I boarded a plane recently (what’s new?) to an announcement that the city we were flying to was blistering in 95-degree heat. I groaned in complaint. Overhearing me, the man in the next seat started in about the weather, describing in detail the record setting heat wave.

We then discussed the house he was selling, our roots in the northeast, and our families. By the time we landed he knew more about me than some of my friends! And it all started with the weather. Why does it always start with the weather?

It doesn’t, really, but if you observe how people connect, you will find a universal phenomenon: we build relationships based on CPR: Common Points of Reference.

In work settings, new acquaintances often use CPR without even knowing it: “Do you know Bill?” “Sure, great guy.” “Yeah, great guy,” and they’re off to the races.

I’ve been thinking of CPR a lot lately, observing how people use it to develop relationships. If, like me, you are shy to initiate new relationships, CPR helps break the ice.

To prove it, I began to experiment: At my gym I approached a guy wearing a Mets baseball cap. I told him how much I love (and hate) my favorite team. It turned out he also was from Queens, NY, and we developed a little gym friendship.

Another time recently (on another airplane of course) the person next to me was reading a book I had already read. So I mentioned it, and we had a pleasant conversation about science fiction. I am on a roll.

Why does CPR work so well? It probably has to do with our evolution as a species. If our cavemen ancestors couldn’t detect a threat from a hostile tribe, they wouldn’t pass their genes on to the next generation. CPR helps us conclude that the person we just met isn’t going to club us to death. In other words, CPR helps us feel safe in new social situations.

But CPR is not only important in new relationships; it also helps reduce friction and heal wounds in challenging relationships.

I was asked to help unify a new leadership team that was fracturing. They were responsible for global logistics at a huge pharmaceutical firm. There was enormous pressure on the team to deliver results in the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami (where many of their suppliers were located). Delays prevented patients from receiving life-saving medicines. It was a huge problem.

The team’s members came from various countries in Europe, Asia and North America, so differences in culture also contributed to their communication difficulties. And, many of the members had not yet met each other in person. I worried that I was walking into a nest of finger pointing and blame.

We held a team dinner before the session. The executives thought they would just socialize, but I had another idea. I asked each person to describe a personal or professional challenge they were experiencing, and asked the listeners to pay deep attention to their colleagues.

For some reason (maybe it was the wine) everyone opened up. One person described how difficult his relocation to another country was for his son. Another discussed her mother’s recent cancer diagnosis, and the challenges the family faced. The team leader confessed that the current supply problem was the first time he felt overwhelmed and uncertain. As each revealed something personally important, they realized how much they had in common.

The next morning they plunged into the work they had to do. By the end they organized temporary supply chains that led to faster global response, and they were working as a unified team. I am convinced they would not have progressed so far through its crisis without first intentionally working on their CPR.

What I realized from this experience, and several similar ones, is that in work environments of unremitting pressure rife with conflict, it is easy to stop seeing people as people and to view them instead as obstacles. This dehumanization makes it easier to ascribe negative motives to those we need to rely on.

Yet the most enlightened leaders are not satisfied with this mindset; rather, they view people as individuals who happen to be playing professional roles. These leaders see the person first, and then the professional role they play.

CPR is shorthand for the work we need to do to learn each other’s back-stories and seek what we have in common before we resolve the inevitable conflicts that separate us.

So, what should you do when faced with interpersonal tension? First, think about and talk about your Common Point of Reference, and only then plunge into all the differences you face. You’ll be surprised by what happens.

© Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008