Parenthood puts you in contact with a lot of people. Teachers. Coaches. Parents. Your kid’s friends. Your kid’s friends’ parents. Whether you consider yourself a social person or not, it’s important to learn their names as best as you can. Many of these folks will orbit your kid for a decent chunk of their lives and getting to know them is part of the gig. Besides, learning someone’s name helps forge connection and makes you someone to remember as well. That goes far.
“When we remember others' names during conversations, both in casual and more formal contexts, we communicate with intention, putting in that extra effort to really get to know someone,” says Devon Climer, a corporate speech trainer, licensed speech pathologist, and founder of My Communicoach.
At it’s core, communication is all about connection and relationship building, and personalizing interactions contributes to building trust. “When we don't personalize our interactions, there's a higher likelihood that the relationship won't go much farther than merely superficial,” Climer says.
Of course, the problem is that remembering names can be hard. Really hard. Not only are you likely to have a lot of different names to catalog in your brain, but you’re also likely hearing them while trying to keep an eye on your kid at the park, or thinking about that 10 o’clock meeting, or just zoning out because, hey, what’s sleep anyway? But few things are as face-reddening as forgetting the name of someone you’ve met multiple times or having to say “Hey….sport” to one of your kid’s friends.
It’s a bad look. So how do you remember names better? Well, it helps to be focused. (Paying attention isn’t optional.) But it’s also about giving your brain a hand by relying on a few memory-enhancing techniques. Here’s what to, well, remember.
1. Repetition Is Your Friend
Repeating someone’s name when you meet them not only sets a positive tone for the interaction but also helps your brain kick into gear. “When I repeat someone’s name after they introduce themselves, I move from passive listening to active listening, which can help us greatly with retention,” says Haydn Bratt, a performance coach and founder of Mindset Leadership.
It’s helpful to say the person’s name a few times throughout the conversation. We humans tend to enjoy hearing the sound of our own names in positive contexts so this may help leave a good impression as well.
“When you repeat a name, you have had to go into the memory to retrieve it, creating an association or pattern that the brain likes. It also creates a stronger connection with the other person,” Bratt explains.
Of course, this only works if it doesn’t get so repetitive that the technique becomes obvious. (Think: “That’s great to hear, Carl. What do you have planned for the weekend, Carl?)
2. Link Names To Identifiable Characteristics
In addition to retrieving it from memory during conversation, reinforcing a person’s name with helpful bits of additional information helps your brain hold onto the information with a firmer grasp.
For example, Bratt prefers connecting names to either a feature or a place. “So, for instance, if I meet Dave at an event at a golf club, I might remember him as Golf Club Dave,” he says. “Our brains love patterns, so forming such a pattern by connecting information (the name) to something visual can help."
Facial features work well since the first identifiable feature you notice about someone will be the easiest to remember. Making a mental note that Julie has high cheekbones when you meet her in the pickup line or that Jeff keeps his head closely shaved as you visit with him during soccer practice makes name recall more likely. If Jeff’s hair grows in quickly, well, hey, you tried.
3. Imagine Some Scenes
Company logos are so effective because our brains love visual clues. They’re a powerful form of mnemonic device, or any memory technique that systematically helps us remember things that would otherwise be difficult or even impossible to recall. It’s how we all use a catchy song to keep track of a random assortment of 27 letters.
Moving images are an incredibly effective Mnemonic device for memory retention, thanks to what academics refer to as the dynamic superiority effect. In the case of meeting someone new, the key is creating a dynamic image for your mind to attach to their name. And take it a step further by adding a second mnemonic device like alliteration.
For instance, when you meet your child’s friend Sam at the pool, you can think of Swimming Sammy while picturing him leaping into the pool. The goal is to link the name to a vivid image so that it turns an otherwise mundane piece of information into something memorable.
4. Be Curious
It’s simple: The more you know about someone, the more likely you are to remember their name. No, you don’t want to always press. But if you read the room and the vibe is right, give ask more about them. The more specific the questions you ask, the more unique the answer, the more likely you are to associate their name with that nugget of information. Just be sure to actively listen.
“Interest and emotional connection play a role in an individual's ability to recall names,” Climer continues. “People tend to remember names better when they have a genuine interest in the person, which research has shown is partly due to the brain's tendency to prioritize personal information.”
5. Use Your Phone
Use your phone’s memory to take some of the pressure off your own. Even if you haven’t exchanged contact information, putting someone’s name in your phone shortly after meeting them reinforces the information and is especially helpful for those who aren’t primarily auditory learners and who process information better visually.
“The challenge is creating a connection between the name you are recording and the person,” Bratt says. “Often, you might store a name in a phone but not be able to place that name to the person. It is worth adding another reference point to the name - such as where you met them, or something they were wearing - this extra information helps the brain store the information.”
After meeting other parents, don’t forget to tag their kid’s name at the end of the contact. That way, you see them walking across the gym toward you at a school sporting event, or you need to desperately get a playdate set up, typing “Billy’s Dad” into the search field instantly pulls up the parent’s name as well.
6. Ask Again
Distractions happen. If a name slips your mind, it’s totally appropriate to ask for it again — within reason.
“I find being honest is the best policy,” says Bratt. “Generally, people don't mind if you tell them that you have forgotten their name. Obviously, once they repeat it, you should try hard to remember it.”