Ellen James, Master Relationship Builder


Whether in travel or in business across cultures, new relationships are often mentioned as the source of the greatest satisfaction and reward. It may come from being taught a new word in the local language, understanding a person’s name, ordering food, sharing a train ride, or exchanging family details. There is something magical about the connection that takes perfect strangers into a warm relationship.

From over 30 years of observing her in action, including our recent journey in China, I believe Ellen is a master of relationship building. Here I share a few of her opening moves, which I repeatedly see turn into connections that the new acquaintance wants to nurture beyond a casual encounter.

  • Firstly, there are plenty of smiles
  • There is humility to the engagement, but also a confidence
  • A local language greeting is used, even if it is just one short phrase, “Ni hao”
  • Top words she knows and uses frequently in the local language – hello, thank you, please, sorry, excuse me
  • Has some sort of language aid nearby (usually a phrase book, a dictionary, some photos)
  • Expresses appreciation, thanks for taking the time, for talking with her
  • Apologizes for her poor local language skills
  • Takes time to engage relationally before getting to her question or request (if she has one)
  • Shows total engagement – face to face, smiles, expressions, hand gestures
  • Gets the person’s name figured out and practices using it, as appropriate
  • Asks how many languages the other speaks, which helps to learn about their background, provides topics of conversation, gives kudos for language skills smarts
  • Compliments new friend on his/her English language skills, and gives thanks for the effort the other person is putting into the conversation
  • Ellen mentions something she did, saw, ate, or heard about, that she liked in the person’s country / region /city
  • Asks about what local people like to do or eat in this region.
  • Asks the local words for food/drinks being enjoyed and writes them down
  • Asks questions on anything mentioned by the other person
  • Encourages the other to be speaking most but also tries for reciprocity, or back and forth conversation
  • Is ready to fill what might become an uncomfortable silence with another question or relevant story from her own experience; tireless engagement
  • Brings family into the conversation – spouse, children, parents, siblings.
  • Exchanges contact information; perhaps photos are taken, and discusses next time / way to connect (e.g. WeChat messaging app contact info.)