In a previous post, I touched on how silence can be a useful tool to build stronger relationships, as well as protect you and those around you.
In this post, I will explore a related, life-changing snippet from Jim Collins’ Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer.
A Stanford professor, Collins wanted to become a better instructor. When he asked a colleague for advice, Gardner suggested that Collins spend less time trying to be interesting and more time being interested.
Think about this for just a moment. When engaged in a conversation, many of us try to come up with the right thing to say. We rack our brains for the wittiest joke, the most mindblowing comment, the question that demonstrates we know more about a topic than everyone else. The less fortunate of us succeed at all of this!
You read me correctly: I believe that it is the less fortunate among us who always come up with the most insightful and incisive things to say during a discussion, who look the smartest at the table. The reason is that by spending their time coming up with the perfect responses, they’re often paying only enough attention to everyone else to help themselves along to their next remark!
I said it before, and I’ll say it again: in any conversation, the most important role you can have is as a listener. If you aren’t trying to learn something, why are you talking? It doesn’t matter if you’re an entry-level employee or if you’re the CEO. Unless you’re listening to people, you’re not learning from them. If you listen with half an ear, you shut out half the opportunities to learn.
This doesn’t mean you should never open your mouth. Please don’t stop talking! Instead explore a different tactic: ask more questions to draw on group knowledge and build off of the conversation, rather than divert it. The goal is to stop talking as soon as possible and get the ball into someone else’s court so that they can get back to teaching you something.
The simplest way to apply this rule is to ask people about themselves. What do they do for a living? How long have they been in town? What do they do for fun?
If you really want to take it to the next level, oftentimes it pays to mine for connections, much like mining for gold. For example, suppose you love basketball and don’t follow tennis and are talking to someone who is exactly the opposite. You could try to change the subject directly into neutral territory. How about the weather we’ve been having? How’s your job? Unless you have to use one of these, you can easily find other ways to forge a deeper connection.
Instead ask yourself (in your head, if possible) how much you know about tennis. Even if you know very little about tennis and find the idea terribly boring, ask how tennis works. How are points scored? What are some interesting terms that a novice might find funny (“love” in tennis, for instance). Any funny anectdotes from the world of tennis? Oftentimes a period of reciprocation follows: the other person may well ask about the same things in basketball.
This is an icebreaker period. Armed with this new information, now is your time to shine! Find some connections and differences between the two sports. Why are the courts made out of different materials? Why is one mostly inside and the other mostly outside? What are some connections that each of them has to business, romance, or politics?
Before you know it, a whole new world of conversation is open to you! Like a gold mine, those who seem boring often have a lot to share, if you only know where to look.
Meanwhile, one other thing is going to happen. People are going to want to talk to you more, be around you more. Your charisma will go through the roof because your comments will be perceived as relevant, not to mention short-and-sweet. People will feel better because you’re asking their opinions and drawing on their expertise. In turn, they will start trying to find out more about you, this very interesting person they know. Keep your answers relevant and they’ll keep coming back for more.
In this article, I talked about one way to step up your conversation game. In future posts, I’ll talk more about asking open-ended questions and the general concept of building bridges—not barriers. Let me know what you think!