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Kare Anderson helps people connect
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Kare Anderson helps people connect
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Kare Anderson helps people connect
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“I think to show genuine interest is to prove you heard what someone said."
Conversations
26 February 2015

Kare Anderson helps people connect

Interview by Sofija Stefanovic
Photography by Angela Decenzo

Sofija Stefanovic

Kare Anderson recently did a TED Talk called “Be an Opportunity Maker.” If you watch it, you’ll see her deliver it brightly, looking to the audience and laughing every now and then out of nowhere. Kare’s laugh makes the audience laugh, and I wondered if this is a technique—after all, Kare’s website says that she’s discovered 30 connectability cues “to bring out the brighter side in others” (“only then will they see and support your best side”)

But Kare does not come across as someone who manipulates people into liking her. She seems natural and a bit goofy. She describes herself as clumsy, something that makes her more endearing. Ever since the TED Talk, Kare’s been swamped with emails: “Everyone wants to be my friend,” she tells me over Skype, clearly overwhelmed. Kare speaks in a slightly fragmented way, her sentences have an abrupt quality to them. She explains it later on as being the result of speech therapy. The challenges of her youth made Kare observant of human behaviour, which grew her into an Emmy-winning journalist (she has written for Forbes and the Wall Street Journal among others), and eventually a public speaker.

Today, she coaches people on how to be more quotable (“be actionable, interesting and relevant”), how to connect better, and how to collaborate. Kare was involved in President Obama’s election campaign, creating issues formation teams. She’s been hired by the likes of Google and the London School of Economics. As we chat, she talks about finding common points of interest with unlikely people, and then using them to create opportunities for each other.

A real-world example occurs, as Kare and I find a sweet spot of our own: poodles. Through my computer screen, my poodle-crosses Sonia and Natasha charm Kare, who wants a poodle herself. She suggests I help her find a good breeder, of smart “oodles” like my own. “I’ll ask around,” I say. Point blank, she responds: “And what can I do for you?” These are Kare’s teachings in motion. Instead of beating around the bush, she is offering help and providing opportunities. I ask for some contacts in the journalism world, and she throws two names at me: people who she believes would be “unexpected allies.”

In the meantime, outside her home, the street is moving—the area’s been flooded. So, as the water rises in her neighbourhood, and the snow falls outside my New York apartment, we talk about how people can bring out the best in themselves and others.

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

SOFIJA STEFANOVIC: So, when you were young you were shy?

KARE ANDERSON: Yes. Diagnosed as shy. I believe I was just a daydreamer and didn’t know how to process conversations.

Is that what you think shyness is?

Some people are more contemplative and like to have a few close friends. And like quiet time. I’m also a synesthete, which means a convergence of two senses. When I hear sounds, I see colours around people. So I was overwhelmed by senses until I could do what’s called a bell jar—to sort of visualise a glass jar around me, so I would not be overwhelmed by these senses.

Oh that’s fascinating.

It’s ultimately been helpful, because I became so observant—because I had to.

So when I’m talking, do you see colours, or is that something you block out with the bell jar?

No, you have no choice about seeing the colours. Synesthesia is actually now a cool condition! It’s ironic.

Yes.

You have a deep peachy lavender one. But it changes as you talk. So then there’s a green thing darting out.

And does that mean anything to you? Or is it just colours corresponding with the tones?

No. It’s just your brain. They haven’t figured out why.

I imagine it’s overwhelming having all that going on while talking to someone.

I had a great high school boyfriend. His parents figured out something was going on, because I would talk in fragments, trying to incorporate the multiple thoughts
 I had. And it wasn’t very coherent. They were patient, and I learned to process things sequentially. But sometimes I would answer questions that people had not yet asked. And some people are uncomfortable with that.

So does that mean you anticipate what people will say based on certain cues they give?

I think you learn to just really notice people. I don’t believe you can read faces. I think there are too many variables. But there are some universal expressions in the face, like when it tightens up— that shows someone has some level of discomfort. So yeah, in the context of conversation, sometimes you get glimpses of what might be going on.

You used to stutter when you were young. Is that related to your brain being so active?

I don’t know. You never get over it. When I think about it I start to do it. But in general, I believe stuttering is something that you can control when you get more grounded. So meditation helps.

Interesting.

I was required to see a very angry man who was a speech pathologist by my grade school teacher. He would have me recite stuff back and forth, so I got a sing-song recite effect. And it made my voice more musical to the third degree. That is, three sentences before there’s a repetition pattern.

Oh?

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

When I was at Stanford I learned that 
when people have more musical voices others listen longer.

It made me fascinated from a young age about research on human behaviour. It set me on a path that’s felt true all my life about why we do what we do. So ultimately, 
I think any of us can realise that the things that most hampered us in our childhood are the core strengths that enable us to grow and use our talents well.

One thing I noticed about you in the TED Talk is that you laugh a lot while you talk. I think that’s quite unusual.

It was pointed out to me after the talk. [Laughs]. I didn’t know I was. I’m usually happy when I’m talking about that topic, but I don’t know what instigated the laughing. And it’s only recently been pointed out to me. It’s fun that we can continually keep learning about ourselves.

Would you say you are an expert in human behaviour?

I believe I’m an expert in connective behaviour. For four years a company in Japan privately gave me money to bring together 18 researchers. I facilitated a discussion amongst them so they
could learn from each other and see if they wanted to collaborate. I’d suggest ways they could work with each other. They were four glorious years. They took a leap of faith on me because as a journalist I could interview, facilitate and be direct.

So you’re a connection expert.

It’s my profound mission to help people be better at connecting with those extremely unlike them around sweet spots of mutual interest. And a lot of people want that, but they have trouble not reverting to talking about themselves. They have trouble trying to find the sweet spots even though the benefits are so high.

The best adventures of my life have been relationships with people extremely unlike me, including some that I violently disagree with on some things, but we find one thing we do agree on.

So we know it’s outstanding when we take a stand on that together or help other people. And it leads us to learn more from each other. That’s what the world needs.

When you say people should be talking to each other, rather than talking about themselves, is that relating to empathy?

I believe it is. I believe when you’re grounded enough in yourself and you know what you believe and you know your hot buttons—and the flipside: your strengths—you can be more present with somebody else and actually hear what they’re saying, rather than project on them. The less projection, the more chance you have to be looking for those sweet spots. It makes life a lot easier. Then you’re more able to hear.

So if a person can pinpoint what their trigger is, or hotspot—did you call it a hotspot?

We all have about three triggers that most upset us—behaviours that other people do. I was in traffic school for driving too slow. And it was fascinating because the teacher said, “Defensive driving is where you look several cars ahead depending on speed, so you can notice sooner and avoid a crash.” And that metaphor’s true. If there are certain things that I know upset me about other people, if I can notice it happening sooner, I can make more conscious choices.

Right.

For example, I don’t like it when someone stands close, talks loud and interrupts another person. So I would get in and I would be a jerk to that person, which doesn’t really help. “You can’t do that to them!” So when you get concrete, you get more present. When you get more present, you listen better.

So are there people who you have trouble communicating with?

I guess that life is short. And there is so much I really want to do. There are certain people I realise are going to always trigger those hot buttons. So there won’t be a way I can connect with them. For example, if they don’t keep agreements. That’s so fundamental as a value to me.

Right.

There are so many people that I like, or I can bring out a better side in, and who bring out a better side in me. And a lot of those people are radically different to me in a lot
of other ways. So I think when you work with people whose temperament and talents are different, you inevitably may have some friction. Your goal is to get to the point of being able to kid about it, say, “Oh I’m doing it again, aren’t I?” and then laugh about it.

Yeah.

There are so many opportunities with people, people different to me, because we have a shared sweet spot. There’s a book called Why Quitters Win. I adore it and I wrote about it for Forbes. Nick Tasler, the author, says, “You can make a list, but as long as there’s something at the bottom of the list you never get to, you’re not going to be as happy about your life.” So he says that some things you should just quit doing, and there are some people and situations that you don’t have time for, if you want to be leading a purposeful life.

And what’s the most important thing you’ve learnt about human behaviour over time?

I think the thing that I learnt most is that the best conversations with people happen when you speak sooner to a sweet spot or shared interest. But they also happen when you’re open to hearing that you’re wrong. So you might say, “It seems like we both have an interest in blah, blah, blah. Is that true?” And then that person might say, “Well, actually, no.” It’s when you really stay with it there that you start talking. That’s where the most fascinating conversations with people happen.

Oh?

I’m thinking of getting a poodle. That’s funny. A poodle, and I don’t know why. It’s just I’ve been drawn to their intelligence, the smarts. So this guy was talking about his poodle. I said, “Well we could probably argue about politics.” He says, “Yeah, I bet we could.” And I said, “I know one thing we probably couldn’t argue about.” “What’s that?” And I point down at his poodle. I said, “I want your poodle.” [Laughs]. And he just cracked up laughing. And he started telling me about it. Then we found there were a couple of other things we actually agreed on. So I think that’s important: dry humour, finding the sweet spot sooner, being open to not being right about it, and taking some actions together on it. It’s what makes life adventurous. It’s the feeling of being known and being heard. Since more people are living and working on their own in the United States, we crave a sense of real connection with others. And I think

having that sweet spot is the beginning of a real connection.

So the sweet spot is crucial.

Yes, a connective behaviour to find and speak to the sweet spot. And stick to that. That’s how my best adventures have happened.

By the way I have two poodles.

You have a poodle?

I’ve got two!

Oh, you have to show me now! [Laughs].

Okay, hang on. Girls!

[The dogs are brought up to the computer screen and the conversation turns to poodles before getting back on track].

What’s something you’ve learnt about yourself?

The most astounding thing for someone who didn’t talk much at all is that my major source of revenue is from giving speeches. The way it first happened was I filled in for someone who got sick. He said, “You care about the issue.” And I stood on stage and I didn’t stutter at all. And I didn’t notice I wasn’t stuttering.

That’s great!

And then when I did a talk, this same man (who frankly was a misogynist) was in the audience. And he came up to me and said: “For a girl you’re pretty impressive. You look a little clumsy but I think you should do some more speeches.” And I said, “Well that’s not really what I want to do.” Then he said, “You can make money.” And I said: “Tell me more.” [Laughs].

So, the thing I learnt about myself is that I could stand up on stage and suggest an idea and incite people in the audience. That was thrilling to me—and to hear people give me feedback about what they thought was the most important part. I remember the first time I went on stage I had a run in my nylon stockings. And you know what? That was so clumsy and weird people actually thought I was doing a form of comedy.

[Laughs].

There was this big video screen behind me, and they didn’t tell me they would be projecting a video of me as I talked. I was wearing a lovely lavender outfit a girlfriend of mine gave me. And I looked back at the screen behind me and said: “Oh, that colour, it’s beautiful. It looks like what I’m wearing!”

You didn’t realise it was you 
projected on the screen?

I didn’t realise! And people thought, Wow, she’s a humourist.

[Laughs].

But I was mostly just startled! And then

I came into my own and realised, you can be vulnerable and clumsy and have a variety of expressions and people will more likely connect with you because of it.

What advice would you give people who don’t feel that they can do that? People who think, I’m shy, I’m scared to talk to others, I’ll sound stupid if I say something.

I guess I was never scared, so I don’t have a first-hand visceral experience to speak from. I was just trying to avoid boredom. Blandness. But I believe the more we think it’s about us, the more we reinforce it is about us. Instead we should say, “What matters most to me and how can I make other people care about it?” It’s sort of like if you focus on not stuttering, of course you stutter. But if you focus on something you really care about, in the audience, or in everyday life, and you really want someone else to have that feeling or belief, you have to step outside of yourself. I don’t believe that’s the best thing, it’s just the only thing I know.

So you’re an observer of human behaviour, even at the level of seeing the 
colours around people. I wonder is there something unexpected that you’ve noticed about people that most people wouldn’t know about themselves?

You are the best question asker.

Thank you.

One of the biggest, saddest things I see is what I call the “screen face.” There’s going to be some research done at Stanford on it. A lot of people don’t realise that their faces are getting a lot dourer, more severe because of how much time they spend in front of screens. Some even look slightly pissed or irritated. And for people who are raised looking down at a screen then looking up, it’s even more so.

There’s this increasing propensity for people to not show warmth in their faces.

I think that’s one of the things that most surprises me—keeps on surprising me as I get to know people. I realise it wasn’t their intent, that they actually did feel warm and happy in the situation, their faces just hadn’t caught up with them.

Is that something we can change? Can we make a conscious effort not to do it?

I’ve been working on this for six years. The base thinking is showing an openness towards others, having slightly elevated eyebrows. If you turn to face somebody and you shake hands, you actually loosen up with them. If you shake hands, your vital signs get more in sync. So in a natural way we can connect better with people. And we get more in sync walking to a meeting with people than sitting straight down.

That’s interesting.

I’m really drawn to warm faces so it’s nice to be conscious of how powerful that is. I met a man who uses his warmth as his strength, and when he does other men in leadership in the organisation unconsciously tend to emulate it. And I hesitated to bring it up with the man because I didn’t want him to be self-conscious or change it, or start noticing it. But I finally told him. And he said, “Well frankly, it’s because my wife understands me so well. I feel such warmth towards her, I try to think about her before I go into these meetings.”

Oh wow.

And he said, “But I didn’t know it was showing. I just knew I got less irritated with other people.” It’s fun to share observations that way.

Given you work in business contexts quite a lot, I wonder what you think about the best-selling book from the ’30s, How to Win Friends and Influence People. People still use it a lot. And I think it gets a lot of criticism for being superficial. Stuff like winking, fake smiling, using catchphrases.

I do agree with that criticism. One of the things I notice is that people don’t listen closely and follow up on what someone just said. Or it’s increasingly happening where someone asks a question and we’re more likely to give background and context before we answer, and then sometimes forget to answer. Even if we may get irritated when someone does that to us. I think to show genuine interest is to prove you heard what someone said. Explicitly responding to what someone said is very powerful and increasingly rare. I work with some small groups doing 45-minute, interactive, tip-orientated sessions, and one-on-one coaching. What I say when we’re doing this is, “When anybody says something, respond first to what they say, and then move onto your thought. Do not change the topic.” It’s very hard for them to do that, but then the click happens and they do it. And they get irritated when the others aren’t.

Right.

These groups become so tightly bonded to each other, and they know the tips for connecting in shorthand—they have each other’s back. So they’re in effect helping each other, no matter what the ostensible structure is in the company. I really believe in the power of small groups networking with other groups.

I love that. I’m quite interested in how individuals function within groups.

Let me be very specific about that. In everything from SEALs to hybrid classes, seven is the most amount of people that can ever work productively together. Having rules of engagement and one top goal are core things that help. But you should make sure the people in the group not only work with each other, they connect with other groups too. Then the small groups become tight-knit but not rigid. Because in our country there’s a lot of rigid stuff happening, a certain righteousness, an “us versus them” that’s poisonous. So you need just a few rules like that. Sorry, I’m going to get off my own pulpit, but I believe that anybody who’s been part of a seven-person group which has done something magnificent has a lifelong memory of it. It changes them and they want more.

Like the Seven Samurai and the Magnificent Seven.

[Laughs].

So you coach people about becoming likeable.

Well, “deeply connected” is the more accurate part.

But do you also help people increase their likeability?

To some degree. I do talk to people about the part of themselves they’re most proud of, and when they feel most comfortable, and the things they most want to do. And out of that comes a sense of what makes them likeable or not.

What makes someone likeable?

Well, here’s how I put it. It’s not how you feel about me when you meet me, it’s more important about how you feel about yourself when you’re around me. That’s where you get likeable. When someone feels understood, they’re using their best talents, their best temperament’s showing off, they project onto you all kinds of qualities they like. Conversely, if they don’t like how they feel when they’re around you, they’ll project qualities on you they don’t like in other people, some of which you may not have.

And can someone who is unlikeable become likeable?

Most people are unlikeable sometimes and likeable other times. So it’s situational. And the more they’re aware of when they look unlikeable, or likeable, the more they can do to change that. Smiling, for example.

One of the things you can do when you first meet someone is look closely for what you most genuinely like about them.

That way you’re more likely to bring it out of them and feel that. So keep it simple: one thing you really like about them. And where’s their rise of energy? Rise of energy means what they’re bugged about or what they’re excited about. What’s important to them. And is that one thing something that I can connect with?

Do you always do that? Would you have done that even when we were speaking today?

Yeah, it becomes second nature. And I think if you fake it, people can tell. There’s such a longing to be liked. One of the things that happens is that people want to be liked so they tell you stuff that’s cool about them. Which inadvertently goes the other way. “I did that and I did that and, oh you did that too? Yeah, I, I, I!” That’s the pattern that we get into. I think there is a middle ground where we light up about somebody else we like, and that’s the way that the light gets bigger. I’m sorry, that’s so corny the way I said it, but that’s how I feel.

No, it’s not corny.

It’s like this combustible thing where we can make a bigger light together.
 And there’s hardly anybody I’ve met where I so thoroughly disliked everything about them.

I think it’s good to break through the small talk. That’s one thing that I noticed about you—as soon as we started talking there wasn’t really any of that.

[Laughs].

I didn’t feel there had to be some digging until you became yourself. You just started talking in a sincere way about yourself and how you feel about things. With some people I find it much harder to get there.

It can be. But you can help. If someone says, “I really like those flowers.” And you just look at the flowers and say, “What is it about those flowers?” They answer, and then you say, “Give me an example of that.” Then they start, “Oh when I was a kid.” You’ve taken them down a path where it goes deeper, and sometimes they say something out loud they didn’t even consciously know.

How can we become happier?

I know I become happier when I—and this is another corny part but it’s true for me—when I’m deeply grateful for what I have, and I focus more on that than being upset about what I don’t have. I believe our brains give us those messages. The more you talk about certain things, the bigger those things become in your mind. The definition of mental health isn’t that you don’t make mistakes, it’s that you go on to make better ones. Someone told me that years ago. I think that’s so true. I think when you do that, you make yourself happier. Because you feel growth, and

feeling growth is more important to me than feeling praise.

I also think it works the other way: you become happier when you catch someone doing something really remarkable and shine a light on it. I think you live a richer life when you shine a spotlight on someone, so that people who matter to them hear about it.

What is one piece of advice you would give others?

To be kind to someone, especially at the moment when they’re least kind. Because that’s the only way you might get the chance of it perpetuating. There’s that man in Barcelona called Dani Alves who was playing in a football game. He had black blood and a racist in the crowd threw a banana onto the field. He picked up the banana and peeled it. And he took a bite and threw it aside, and went back to playing. So everybody just started clapping.

Yeah.

The grace to do that, and make it seem nonchalant, is like saying, “Let me give you a lesson. When someone’s a jerk, here’s what you can do to unite people around a higher, better behaviour.” I’ve only done that once in my life to that degree. But if I ever do it again, I hope I do it as half as well as he did.

Sofija Stefanovic

Sofija is a Dumbo Feather contributor who’s interviewed the likes of Julian Burnside, Akram Khan and Abigail Disney. Her new book, You’re Just Too Good To Be True, is a love story about lonely hearts and internet scams. She also hosts Women of Letters in NYC.

Photography by Angela Decenzo

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