that You Forgot Me. ALL of me. By saying what I do remember, it honors the person and says, “I remember you, and you’re important; my brain just doesn’t work well on names.”

That’s a very different communication. One that speaks of value and caring. One that opens the door to a much more rich and interesting dialogue. A dialogue that builds a relationship.

In that case, a lost name isn’t a reason to beat ourselves up and feel bad.  Instead, it’s an opportunity to build someone else up.  A real, honest-to-goodness chance, if only for a moment, to allow them to see themselves as we see them.  To remind them of things that stand out, positively, from their encounters with us, even if the name didn’t stick.

Because the superpower isn’t remembering the names. The superpower is connecting with the people behind the names.

I had my superpower all along. Fellow name amnesiacs out there, you do too.  All we have to do is use it.

No cape required.

Photo by Kaptain Kobold. License.
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5 Responses to “End the Name Blame Game: Be a Hero”

  1. This is a brilliant technique!!!! I am going to try it on some of those yoga pants moms and see if I can get over my resentment and acknowledge them as actual people! I love you.

  2. Girl, I am so grateful for this technique. Many of us suffer the same memory lapse you describe. I can nearly ALWAYS remember something about a person, though. Thanks to you, I now realize that what I remember may be enough to get the conversation started. Thank you, Debra! Ummm, it is Debra, right?

  3. stephanielosesit said

    Brilliant idea. Thanks for sharing it!

  4. Connie Herringdine said

    LOVE this idea. And BTW, thanks for your wonderful brass and silver polishing skills.

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