Betting on Conversation With the Person in the Window Seat

jeff kaye talksI ENJOY business travel when it gives me the opportunity to visit with other cultures. Those cultures don’t have to be found in foreign lands. In the United States, there are so many different and wonderful cultural experiences you can have just traveling between Washington, Michigan and Kentucky, for example.

Traveling the world for both personal and professional reasons has given me something that can’t be bought in any store, and that’s perspective. Seeing a young Russian girl thrilled over a pack of chewing gum or an old Vietnamese man share his pride in his country’s history are both memories, but ones that helped shape who I am.

I’m co-C.E.O. of the executive search firm Kaye/Bassman-Sanford Rose Associates and C.E.O. of the recruiting training company Next Level Exchange. That means I’m traveling all the time. I’ve given talks in places like Spain, the Czech Republic and Hong Kong and traveled too many times all over the Americas. I have my routine down pat, and I like flying since I can be completely focused and maybe can get some strategic work done, the really thoughtful kind of work you often can’t get done in an office.

But I also do like talking to people.

I’m an extrovert and inquisitive by nature, and I began playing a game that I first started back in the late 1990s. The game is simple. I just assume the person sitting next to me is there for a reason and that it’s my job to figure out that reason and what information or lesson there is to learn from the conversation I have with a fellow passenger. I basically put my recruiting skills to work to see what I can find out.

I do this on every flight and over the years have developed a quick protocol. Once I sit down, I greet the person next to me and ask if they are headed home or leaving home. Based on the answer, I ask a question about their hometown. I follow up with one more open-ended question about what they do, their family or anything relevant I see, like a sports team jersey or an item with a corporate logo on it.

If the person’s answers are short then I figure they are not feeling talkative and simply say that it was nice to meet them. It amazes me how people can sit next to each other for hours and never even grunt the word hello. But about 90 percent of the people I try this with really do want to talk. After all, people’s favorite subject is often themselves.

It’s fun, and I have picked up some trivial things like a great movie or TV show that I wasn’t aware of, as well as a restaurant recommendation or even a recommendation for sightseeing in various places. I can’t say that I’ve hired someone whom I met on a plane, but I did have someone introduce me to one of their friends who is now with our organization. I have also heard perspectives that have helped shape the way I see the world and the people in it, including myself, and that’s invaluable.

I really enjoy connecting with people but, of course, I have regretted it a few times, maybe even more times than I want to tell you. There have been a few people who just won’t stop talking, and, unfortunately, these people aren’t talking about anything remotely interesting.

I am also always astonished at how some people will open up. That can be incredibly refreshing, but I have met a few people who have absolutely no filters. Imagine hearing about marital issues and infidelity while you’re trapped in a plane. Now that’s awkward.