Many of you have already heard a lot of advice on this, things like look the person in the eye, think of interesting topics to discuss in advance, look, nod and smile to show that you’re paying attention, repeat back what you just heard or summarize it. So I want you to forget all of that. It is crap.
There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.
Now, I actually use the exact same skills as a professional interviewer that I do in regular life. So, I’m going to teach you how to interview people, and that’s actually going to help you learn how to be better conversationalists. Learn to have a conversation without wasting your time, without getting bored, and, please God, without offending anybody.
We’ve all had really great conversations. We’ve had them before. We know what it’s like. The kind of conversation where you walk away feeling engaged and inspired, or where you feel like you’ve made a real connection or you’ve been perfectly understood. There is no reason why most of your interactions can’t be like that.
So I have 10 basic rules. I’m going to walk you through all of them, but honestly, if you just choose one of them and master it, you’ll already enjoy better conversations.
Number one: Don’t multitask. And I don’t mean just set down your cell phone or your tablet or your car keys or whatever is in your hand. I mean, be present. Be in that moment. Don’t be thinking about your argument you had with your boss. Don’t be thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner. If you want to get out of the conversation, get out of the conversation, but don’t be half in it and half out of it.
Number two: Don’t pontificate. If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth, write a blog.
Now, there’s a really good reason why I don’t allow pundits on my show: Because they’re really boring. If they’re conservative, they’re going to hate Obama and food stamps and abortion. If they’re liberal, they’re going to hate big banks and oil corporations and Dick Cheney. Totally predictable. And you don’t want to be like that. You need to enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn.
The famed therapist M. Scott Peck said that true listening requires a setting aside of oneself. And sometimes that means setting aside your personal opinion. He said that sensing this acceptance, the speaker will become less and less vulnerable and more and more likely to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener. Again, assume that you have something to learn.
Bill Nye: “Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don’t.” I put it this way: Everybody is an expert in something.
Number three: Use open-ended questions. In this case, take a cue from journalists. Start your questions with who, what, when, where, why or how. If you put in a complicated question, you’re going to get a simple answer out. If I ask you, “Were you terrified?” you’re going to respond to the most powerful word in that sentence, which is “terrified,” and the answer is “Yes, I was” or “No, I wasn’t.” “Were you angry?” “Yes, I was very angry.” Let them describe it. They’re the ones that know. Try asking them things like, “What was that like?” “How did that feel?” Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you’re going to get a much more interesting response.
Number four: Go with the flow. That means thoughts will come into your mind and you need to let them go out of your mind. We’ve heard interviews often in which a guest is talking for several minutes and then the host comes back in and asks a question which seems like it comes out of nowhere, or it’s already been answered. That means the host probably stopped listening two minutes ago because he thought of this really clever question, and he was just bound and determined to say that. And we do the exact same thing. We’re sitting there having a conversation with someone, and then we remember that time that we met Hugh Jackman in a coffee shop. And we stop listening. Stories and ideas are going to come to you. You need to let them come and let them go.
Number five: If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. Now, people on the radio, especially on NPR, are much more aware that they’re going on the record, and so they’re more careful about what they claim to be an expert in and what they claim to know for sure. Do that. Err on the side of caution. Talk should not be cheap.