Work to Identify Peoples’ Motivations
Conversing with people is possibly the most important skill you’ll ever develop.
This one took me awhile to learn. By “awhile” what I really mean is way, way, too long. In my defense, this is hard to do until you’ve gotten to the point where you’re following Step 1 (pay attention!) without really having to devote excess attention to it–I know, it’s counter-intuitive, but you can reach a point where paying attention doesn’t take all your attention. Or rather, you can pay attention to a wider range of things. It’s not just a skill, it’s something that happens as we age. Now, I’m not saying you should be suspicious of everyone and everything. If anything, the opposite of that. Also, this is another tricky one (for me, anyway), don’t be the one doing all the talking! If that’s happening, you’re doing it wrong.
What I mean is that people have a reason for being who they are and doing what they do. There are people who are the stoic and silent type, and there are chatterboxes, and there are people like me who will talk, and talk, and talk, and somehow provide no personal information whatsoever, but they all have a reason for saying what they, and doing what they do. And you should always, in every conversation, be trying to figure out why. I know that sounds a little self-serving, but it’s rarely insidious on your side or theirs.
People will talk to you mostly to:
- Pass the time in an interesting way.
- Build camaraderie.
- Learn more about you.
- Tell you more about themselves.
- Make you like them.
- Figure out if you’re someone they can build some sort of emotional or professional connection with.
- Sell you something.
- Put you or themselves at ease.
- Because humans naturally seek out connections.
Treat Conversation as a Game
Identify which of the motivations on the preceding is most plausibly motivating the speaker as you engage them, and then take it to the next level: If you decide someone is trying to create an emotional connection, figure out what sort of connection.
Is there something bothering them? Do they seem happy, sad, flirtatious, etc.? If they’re just passing time, what do they find interesting? Do you have things in common? Exercise conversational tactics, just as you would use tactical thinking in a game, where the reason for your opponent’s move is as important as your own.
What’s more, almost any of these goals can, and will, shift over the course of a conversation; I think we’ve all been in one of those situations where we’re stuck with someone having an awkward, somewhat forced conversation and then, wham!, we find some area of mutual interest and suddenly there’s a friendship forming, or at least an interesting conversation.
I can’t overemphasize how import this is. If nothing else, it prevents those moments where, months later, you suddenly realize why the beautiful Russian foreign exchange came to your room and sat on your bed. Those are the sorts of things you tangibly benefit from figuring out at the time! There are so many conversation that, looking back on them, would have been completely different if only I had been paying a little more attention to what was going on behind the curtain.
This doesn’t turn you from an introvert into an extrovert (nor should you feel the need to in most cases) but it it’s hard not to be fascinated by people if you start looking at them in the context of their greater motivations and goals. Everyone you meet is living a life as interesting and unique, in its own way, as your own.
It Makes You a Better Person
At the end of the day, people talk to you because they want something when they decide to converse with another human being. Sometimes it’s companionship, rarely advice, or, most often, some sort of information. Most conversation is simply a search for common ground in order to reinforce social bonds. We benefit, at a fundamental level, from understanding the people around us and being liked by them. I think this occurs on an instinctual level, but if you amplify it through understanding it cognitively, it helps you make certain people get what they want/need. In other words, the first step to helping people is helping yourself learn how to discern their needs.
Also, remember, when you respond, that they want to be good the guy, which will be the subject of the next entry.