Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mastering the Art of Conversation

Just in time for Christmas and New Year’s: a column explaining how to get along with other people. (Via Maggie's Farm)

Whatever the value of the advice, Eric Barker’s first sentence sets an infelicitous tone: he wants you to learn how “to make people like you.”

Why do you want to make people feel a certain way toward you? If they come to suspect that you have been using some clever scientific tools to manipulate their feelings, the chances are good that they are not going to like you very much at all.

In truth, the best way to elicit positive feelings in another person is to show positive feelings toward that person. Extending a hand of friendship is better than trying to seduce people into doing something that they might not want to do. Remember the old line: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

I would venture that you would rather not have your mind manipulated by other people.

These caveats having been stated, let’s examine some of the recommendations that Barker has gleaned from contemporary psychology.

First on the list: encourage other people to talk about themselves. 

One finds it hard to disagree with this tidbit of wisdom. I would add that when someone is talking about himself, you must show interest. If you look bored you will give the impression that the other person is not sufficiently entertaining.

Whatever your new acquaintance is talking about, you want him to feel like he has all your attention.

I would add, politely, that if you ask another person to talk about himself you had best be ready to reciprocate. If you ask too many questions you will end up sounding like an inquisitor. It’s no way to make friends and influence people.

If the other person spends most of your conversation talking about himself, he might eventually feel that he has been performing for an audience of one. It’s no way to make friends and influence people.

I quote Barker’s next suggestion:

If you use questions to guide people toward the errors in their thinking process and allow them to come up with the solution themselves, they're less likely to feel threatened and more likely to follow through.

What makes you think that someone will like you if you are trying to correct the errors in their thinking? And what makes you think that you are right and they are wrong? Who do you think you are? A schoolmarm?

The master of this technique was, of course, Socrates. We know how that worked out.

I don’t want to sound too contrary, but when trying to connect with another human being it is better to establish areas where you agree, not ways to correct the other person’s errors.

The third suggestion is this: ask for advice.

Wharton professor Adam Grant explained:

Asking for advice encouraged greater cooperation and information sharing, turning a potentially contentious negotiation into a win-win deal. Studies demonstrate that across the manufacturing, financial services, insurance and pharmaceuticals industries, seeking advice is among the most effective ways to influence peers, superiors, and subordinates.

Ironically, asking for advice is not the same as helping another person to see the error of his ways. Thus, this suggestion contradicts the previous one, but, why quibble.

When you ask for advice you are showing respect for the other person. You are also humbling yourself in front of him. And you are showing yourself willing to engage in a cooperative enterprise.

All told, it’s good to ask for advice. It’s even better when you take it.

Most people find it very difficult to take advice. It is an acquired skill, one that you should have mastered before you ask for advice. Otherwise, your interlocutor will think that you are just going through the motions of asking for advice because someone told you that it was a good conversational ploy.

Barker’s version of the fourth suggestion goes like this:

Ask them about something positive in their life. Only after they reply should you ask them how they're feeling about life in general.

For my taste this all sounds inquisitorial. You should think of what you can offer, not what you can extract. If you offer something positive about your life, your new friend is likely, according to the law of reciprocity, to do the same.

If someone walks up to you at a cocktail party and asks you to say something positive about your life, you are likely to feel put upon. If he asks you how you are feeling about life in general, you are also likely to feel put upon. Besides, isn't it slightly idiotic to ask someone how he feels about life in general?

This line of question, which Barker calls a two-step, feels intrusive and invasive.

You should be connecting with the other person, not manipulating him.

Next, Barker suggests that you repeat the last three words of your interlocutor’s sentences.

Apparently, this works well in hostage negotiations.

Yet, the minute your interlocutor figures out what you are doing he risks being grievously insulted. Sounding like someone’s echo chamber might massage his narcissism, but it is no substitute for the ability to find points where the two of you agree.

Finding common ground is far more productive than trying to manipulate someone’s feelings.

The last suggestion is to gossip, but positively:

So, say positive and pleasant things about friends and colleagues, and you are seen as a nice person. In contrast, constantly complain about their failings, and people will unconsciously apply the negative traits and incompetence to you. 

Obviously, it’s better to be positive than to whine. It’s better to see the good in people than to obsess about their faults, foibles and flaws.

If you like the way one person is dressed and do not like the way another person is dressed, focus first on the first more than the second.

Of course, commentaries about your surroundings, the weather and the Super Bowl are not gossip.

But, keep in mind, it is not a good thing to present yourself as a gossip. If you reveal too much information, positive or negative, about your friends and colleagues you are announcing to your new acquaintance that you cannot keep secrets. That tells him that you are indiscreet and borderline disloyal. No one wants a friend who is indiscreet and disloyal.


Kath said...

"How to make people like you " sounds like those articles written for men on how to seduce women.

Also Eric Barker's advice seems to be very hard to follow. Not natural at all and would creep me out. He must be strange and I wouldn't want meet him at a social event.

Dennis said...

What is this desire to "make" people like you? You cannot make people like you. As I have matured I have learned that in most things one cannot make things happen. One has to create the conditions for lasting success in almost everything they do. From that confident base almost everything follows.
If you are kind, considerate, positive, respectful to and interested in the other person you are setting the conditions for a relationship. One has to create the conditions that allow people to see you as you are as a person and enjoy your company.
Be yourself and stop being a "phony." Most people will see right through it. One is not as smart as one thinks they are or are others as dumb as one thinks. Understand that no matter what one does there will be people who will just dislike you because you exist.
The longer I live the more it occurs to me how really simple most things are in life. If you are a good person people will naturally gravitate to you. It is as simple as that.

Anonymous said...

"You should be connecting with the other person, not manipulating him."


Ambition and avarice know no season. Barker's advice is not self-help, it's self-centered. It's about taking and getting, not contribution.

This is how people end up empty, lonely and depressed. No amount of material wealth or list of "friends" is going to make up for that.


Sam L. said...

Never ask a doctor or a lawyer for advice. You may get it, and have to pay for it. Financial advisers, stock brokers... And sometimes, a woman.

Sam L. said...

One could study Dale Carnegies's book.

Dennis said...


You might find this interesting given the subject addressed here. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303773704579270293660965768?mod=trending_now_1
It is interesting how important manners are in how we progress as human beings.