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The Business of Being Boho: Finding Common Ground

I’m sitting on the plane right now, on my way to High Point, NC, where three or four times a year I come to trade shows for home furnishings and textile markets. Highpoint shows are really big. People from every aspect of the design industry go there to conduct business. From celebrity to rookie designers, to owners of giant retail stores and upscale boutiques, to furniture manufactures, up-and-coming brands and everyone in between.

At first, coming to these shows to conduct business was a nerve-wracking experience, to say the least. It was not unusual to find myself in a meeting with serious business people— CEOs, CMOs and buyers of huge retail chains. These were meetings that, if they went well, could put me on the map, mean significant financial gains, and help my business up-level.

Often times my agent and I were the only women in these meetings, the youngest people at the table, and I am almost always the only person of color. The home furnishing industry is dominated by, as the adage goes, “old white guys” and at first it was easy for me to feel like a fish out of water, and like I had little in common with the people I found myself pitching ideas and potential partnerships to.  The meetings would often begin with smalltalk and I quickly learned that finding common ground with these folks was imperative to building meaningful business relationships. I knew from the years of growing my social media audiences shared experiences help build connection, and if I can connect with you on a personal level, you’ll be more open to connecting with my business, too.  So how was I going to quickly find common ground to make sure I connect with someone who, on the surface, I have little in common with?

On my fourth or fifth trip to High Point Market, I really began to hone in on what I know call my Common Ground Schema.  This is, quite simply, a short list of things in my back pocket to pull out to help me find common ground with other business people when I only have a few minutes to make a lasting impression. So for example, one thing I have in common with a lot of adults is that I’m a parent. During small talk I may inquire if they have children, or how old they are etc. Being a parent is great common ground to start out on.

But ideally, I like to dig in more— because I find that the more nuanced the commonality, the tighter the initial bond seems to be. (Ever wonder why so many people break the ice talking about the weather or traffic? It’s something everyone is the room has in common and can relate to). So after the more general commonalities are established I try and segue into slightly more personal topics, that are still pretty general, for example, I may mention the university I went to (UCLA). Often that spawns some kind of university connection (“my daughter is a Bruin!”), or even a Los Angeles connection—and that can help to break the ice too. Other things I sometimes have in common are the years I spent living in Italy, my ability to speak several other languages or when all else fails I may turn to a favorite TV show (do old white guys watch Game Of Thrones? Inquiring minds want to know).

All jokes aside, what I’ve found through years of meetings and building meaningful relationships with people from all walks of life is that while we are all deeply different…we are all also deeply similar, and uncovering what makes us similar can be a powerful tool in work and in life.

Try creating your own Common Ground Schema by drawing out a pyramid divided into three section. The bottom level is for “Macro Commonalities”. The middle level is for “Micro Commonalities” and the top row is for “Personal Commonalities.”  So on the Macro level, start with the most general/universal commonalities. Maybe, like me, it’s being a parent, maybe it’s the state you’re from, or maybe it’s situational to the event you’re attending or the city you’re in, or maybe it pertains to pop culture–something that they are likely to have heard about.

Then on the micro level maybe it’s the city or town you grew up in, the school you attended, a favorite sports team, a language you speak, a musical instrument that you play, a place you recently visited, a unusual food you tried recently or even your star sign! It could be anything.  One level up from there are the most intimate connections, and this may require some research, but maybe there is a person you know in common (LinkedIn can normally help pinpoint these connections).

I’ve found, that the higher up on the pyramid the commonalities, the more likely it is that you can get someones attention and perhaps leave a lasting impression.

How do you navigate in circles when you feel like an ‘outsider’? Do you have tools that you use to navigate these situations in your work life? I’d love to hear your thoughts.



The Business of Being Boho is a column by Justina Blakeney discussing a wide variety of business topics from her perspective as a female business owner and as a person of color. Got a biz question for Justina? Leave a question here and we may tackle your question in a future installment.

Alternative Text Justina Blakeney

Designer, artist, stylist & mama. Founder and CCO at The Jungalow. Crazy for color, pattern and plants!

13 responses to “The Business of Being Boho: Finding Common Ground”

  1. Staci says:

    This was very helpful…. I’m really very shy even no one would think I am so I normally avoid design functions unless I know I will have things in common but of course that’s not the best way to build bridges….. live the Game of Thrones Question and thank God for Netflix…. I think that bridges a lot of gaps quickly! This was helpful… 💕

  2. Thank you so much for writing this article. This was so helpful. I am a woman of color and an artist and I’ve struggled with having a ceramic studio in my downtown. It was so hard to relate to the other businesses…I became disheartened. But this article helped me realize we’re not so different after all.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Put yourself at one with yourself.
    Put yourself at one with the universe.
    I find with order in your life it makes Keeping it Simple…..Simple.
    Be good. It starts with home. Your body is home for your soul and heart. Always be good to your home..

    Be well my friend..
    Robert Charles Lindsay USMC Vietnam

  4. Lisa says:

    I love to cook and most people like to eat, so food works- asking local restaurant recommendations can be a useful icebreaker. My travels (and living in Alaska) have given me food experiences that are fun to share. Chatting about favorite recipes can open up additional topics.

  5. Jenn S says:

    I love this post. <3 I just got back from my first High Point Market (sad to say I didn't run into you!) and man, did some places feel exclusive! I'm younger, and a woman, and I agree- all those old white men wandering around in suits were a bit intimidating. But I love your point, and it's something I thought about when I met a few huge Instagram designers I admire- we're all just people!

  6. Jennifer Steger says:

    I work as a massage therapist. It is amazing how healing the work is for me too. Everyone has a body. Every body tells a story. It is so rewarding making people feel better, more comfortable in their own body. Plus, I work in rural Washington state so, (I’m sorry but it is true) I don’t get movie stars with the quote unquote perfect bodies. So in return I feel better about my own body’s abilities rather than its size. Common ground is so valuable.

  7. Anonymous says:

    So True! I recently found myself seated at a dinner function next to a man I did not know. Your blog made me smile, because our conversation effortlessly followed your schema! While we talked about business in general, he did not volunteer his line of business and I had the luxury of ‘no need to ask’. Toward the end of the evening, he revealed that he is the founder of one of the most globally successful distribution retailers. Had I known that early on in our conversation, our exchange may have become one-sided or guarded and could easily have been much less enjoyable. By the way, he is an “old white man”, who covertly shared his wisdom, without words, by simply withholding his business title. The experience reiterates your point: we are all just people with more in common than we often think, each one of us contributing to the colorful fabric of life with the ability to bring value to mankind and the world we share.

  8. Kim Carter says:

    Here I am starting out on my Schema pyramid!-I’m a High Point girl myself living in Ireland helping my daughter to get started in her Surface Pattern Design business. I found your blog very relateable (is that a word?) in that I have always tried to warm to people when I first meet them by finding common ground. But Justina, how do you do that on Social Media?? I still struggle to break the ice with or relate to someone I cannot speak to face to face. Its one of my biggest challenges in exposing my personal side. Any other pointers or suggestions specifically useful for SM? Does blogging help?Thanks again for the article, I’ll try out the pyramid!

  9. Christine says:

    I love this advice! As someone who can be a bit overwhelmed when meeting new people, I think this is a great tool to focus help focus my thoughts and make real connections.
    Thanks for sharing this!

  10. Cyd says:

    Great article, even though I work in the energy efficiency world & the dance world , these tactics work in any situation.

  11. Great post Justina! And something that I can relate to being a female business owner and person of color. Hate that I missed you at High Point Market, but I did get to sit through your presentation at The Design Bloggers Conference! Perhaps our paths will cross at fall market! Thank you for being a continual inspiration and model of success!!

  12. Amanda says:

    So funny I stumbled across this today! I live right outside of high point. There is a fantastic yoga studio in high point if your every looking. Yoga Mindset. Friday evening classes are my favorite. I am a business owner as well and often when meeting clients get overwhelmed with anxiety thinking ” are they going to like me”, “what do I talk about” all those important personal connections that do start the working relationship. Thank you for this post and advice. I literally took a picture of the relationship triangle above so I can refer to it before my next client meeting :)

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