“Have We Met Yet?” The Power of Casual Conversation for Organizational Engagement

“Have We Met Yet?” The Power of Casual Conversation for Organizational Engagement

Although I didn’t meet my friend Amy until we were both adults, it feels like we’ve known each other forever. In fact, we have a surprising amount in common.

The same doctor delivered our children, in the same hospital, a week apart (now keep in mind that this is in New York City as opposed to a hamlet with a small handful of delivery options). I also grew up attending the summer camp that her family owned and operated. We have the same politics, the same taste in movies, the same approaches to dealing with challenging people, and the same idea about what makes a good girls’ night out.

But as Amy has reminded me, it was highly likely that we might never have met. Our children attend different schools, play in different sports’ leagues, we live in different towns, and have entirely different circles of friends. One small but significant action that I took made the difference between us becoming lifelong confidantes and never meeting one another: I noticed her, and then did something about it.

It was either Simchat Torah or Purim – I can’t remember which holiday exactly, except that there were many energetic kids running around, being alternately chased and ignored by their tired parents. I knew many of the children from our synagogue’s services and from pre-school, as well as many of their parents. But I noticed one parent – Amy – who I didn’t recognize from school or shul, and I also noticed that she didn’t seem to know too many other people herself. The easy thing to do would have been to do nothing. But it seemed only moderately harder to put out my hand and say, “Hi, I’m Deborah. Have we met yet?” Which is exactly what I did.

I admit that there was nothing brilliant about my conversation starter. In fact, in hindsight, I wish I had opened with something more clever, like “What time do they start serving the martinis?” or “Would anyone notice if we escaped for a quick nap?” But, as it turned out, I didn’t need to be witty. I just needed to be willing.

And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It was also the beginning of wanting to attend temple when they did, because there was someone I was really looking forward to seeing, and someone who would notice if I showed up or not. It was the beginning of being there for each other’s lifecycle events (Jewish and secular), and for being in each other’s lives, I hope, for the long haul.

It all happened at shul, with a seven-word introduction.

Whether you work at a Jewish organization, volunteer for one, or attend one as a member, you have an opportunity more often than not to engage and educate people what your institution and community has to offer them. These aren’t necessarily during informational meetings or members-only gatherings, but during down time, walking-in-the-hallway time, waiting-for-class-to-finish time, nosh time, or any other time when you see someone in the building who could use a warm greeting and a personal touch.

Here are some tips and tools to help you make that connection feel comfortable for both of you.

1. Read body-language to see if someone is approachable. Don’t approach someone who is dealing with a child having a tantrum, but do approach someone looking lost, lonely or bored.

2. Ask open-ended questions like, “What brings you here today?” rather than “Did you find what you need?”

3. Introduce yourself and your role (not just your title), like, “I’m Donna, and I oversee programming for older adults, like our day trips and senior companion programs” or “I’m Ben, and I’m a fourth-generation member here. How about you?”

4. Ask for someone’s name and use it at least once in the conversation – and at the end. (“Nice to meet you, Bob”….”Well, Bob, thanks for chatting with me. And here’s my card in case you have any questions in the future about our day school’s admissions process.”)

5. Be a great listener and use what you hear to go deeper into the conversation. (“You’re new to the shul? Welcome! Who have you met so far?”). Note: make sure not to follow that kind of question with negative commentary, like, “Oh, you’ve met Dave? Sorry to hear that. I hope you won’t hold him against the rest of us!”

6. Share your positive opinions/points of view about the organization (“One of the things that I like most about working here at the JCC is the variety of services. My son comes for camp, my sister works out here and my mom loves the day trips.”)

7. Find out what someone knows about the organization’s programs or services. (“I see you know about our Federation’s Happy Hours. What other events or programs have you been to?”)

8. Assume that everyone has something more they can learn about what the organization offers that could be relevant to them or someone they know. (“Next month is our book fair, and I know you have kids, so I wanted to let you know that Wendy Mogel is coming to talk about parenting. Are you familiar with her books?”

9. Be proactively helpful and memorable. Hand someone a flyer about a program or event you’ve discussed, offer to add them to the mailing list, walk them to wherever they are going, introduce them to the person in charge of the department they are most interested in, buy them a cup of coffee at your café, give them your card and invite them to call you with questions, etc.

10. Know how to end a conversation with ease, like “”I won’t take up any more of your time but it’s been nice talking with you, Ellen” or “Well, thanks so much for stopping to chat with me. I have a call in five minutes, Jon, and here’s my card in case you need anything” or even better, “It was great meeting you, Sam. Will I see you back here next week?”

By noticing people and acting on it, you just might get a new member, a new donor, a new family or a new client for your JCC, synagogue, day school, Hebrew school, agency, Federation, etc. – and you may even reengage, reenergize and reconnect with some existing ones. And if you are really, truly lucky like I was, you’ll get your very own Amy.

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