Show a little meta-interest

By Martin Tothill

Martin lives to help and grow others to be the best leaders they can and in turn inspire a future generation of followers to do the very same.

You have interests and you probably invest a lot of time and effort in their pursuit.

Guess what: so do your team and clients. Forgetting this simple fact can create a genuine relationship blind spot.

How often have you engaged in office banter, or small talk with a prospect or client in an early meeting, about something you like?

What if you flipped this?

Leadership is often perceived to be about command and control: be strong of mind and decisive. Some situations demand this. Meta-interest (a Catseye term), however, defines an active interest in the passions, hobbies and curiosities of others – be they knitting, horses, trainspotting or anything else.

To help managers, directors and executives connect with clients, we at Catseye often use skills-based practices and/or role play to create suitable learning environments. I remember one role play scenario in particular that illustrated zero meta-interest: the case study had been written and the participants had researched their client and arranged an initial meeting. The team were feeling good about their progress so far.

Knock, knock, and the role play began.

The purpose of the 20-minute meeting was to establish the individual's needs and develop the relationship. Indications that the client knows, likes and trusts us are typical desired outcomes at this stage. To achieve this, skilled individuals generally look to build rapport by complimenting the target personally and/or professionally, exuding confidence and competence and, above all, actively listening.

What often goes wrong here is forcing expert rather than advisor behaviours: “I know lots and I’m going to tell you what I know”, rather than the more confident, assured and successful “We’ve never met before, so tell me bit about yourself and I’ll share a little about what I do when you ask me”.

During the conversation, facts are divulged and devoured, the goal for both parties being to understand the other. Then, with a well-positioned, curious enquiry, we (the service provider) establish if – and, indeed, how – we’d be able to help. That’s a tried and tested formula for first-meeting success. Try it!

But our role play took a slightly different turn. The client was an avid collector of designer goods and on his desk sat a designer condiment set. A famous brand designed by a famous designer. Polished glass and gleaming chrome. A design classic. The client happily said that after some considerable time and effort he’d tracked down and bought the set online and it’d arrived that very morning.

“What do you think?” he asked.
“What is it?” enquired our learner.
“It’s a condiment set. Beautiful, don’t you think?” the client said proudly.
“No! I don’t like it!”

A long silence followed.

In the debrief, feedback was exchanged positively and lightheartedly. Observers and the actor playing the part of the client had seen the impact of this action, but the learner hadn’t fully appreciated it.

On reflection, however, it made much more sense. How could a frank response to a simple question cause offence? After all, he was simply expressing an opinion. But of course we know that successfully building relationships, either business or personal, is a delicate operation requiring emotional dexterity, skill and flexibility. Being right serves a purpose and can have a place – but not always. 

So, when others share their passions with you, spend a few moments to absorb their interests. Don’t be too quick to retreat to your comfort zone – the safe ground occupied by knowledge of your own interests. Show a little meta-interest and reap the rewards!


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