Recently, I dropped by a group of girls that meet with a mentor at one of the schools I serve. When I came into the room, the 4th grader looked at me, and said: Hi Jeff.

I had only met her once, but she remembered my name. Sadly, I couldn’t recall hers. We made jokes about my last name, laughed about it — but I hated the fact that I showed up for her group not remembering her name. There’s something about calling others by their name. It’s personal, it shows concern, it forms connections — for our name is at the core of who we are. When we are named, we are remembered, valued, welcomed.

So, I try to remember people’s names — and use it when I talk with them. I find this such a simple and meaningful way to connect with people (especially children).

But, you say, I can’t remember people’s names. I’m lucky to keep my kids & my pets straight.

Ok, fair enough. But while some have better memories than others, there are 3 tools I think we all can use to help us remember other people’s names.

  1. Really listen. How many times have I asked someone their name, only to forget it as soon as they’ve told me? Why do I forget? Because I wasn’t really listening. I was too busy thinking about what I was going to say, or noticing something about them that caught my attention, or noticing someone over their shoulder, or wondering how long this conversation was going to take. If I would just focus in for 2 seconds, and actually pay attention when they tell me their name, I’d be doing the most important thing. Turns out, to really remember something simply starts with really listening!
  2. Repeat it. Once I’ve heard someone’s name, I find it helpful to call them by name as the conversation continues. This doesn’t have to be awkward or forced, but can be something you work into the conversation as it develops. So, Rick, you’ve been working here for 5 years? I would have started not long after you did; it’s crazy we’re just meeting now. So, hearing their name is good, but for most of us hearing something isn’t enough to make it stick; speaking it helps our brain work harder to remember.
  3. Write it down. I do this most often at church, where there are always new people to meet. I’ll get to my seat, pull out the bulletin, and write down the names of those I just met. Sometimes I’ll include a note to help me when I look at the sheet days or weeks later. Mike & Michelle – short hair, works for the government; she’s a nurse. Having written it down, I can then stick the bulletin in my Bible where I can see it every week until I see them again. (As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that I should just use my phone; that way, I can use this tool everywhere, and it’s always with me.)

For me, these are 3 simple, no-fuss tools to help remember names that happen to involve different parts of the brain: the listening, the speaking, and the writing parts. But these tools aren’t foolproof, and I’ll still find myself being uncertain of someone’s name. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a class, and one of the more talkative guys is also in small group with me, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember his name. So, I said to him (after class): I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name. I know your wife is Valerie, but I’m just can’t pull up your name. He laughed, said he’s terrible with names, and told me again. I’m remembering it this time.

Or, worse is when I call someone the wrong name. In that same class, I called on someone to dialogue with about her husband. I called her by name, but there was a tiny voice in the back of my head saying, Are you SURE that’s her name? It’s one thing to get somebody’s name wrong in a one-on-one conversation; it’s terrible when you do that in a large group setting. But when that happens, I roll with it. We all make mistakes. They, too, have likely forgotten someone else’s name in such a setting.

So, of course there is no infallible method for always remembering others’ names — or even for recalling at a moment’s notice someone’s name we know we know. Sometimes, our brain just skips a step. We all stumble, so we all need grace when it comes to remembering people. But I would rather try and occasionally fail — and tap into the grace we all need — rather than avoid people and names for fear of making a mistake, or spend my life saying, Hey buddy! and What’s up girl?

The person in front of me has a name and has value & worth. And when I call them by name, I show them that I see and value them — and in doing so, maybe give them just a glimpse of the God who sees them, values them, and who never forgets who they are.

2 thoughts on “3 simple tools I use to remember names

  1. Col Tim Collins, Wing Commander and Active Duty Air Force F-15 pilot deployed like me to a base in the Middle East. I’m the aerial port NCOIC and out of nowhere he sits down across from me at the chow hall and starts a conversation. Twenty minutes later we go our separate ways and I’m thinking “well that was cool”. Two weeks later he sees me and asks me how my sons are doing back home – by name. Now I can’t remember what I had for breakfast and he remembered my kids names – I’m one guy out of 2,000 he’s the boss of. 20 years later I still remember his name.

  2. You have ALWAYS been good with names! I think that’ll be part of your legacy. We even talk about it in Servition. Everyone is impressed with how well you remember everyone’s name and something about that person! I think forgetting that little girl’s name was a fluke!

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