Imagine this: You notice a former colleague updated their profile on LinkedIn with a new description, “Looking for a new opportunity.” You haven’t heard from them for a few years, and think back to when you worked together. You remember you got along well, but somehow never managed to keep in touch after you left the company.
The next day, you receive a message.
It’s been a long time! I hope you’re well.
I would love to meet for a coffee to catch up. I’m ready for a new role, and hoped I could pick your brain.
Would you have any time next week?”
Take a moment and imagine yourself reading this. Which one of the emotions and statements below is the closest match to what you might feel and think?
Happy. I’m glad they contacted me. I’m looking forward to re-connecting.
Mildly positive. It’s good to help out someone in need.
Mildly irritated. Why do people wait till they need something to reach out?
Angry. So fake! They obviously don’t care about me. They just want something.
What did you choose?
When I find myself in this situation, I usually experience a combination of emotions and thoughts. I may be pleased that they remembered me, but because their message appears obviously inauthentic, it triggers a negative reaction, even aversion. On top of this, I’m now burdened with responding.
Of course, it’s easy for me to judge the other person and what they wrote. With a bit more reflection and empathy, I can appreciate that they may be in a difficult situation, and they’re doing the best they can.
The problem, though, isn’t with the words they used in their message. It’s what they failed to do before they sent it.
Earning someone’s attention
Primates and many other mammals have evolved highly sophisticated forms of cooperation and collaboration based on giving and receiving, and humans have the most complex systems of all. Our exchanges of attention, appreciation, tangible items, vulnerability, assistance, and more all serve to build a sense of trust and relatedness over time.
It’s that sense, that development of a social bond, that makes future exchanges easier. Indeed, it fundamentally changes how you feel and think about such exchanges. When there is a lack of exchange over time, as in the Coffee Test, the social bond erodes, and a request for assistance that you might have welcomed earlier is now seen as an unwelcome intrusion.
What do you do?
As easy as it is for me to recognize this mistake in others, I repeat it myself over and over again. When a close colleague left my company, for example, or changed locations, I typically failed to make the required adjustments to maintain the social bond. Even something as simple as the occasional “I’m thinking of you” or “How are you doing?” seemed beyond me. And so, like a door slowly closing, I would be gradually shut off from a human connection I valued as well as all that such a connection makes possible.
This pattern is so common that you can call it “human nature.” Yet we need not be victims of our nature. For human beings have also evolved an incredible ability to learn and adapt, to change our nature by changing our habits.
Let every cup of coffee be a reminder: Don’t wait until it’s too late. Investing in your social bonds is a habit you can develop, not for some expected return from any given individual, but because it helps you feel good in the present while it enables a richer future, one with more connections and possibilities.