Get better at remembering names

Leadership & Strategy Relationships & Decision Making
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“What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare. As it turns out, quite a lot.

I remember on my first day at work in my first job out of college, as I was walking to an orientation session, a senior leader who had interviewed me, stopped me in the hallway. She welcomed me and addressed me by my name. It felt nice that someone so senior, who had met me for just half an hour several months prior, had remembered my name.

Remembering names though is a struggle for many of us. Research shows that most of us have difficulty recalling names, especially when it comes to people we’ve met recently.

So, this week, my message focuses on the importance of remembering people’s names and the various ways in which you can improve your recall.

Does it really matter if you forget someone’s name or get it wrong? Even if you personally think it isn’t a big deal, the fact is that recollecting names plays an important role in social interactions and relationships. Psychologist Devin Ray and his colleagues at the University of Aberdeen found in a recent study that people on the receiving end of such memory failures feel less close to the forgetful person, even if they find the forgetfulness understandable. Paul Bisceglio sums up the damage in Bad News for People Who Can’t Remember Names:

These results…suggest that forgetting someone does indeed send the message everyone seems to fear it does: You simply weren’t interested or invested in that person enough to remember things about them. The impression might be inescapable.

“It’s such a big deal to admit that you don’t remember a person,” says Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri who has separately studied the social consequences of forgetting. “It’s an insult, even though it’s completely innocent and we have absolutely no desire to hurt the person’s feelings.”

Now, imagine these repercussions at the workplace. How would a valued business partner feel if you forgot their name – the most basic information about them? What about a colleague, be it a new team member or someone you’ve interacted with for years? Every time you stumble over their name or apologise for not remembering it (yet again), you’re sending an unintentional signal that they’re not important to you.

For leaders, the skill of remembering names takes on even greater importance. When Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, passed away earlier this year, the company released a newspaper dedication in his honour. The first line read: Dear Herb, thanks for always remembering our names.

Calling someone by their name makes them feel noticed, valued and appreciated. When you take the time to learn and use your colleagues’ names in daily interactions, you bring a sense of caring and warmth into the workplace.

Using people’s names naturally in conversation is a great way to connect with them, strengthen rapport and hold their attention. It makes them feel noticed, valued and appreciated. While studying the “cocktail party effect” in the 1950s, scientist Colin Cherry found that hearing your own name immediately pulls your attention towards the speaker – even if you’re focusing intently on another conversation at the time. Since then, research has continued to confirm that we love to hear our own names.

So, why is it so tough for us to remember new names? Perhaps some of these reasons sound familiar:

1. Lack of attention

In How to Remember People’s Names (Almost) Every Time, Patrick Ewers notes that people don’t generally pay much attention at the start of an interaction:

Too often, we have a tendency to treat introductions as a formality; as precursors to something more important. As a result, we aren’t fully engaged or 100% present during initial interactions.

2. Next-in-line effect

In the Atlantic article, Why Names Are So Easy to Forget, Olga Khazan highlights stage fright as another key reason:

When you encounter a group of strangers with outstretched hands, your mind turns into a scared 9-year-old at the school talent show. You’re not watching the other contestants; you’re practicing your own routine.

You’re preoccupied with making a good impression. Since you’re busy thinking about what to say and do next, you fail to focus on and file away the information being communicated to you in the present.

3. Limited working memory

Your short-term memory, or working memory, has a limited amount of space. It also has lots of gaps, which is why rapidly incoming information often slips out just as quickly. Think about any conversation in which lots of new facts are communicated to you; afterwards, you’ll be able to remember only a few of them.

4. Baker/Baker paradox

Dr. Dean Buonomano, professor of neurobiology at UCLA, explains in this video that our brains aren’t really equipped to memorize random bits of information like names:

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