I recently talked to Sheila Heen of Triad Consulting, and in that conversation she had an interesting response to the question of "How do you introduce yourself at a mandatory cocktail hour?" First she mentioned her discomfort with that situation, despite her professional need to participate in it regularly. Then she discussed her colleague's great skill at connecting with people in these events compared to her self-assessed clumsiness with them. And finally after that pre-amble, she explained that a key she learned was to be more interested than interesting.
Sheila described how her business partner would go to events, walk over to the bar and come back with the entire life story of a person he just met. Sheila was shocked by this, started to watch him closely, and finally asked him what his trick was. His answer? Ask questions more than talk about himself. Simple.
Simple, but challenging. It's common for us to be pre-occupied with "What do I say next?" and "What do I want this person to know about me?" When we focus on our own performance in the conversation, we come across, subtly, as a self-serving conversationalist. Our goal in the conversation is all about ourselves and not about the person we talk to. There is a term for this kind of behavior: conversational narcissism.
Sociologist Charles Derber coined the term conversational narcissist in his book The Pursuit of Attention. Derber analyzed over 1,000 conversations, in both one-on-one and group settings, and found that he could frame these conversations as competitions for attention and interest. His framework was based on a subtle wrestling of control in a conversation, where most people tried to express themselves and understand others in a satisfying balance. Some people, however, were disinterested in understanding, or even hearing, others. These were the conversational narcissists, who steered the conversation to themselves whenever they could.
While some are extreme, we all have a little conversational narcissism in us. Everyone likes to talk about themselves to some extent, because everyone appreciates a good listener. The best way to be that listener for someone you have just met? Be interested.
Dale Carnegie was an early advocate of being interested. In his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie tells of a time he talked with a botanist:
But I had done this: I had listened intently. I had listened because I was genuinely interested. And he felt it…I told him that I had been immensely entertained and instructed - and I had. I told him I wished I had his knowledge - and I did. I told him that I should love to wander the fields with him - and I have. I told him I must see him again - and I did. And so I had him thinking of me as a good conversationalist when, in reality, I had been merely a good listener and had encouraged him to talk.
The amazing thing about this is that the botanist thought that Carnegie was a great conversationalist, when Carnegie spent more time asking questions than talking. This is typical of the stories that Carnegie tells in his book. His stories share skills, principles and practices to become more liked by being more interested in people than working to be interesting to people.
So what can you do to be more interested? Sheila taught herself to ask questions about the person she was speaking with. Not just basic factual questions, but questions that could open up who they are.
Instead of "What do you do?", she asks " How did you end up in the role you are in?"
Instead of "Where do you live?" she asks 'Where did you grow up and how did that lead you here?"
These questions invite an answer that is a story, one where the storyteller can be the protagonist. (We all love being the hero of our stories.) It is more than just information exchange. It is an expression of themselves.
Another thing we can do to be interested is to follow a tactic from Derber: avoid shift responses and focus on support responses. Shift responses are conversational tactics that steer the focus to yourself and your stories. Support responses keep the other person at the center, and either agree or add more content. For example, if someone says "I'm hungry", a shift response would be "Really? I just ate. Best sandwich I ever had." A support response would be "Would you like to stop for lunch?" or "When did you eat last?"
Support responses are the response of someone being interested. Shift responses are the work of someone trying to be interesting and the center of attention. If you are looking fora way to make a good connection, avoid the shift.
So when you find yourself in a mandatory cocktail hour, or the social equivalent, work to be interested instead of interesting:
· Ask questions. Not just factual questions, but questions that let people tell their story. Try using 'how' questions instead of 'what'
· Don't be a conversational narcissist. Use support responses instead of shift responses. When you speak up, try to use that as an opportunity to keep the conversation focused on the other person or their ideas. Resist the urge to pull the focus to yourself