“How to have coffee?” Why on earth do I need a guide to drinking a hot beverage?
Well, coffee here is a metaphor. A metaphor for being intentional about making space in our working days to create serendipity, build relationships, reflect, have new ideas, share old ideas and a wealth of other benefits that come from conversations without agenda.
At the end of 2022, Matt Ballantine launched into an experiment called 100 Coffees. He set a target to have 100 hour-long conversations with people over the course of 2023 without an agenda, or really much idea why other than to see what happened.
This guide draws on Matt’s experiences to see how you might be able to bring a bit more serendipity into your own working life.
1. A vision for coffee
Why might you want to make more time for conversations with people over a nice hot cup of coffee (or tea)?
There are a number of reasons, and it’s important to be clear in your own mind why; this will help you to prioritise your time to allow it to happen.
- Building relationships with clients, customers, colleagues and even complete strangers
- Exploring topics you don’t currently know much about
- Getting more diversity into your network – whether in terms of characteristics, profession, geography or mindset
- To give space for reflection in between our Teams- or Zoom-crammed schedules
- To see what happens…
Or identify your own. Try to keep away, though, from things that are tightly focused on benefit to you alone. Nobody wants to have coffee with someone who’s just there for themselves.
Over the course of Matt’s experiments he’s been able to:
- Spread the word about the very unusual ways in which Equal Experts operates as a business, making introductions to our executive for HR thought leaders
- Gain a better understanding of the current state of some of the sectors in which we operate from conversations with people in those sectors but not at our clients
- Gain a better understanding of some of the areas of Equal Experts he hadn’t previously known
- Make a number of introductions to people he knows in his broader network
- Build relationships with 30 people he’d never met before
- Identify two specific new work opportunities for Equal Experts
But don’t just take our word for it. Here’s a piece from the company Hootsuite who have been organising coffees for many years.
2. Make your diary available
If you’re going to have coffee, you need to make some space in your diary. How much time are you willing to devote? Matt’s 100 Coffees amounted to a couple of hours a week. On the one hand that’s only 5% of a 40-hour working week. On the other hand that’s two whole hours of your diary!
100 Coffees over the course of a year is actually quite a commitment. But if you really want to get into conversations beyond the superficial, anything less than an hour is simply too short. If you’re going to do this, commit to at least 1 hour a week to make it worthwhile – you won’t have coffee chats every week, after all.
You can then think about how to make your diary available to others, which is where a bit of technology can pay massive dividends.
The most established tool for enabling people to book time in your diary without you having to get involved is Calendly.com, and that’s what Matt is using to support 100 Coffees. At the time of writing in the free versionm you can connect Calendly to your Google or Microsoft diary, allocate particular times when you might be available for appointments, set up other rules (like no more than 1 coffee per day, or to give buffer time either side of meetings), then publish it all to the internet on a simple URL.
You can book a coffee with Matt at calendly.com/matt-ballantine if you want to see how it works.
Here’s how it looks from the back end:
If you can’t link your calendar to Calendly, there is similar functionality in Google Workspace (Appointment Schedules) and Microsoft 365 (Microsoft Bookings) which work well for you, but aren’t quite as good for the person booking the meeting (because they don’t give the option to show their own availability as well as yours during the booking process).
Taking some of the friction out of booking coffees through these kind of tools makes a huge difference to how manageable it will be, unless you are blessed with the luxury of a support assistant.
3. Find some people with whom to coffee
There are three basic tactics you can deploy to recruit coffee companions, and the serendipity of the conversations you will have will probably be impacted as a result. In a scale of least to most serendipitous:
Go on. Drop them a note or give them a call and ask them if they’d like to meet for coffee.
However, if you want to increase your chances that they will say “yes”, then you will need to give them a reason. And this is slightly counterintuitive as the whole point of coffee in our context to not really have a reason.
Why do we need a reason? Well, because of a strange psychological quirk called the “Because Justification”. We are dramatically more likely to agree to a request if we are given a reason why we should, even if that reason is completely daft.
So don’t ask people if they would like to meet for a coffee. Ask them if they would like to meet for coffee because you are doing an experiment to see what happens if you meet people to have an hour-long conversation without an agenda.
Ask someone to ask someone
Ask some people you know to suggest some interesting people with whom you could have coffee (remembering the Because Justification) from above. It’s particularly nice to do this at the end of a coffee meeting.
Get the people you ask to introduce you to those people (ideally, people you don’t know).
Join (or form) a coffee club
Even in the years before the pandemic it wasn’t uncommon to find coffee clubs in organisations.
Usually this would involve someone maintaining a list of people who wanted to be paired up with someone new for a coffee on a regular (often monthly) basis. Every month or so new pairs would be randomly generated, and those people would have coffee together.
If there’s a coffee club in your organisation, why not join it? If there isn’t one, how about you setting one up?
Tell people that you are looking for people to meet with for coffee! We have a plethora of channels available these days, from including a note in your email signature…
… to using social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram to tell people about it.
There’s quite a leap of faith in opening up for conversations like this. The people you meet will be nice, wholesome and interesting, but do meet in public places or online.
4. Preparing for coffee
Particularly if you don’t know the person you are meeting, it’s a good idea to have a bit of background to them before you meet. But having some ideas about what to talk about isn’t the same as “I might be a stalker”. Here are a few things that might help:
How do you pronounce their name?
This is a simple thing, but as the sphere of people around us increases in diversity, we’ll increasingly find that we aren’t necessarily familiar with pronunciations. Take a bit of time to find out.
Who do you know in common?
Even for seemingly complete strangers, you’ll probably have a few mutual connections. LinkedIn here is your friend.
What do you have in common?
Organisation, professions, towns, education… again, you might find some interesting themes for conversation from a quick look through a LinkedIn profile or a Twitter feed.
There’s a reason we talk about the weather. It’s the verbal equivalent of a handshake. “How was your weekend?” or “How has your day/week been?” can also provide a similar opening to conversation.
Open questions, those that solicit more than just one-word answers, are key to a good conversation. They can also get quite hard if you over-think them. But as a general rule for good conversation, think about everything that you say as being an invitation on which your coffee companion can build, rather than being interrogations or statements of fact or opinion.
At the core of good conversations is active listening. In our post-Covid, hybrid world, giving undivided attention is increasingly difficult. Some of the habits of multitasking that have established themselves in online meeting work are even creeping increasingly into in person conversations. Here are some tactics to help you:
- If you are in the same physical space as your coffee companion, put phones, tablets and laptops away.
- If you are meeting online, turn off every other app on your device and get your phone out of your eye line.
- If you are online, also turn off your view of your camera so that only the person to whom you are talking is on screen (but they can still see you).
Originally a technique used for facilitators, it’s useful to think about the ORJI model in the way in we are listening in conversations:
- We Observe (and listen to) what it is the other person is saying
- We React at an emotional level to what they are saying
- We make Judgement about what we will say next
- We Interject
The risk is that we get so consumed with the Reaction and Judgement part that we completely miss what the other person is saying.
Good listening comes with practice. Try, for example, listening to talk radio for 60 seconds, and then talking through what you’ve just heard. Record it all using your phone and see how much you can capture. Don’t try to recount every word, but instead capturing the essence of what was said.
What open question would you ask next to keep the conversation going?
Don’t try to take copious notes during coffee. That’s another distraction. If there are specific actions you intend to take, an introduction (see next section) for example, jot those down. But otherwise ditch the notepad or computer.
Hour-long coffee meetings without an agenda might feel purposeless. They are not.
But if you want to introduce one super-power into the conversation, think about making introductions as a result of what you hear.
Don’t force it. And definitely don’t just introduce people to your sales team. But if, during the conversation, you think “You should talk to x” or “Y would be interested in hearing about this”, then try and make a promise to make that introduction. There is huge power in helping people to extend their own networks.
8. After coffee
Take any actions
If you have offered to make some introductions, or if you have promised something else, follow up on those things.
Take some notes
Retrospectively writing up some notes of the conversation is a good way to help you remember. Don’t try to capture everything, but instead think about the key things that you have remembered. As you write those down, you’ll probably start to remember more.
In Matt’s 100 Coffees, he decided to make his notes public through his blog. You don’t need to go this extreme. But sharing with others (including the person you spoke to) may help the conversation have a more lasting impact.
If you’d like to have coffee with Matt, you can sign up at calendly.com/matt-ballantine