"If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out?" Will Rogers
Question #92308 posted on 06/08/2019 6 p.m.
Q:

Dear 100 Hour Board,

There are a few people I've met that seem to have this incredible ability to make everyone they talk to feel funny, interesting and important. I would like very much to be one of those people, but I'm not sure how. I've always tried to be kind to the people around me, and liberal about expressing my appreciation for my friends. I'm as supportive and interested in my friends' lives as I know how to be, and I think I do a pretty decent job of it. I'm generally a good friend. But it's not quite the same as these people who just seem to naturally boost everyone's mood and self-esteem the moment they enter the room.

(As a side note, these people also tend to be very good conversationalists. I don't know if that's a cause of, an effect of, or just randomly correlated with their other natural social ability, but I thought it was worth mentioning.)

How can I level up?

- Almost acceptable

A:

Dear Almost acceptable,

I don't fancy myself to be one of these people exactly, but I am a fairly excellent listener. It's all about being present and focusing on the other person. It isn't about compliments exactly or about buttering someone up. It is about showing with your body language, your face, your relaxed nature, and often your lack of response that you care what that person is saying, that they are worth your energy and your time. It's about remembering little details and referencing them later to tie the conversation together. It's about not bringing yourself up but doing what you can to support that person in the conversation. Set them up to make a joke here and then. Validate them while withholding advice. Listen to their emotions more than their words and respond to those most of all. Most importantly, withhold judgment and remember that every person has their reasons to do what they do, and if the reasons weren't good they wouldn't have done it, no matter how bad a choice it was. Even if you can't understand what the reasons were or they can't understand. Clearly there was a strong motivation. Then respond to them with that level of respect and dignity and willingness to understand.

- The Black Sheep

A:

Dear exactly enough—

A few thoughts.

As pointed out by Goose Girl below—you're doing great. Everything you listed is on point, and you may have to just trust that others perceive you as far more emotionally generous and connected than you're able to perceive yourself. You may be less flashy than some others who "light up a room," but that doesn't make you a level down. We need the quiet connectors perhaps even more deeply than we need the surface lifters.

If I may share a personal story that I believe I've shared on the Board before: there was a time in college when I considered it my personal mission to use conversation and listening as my Christlike service. I took this to mean that I should not talk about myself at all unless directly asked, and that I should ask other people about themselves constantly and listen intently. The result? I got weird. My conversations ended up stilted and unnatural. I was uncomfortable to be with. Nobody felt all the Christlike love I was trying to laserbeam at them.

So I let go and stopped trying so hard. I learned to trust myself to care about other people effortlessly and to trust that it was okay that they cared about me back. I realized that connection was more about relating and facilitating back-and-forth than it was about me caring as intensely as possible. Things got much better after that. I still naturally tend to fall into the listener role, and that's okay, but I take up space when I want to, and my relationships are now more reciprocal and truly shared. The way relationships should be. 

You're doing well. It's okay to let yourself be exactly who you are.

In solidarity,
Waldorf (& Sauron) 

A:

Hello acceptable one,

Here are my recommend steps. I want to note that this is an ongoing process and you ping back and forth between them. But these are the simple (though not easy, simple and easy are not mutually inexclusive) steps:

  • Actually be interested in basically all types of things, or at least be able to empathize with that interest, or pretend to be interesting at the least
  • Learn about the different types of people that typically like those interests. For example, some women like guns, hunting, big trucks, and MMA, but generally it's going to be men who like those things, and it will be typically tied up with masculinity. This applies to age, region, religion, politics, and other demographics.
  • A miscellaneous note: if you still don't get why people like a thing, find a forum or reddit sub where people talk about the stuff for real. Twitter or Reddit NBA talk, for example, is vastly different from what is on TV or what you typically overhear in a restaurant or office.

Once you understand all the different stuff and the different people, and know a little about all of it, most of the rest comes naturally considering the talents and abilities you say that you already have. Sincerity is the first part. Having something to say and questions to ask is the second. That covers most of it right?

Best to you on your quest,

Toasteroven

A:

Dear yosef,

I don't know if this will help, but I've enjoyed a lot of videos from Charisma on Command on YouTube. A lot of the titles and thumbnails seem a little gimmicky, but I think the content is actually pretty good. For instance, one video focused on some interviews Brie Larson did recently that didn't have the best reception. He acknowledged that in the video, but also showed other interviews in which she did do well and also gave her the benefit of the doubt a lot. He has other videos that you might want to look through, depending on your interests. 

Good luck! 

-Auto Surf

A:

Dear you,

I don't know you, so I don't know if this is applicable to your situation, but I too aspire to be one of those people and it's helped me to evaluate my motivation behind that desire. Am I doing it because I want people to have that opinion of me, or am I really doing it for their sake? It's a subtle difference, but I've found that when I realign I'm able to become more genuine and Christlike.

Just the fact that you want to lift others' lives says a lot about you, I think. For all you know, you could already be that person to some people. Which makes me want to express appreciation for all of those in my life who lift me up and make me feel important. I think we assume they know how much they mean to us, but I bet they often feel unappreciated as well.

Thanks for the thought-provoking question,

-the Goose Girl

A:

Hello Acceptable,

Ever notice how great you feel after someone asks a lot about YOU? That’s most of the secret to being engaging. Dale Carnegie also has the classic tips in “How To Win Friends and Influence People”. Highly recommend!

-a fan of his!

A:

Almost,

In my experience, the major keys are to compliment people honestly and often—which requires you to pay close attention to what people are good at—and in a professional setting, to dedicate more attention and praise to people who are socially uncomfortable. Everyone wants to be sociable and respected, and it has a cumulative effect in larger organizations when you dedicate meaningful effort to make everyone comfortable. The less socially adept will be on better footing, and the socially conscious will recognize the effort you're making for others and hopefully rally others as well.

When it comes to conversing well and making connections with people you might already know and want to befriend, the most critical thing is to find a common interest. That sounds simplistic, but it requires a lot of action. It requires you to listen and recognize the things that they're most interested in and passionate about, and it requires your time and effort to learn more about those things so it can become something that you share together. Most of my hobbies originally started as things that my close friends were interested in that I was curious enough to dig deeper into, whether for selfish reasons or to connect more positively with people I cared about.

Listen well and pay close attention to people, and then interact whenever possible. In the workplace, I know hundreds of names and faces. Of the ten or fifteen people I work most closely with, I know all of their hometowns (which often requires learning about other cities and states and cultures of many other countries), the size of their families, the names of their spouses and children, hobbies they enjoy on weekends—that sort of thing. I want to remove barriers with my closest colleagues so that they don't have to filter or clarify details often when they're talking to me. They know they can refer to their brother or sister or wife or husband or child by their first name and I'll know who they're talking about. I'll later ask about them by name in a later conversation, because I'm genuinely curious about something that may have been mentioned the last time we talked. It all gets easier as you know people longer.

Some people are going to be better than this than others, and that's okay. I know that I'm fortunate to be really good with names and details. But it is a skill at the end of the day, and when practiced regularly and deliberately, you'll find yourself improving. Every personality is different, so try new things and see what generates a positive response for you. Build from there.

Good luck!

--Gimgimno

Work has been a zoo, so this will probably be my only response this reunion, but hi and hello to all of you. I'm glad to see everything still chugging along here. I hope everyone who reads this is appreciated for the good they do in their life, and loved and accepted by the people who matter most to them. Have a great year, everyone.

A:

Dear amazing, 

What you want is a Good Thing, and the other writers have some great advice for you. But I'd also like to offer a word of caution-when I meet very excited and uplifting people for the first time, I tend to assume that they're faking it (whatever that means), and I'm often a bit wary of them until I get to know them better. I recognize that this is my problem and not theirs, but I'm usually quicker to warm to people that are a bit reserved like I am.

My point isn't that you should be more reserved or anything-just that a variety of personalities can be uplifting, and you don't need to adopt an entirely different persona to make others feel valued. You can be more loving, but you can still be you. 

-El-ahrairah

A:

Dear Definitely Good Enough,

I feel like it would be egotistical for me to say that I am this kind of person, but then another writer actually asked me to answer this question because she says I am this kind of person, so take that for what you will.

Let me start by talking about my dad. If I had to compare my dad to a celebrity, it would be Mr. Rogers. He is incredibly curious about everything in the world and wants to talk to you no matter if you're 3 or 93. I have joked that you could be the Assistant City Dog Poop Scooper and he would ask you: "What is it like being the Assistant City Dog Poop Scooper?" "Are there particular techniques that make for superior scooping of dog poop?" "How is your job different from that of the City Dog Poop Scooper?"

He's not the kind of person who will only talk to the most "important" person in the room or who only talks to someone in order to try to impress them. I think the biggest thing I have internalized from him is that everyone is worth talking to and treating like a valuable human being. In addition to growing up with him as a role model, I've also spent a lot of time analyzing my own conversations and thinking about what does and doesn't work when I'm talking to people. (People who know me might be surprised to hear that, because it may seem that my conversational style is natural or easy. There are certainly parts of it that have become second nature, but I really put a lot of thought into how I interact with people.)

First, I'd say it starts with curiosity. People find it hard to resist opening up if someone is expressing genuine interest in their life or hobbies or experiences. However (as Waldorf pointed out above), if you're faking being interested in someone, it comes off as weird or unnatural and people can tell the difference. In my life, I take that to mean that I'm allowed to have days when I'm not "on" all the time. If I'm tired or upset or feeling introverted, I don't have to try to make everyone happy or be the life of the party. I would rather not strike up a conversation than pretend to care about someone if I really don't in that moment.

Second, you need to ask questions that will encourage people to open up. This is where a slight change in wording can make a surprisingly big difference. Asking someone "How are you doing?" does not, in my experience, actually encourage them to tell me how they're doing. This is because that phrase is often used (in American English) as a set greeting and not a genuine expression of interest. Consequently, if you hear someone say "How are you doing?", you don't have enough information to know if they're asking a genuine question or using a set greeting, and so people tend to respond with a set answer like "Fine."

However, if you ask someone about how they're doing, but phrase it in a different or more specific way, such as "How is your week / month / summer going?", you're much more likely to get a genuine answer, because (1) you're not using a set phrase, so it's clear that you mean it as an actual question and (2) you've narrowed down the question in such a way that it's easier to get a handle on the answer. I've learned all kinds of interesting things about people just by using variations of this type of question. And sometimes people will still give a pretty basic answer that more or less shuts down the conversation. That's OK. (Just because you're in the mood to talk, that doesn't mean that they are.) But if you give people frequent opportunities to answer this type of question, my experience is that a lot of people will take advantage of that.

Third, learn to use small talk effectively. I know people who really hate small talk because they think it's pointless. I like to think of a conversation like a climbing wall, where the top of the wall is a really deep and profound discussion and the bottom of the wall is small talk. In this metaphor, small talk isn't an amazing conversational achievement in and of itself (in the same way that climbing 20 inches off the ground isn't that exciting), but it is a toehold that you can use to climb to a more interesting / personal conversation. What you have to do, though, is pay close attention to what people say in order to find those toeholds.

For example, you've had a big snowstorm over the weekend, and on Monday you find yourself making small talk with a coworker you don't know very well. You say: "How about that storm over the weekend?" They say: "Well, when I lived in Maine, it snowed like this all winter, so this doesn't seem like much to me." See the toehold? " . . . when I lived in Maine . . ." You've started with a pretty generic small talk conversation about the weather, but your coworker has dropped some extra information that you can use to take the conversation in a more personal direction. "Where in Maine did you live?" "What was it like there?" "Why did you move there / move here?" In just a couple more questions, you'll probably be learning a lot more about your coworker or Maine or both, all because you made a generic comment about the weather and then listened carefully to the response.

(Incidentally, I'll often drop potential "toeholds" into my small talk answers to gauge how interested the other person is in the conversation. If someone picks up on them, I feel like I can share more about my life. If not, I'll probably keep the conversation pretty basic. That doesn't make them a bad person—they could be tired or busy or just not good at picking up conversational cues—but I don't tend to like opening up to people who I think don't really care about me.)

Fourth, make connections and follow up. So, this is supposed to be a conversation, not an interview, which means that you need to be participating in the conversation, not just asking question. The best way of doing this is to make some kind of connection based on what you've just learned about them. Did you have the same major in college? Is your mom from their hometown? Do you have the same hobby? Making connections also allows you to give them "toeholds" that they can use to ask you about your life. However, making connection can be pretty tough. After over a decade of working at universities, I have come to accept that I just don't have anything interesting to say about some majors. Remember, you don't have to have the perfect question or response in every situation; you just have to keep looking for toeholds.

Following up on previous conversations is another great skill. Did your coworker mention yesterday that they were going to an adult ballet class that night? Ask them how the class went! Or how the movie they saw was. Or whether they liked the new kind of sushi they got for lunch. We tend to be good at following up on big life events like weddings or international vacations, but I think that it can be even more important to follow up on small things when it comes to making human connections.

Lastly, learn how to end a conversation. I think one of the main reasons I don't mind small talk is that I'm pretty good at ending a conversation when I want to, which means that I don't worry about getting stuck in pointless conversations with no escape. One of my favorite ways to end a conversation is by recapping something that we talked about. So, if I strike up a conversation with a student at finals week, I'll end the conversation by saying "Good luck on your finals!" It's a good way to signal that you want to be done, but it also leaves them with a kind thought. (Especially if you're chatting with a stranger, I've found that people really appreciate it when someone stops for a moment to learn about their life and wish them well.)

 

Odds and ends:

- One of the pitfalls(?) of being good at small talk is that you can end up being the only person driving the conversation. Due to a miscommunication, I once ended up in the unusual situation of having to make small talk with a new visiting teacher for a full hour while we waited for her companion to show up. (Spoiler: She never did.) Although this woman was happy to answer my small talk questions about where she was from and how she came to move into our ward, she asked me no similar questions in return and made no effort to keep the conversation going (other than answering my questions). By the end of the hour, she felt that we had had a great conversation and I felt exhausted. It's not the only time I've found myself in the position of feeling like I'm doing all the work in a conversation and I won't lie, it's a pretty lonely situation.

- Pay attention to time and situation. If there are 20 people behind you in line, that is not the time to ask the cashier about her life goals. Likewise, if the other person is pressed for time, maybe you can't have an interesting conversation right now. I have a lot of interesting conversations with people every week, and I also have a lot of really mundane conversations. I still try to be present and thoughtful in my more mundane interactions (make eye contact, say thank you), but I'm not hitting home runs every time.

- Just because I'm curious about people and good at small talk, that doesn't mean I don't get bored in conversations. I try to be patient with the other person and still pay attention, but that can also be a clue that it's time for me to try to end the conversation. (I only bring this up because if you're trying to be someone who is interested in other people, but you find yourself bored in a conversation, that doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you. It happens.)

- We are all human beings and human beings are biased. This means that you can have the best of intentions and unwittingly reinforce racist, sexist, ableist, or other biased structures. Telling a black person they're "articulate" is not a compliment. Asking a brown person where they're "from" is not a neutral question. Asking a woman about her children (and nothing else) is not taking a real interest in her life. Take the opportunity to read up on common conversational pitfalls and find ways to move beyond those loaded questions.

- One of my mottos in life is "Don't ask the question if you can't handle the answer." To illustrate, I recently sat by a coworker as we waited for a meeting to begin. She asked how I was doing and I responded by telling her all about how my phone had unexpectedly died. Then I asked how her month was going and she paused for a second, then said "Well, I got divorced." Gentle reader, I did not expect that response and I had no idea what to say. (Plus, I felt pretty selfish for whining about my dead phone!) She didn't seem to want to talk about it more at the time, plus the meeting was starting, so the conversation kind of ended there, but a few days later I stopped by her office with some flowers and we ended up talking for about an hour. Ultimately, if you ask people personal questions, you will sometimes get sad or awkward answers. Avoid the temptation to minimize the situation or to try to fix it in the moment. Learn to say something validating like "That sounds really tough" and try to gauge if they want to talk about it or if you should carefully guide the conversation past the topic. (This can really hard to figure out and I am far from perfect at it.)

- Along the same lines, if you have enough conversations with people, you will inevitably put your foot in your mouth. This doesn't make you a terrible person or someone who should give up on talking to people, it just means that you were trying, and sometimes trying means failing. Do apologize frankly if you say something offensive enough to warrant it, but otherwise try not to dwell on it. I'm generally pretty good at talking to people, but I've put my foot in my mouth more times than I can count. I try to learn from the situation so that I don't make the mistake again and just move on otherwise.

- Lastly, even if you put these techniques into action, you may not end up exactly being the sparkly, mood-enhancing person you admire. Personality, aptitude, and other factors also play a huge role into how we interact with other people. To bring things back to my dad, he and I share an interest in talking to people about their lives, but we have significantly different personalities. I am the witty comedian of the family while he is just not funny. (Like, it's actually a family joke that he can't tell a joke.) He can't be me and I can't be him, but we can both be people who show love to other with our talent / skill of taking genuine interest in their lives. You may or may not ever be the person who lights up an entire room, but it's equally important to be the person who notices someone standing apart from the group and heads over to have a quiet conversation. Trust me, they won't forget it.

Cheers,

Katya