Conversational intelligence is about so much more than being charming. How many times have you been in a conversation you genuinely weren’t enjoying, but the other person clearly thought that things were going well? In their minds, they might have believed they were absolutely charming, and yet you thought differently.
Well, consider the possibility that you may sometimes be on the other end of this dynamic!
Sadly, the very thing that makes us bad at conversations is also the thing that makes us bad at recognizing that we’re bad at conversations: unaware self-centeredness.
What is the ratio of telling and asking? Of trying to be interesting versus trying to be interested? All the while you were trying to bring people round to your point of view, you may have missed one crucial bit of information: they weren’t enjoying it. In other words, you have a conversational blind spot. You are talking to a person, mistakenly thinking you are talking with them. It’s a blind spot because they see it… and you don’t.
It can take enormous amounts of self-awareness, discipline, and practice to stop acting as though a conversation is the same as “delivering a monologue in another person’s company.” So often, people talk past each other, completely unaware of the fact that the conversation has actually failed.
You may feel charming, but you might not be coming across that way! This is easy to explain: expressing yourself, expounding on your much-loved opinions, and hearing your own voice actually encourages the release of the reward neurotransmitter dopamine. You start to think that this buzz of self-expression is also experienced by the other person, proving that you are connecting well. While our brain is rewarding us with dopamine, the same thing is not happening for the other person, and we may not notice that they are actually feeling bored, invisible, cut off, or irrelevant. In fact, the neurochemicals whizzing around in their brain are more akin to those released during rejection and physical pain!
Your listener might go into a subtle fight or flight mode, and their bodies may start to produce cortisol, shutting down their executive function (the prefrontal cortex) and allowing their lower brains to take over (the amygdala). They are no longer paying attention. They are no longer engaged. From your point of view, you may have no clue that any of this is happening… unless you have empathy.
Empathy allows us to peek out of our blind spots and check in on others when we’re most likely to forget them and become overly engaged with ourselves. And this is why you need to have conversational intelligence. It takes practice, but here are some useful tips to try in your next conversation. They all require a suspension of assumptions:
• First, don’t assume you have no conversational blind spots. If you think this, consider it proof that you do!
• Another thing is not to assume that others think, feel or believe as you do. Don’t make guesses – about anything. The whole point of conversation is to encounter another person who is not you, so don’t assume you already know who they are and what they think. This is why it’s so important to ask more questions, and make fewer statements.
• Don’t assume that the other person sees the conversation the same way as you do. We all have different goals and needs in speaking to others. We want different things and judge success differently. You may see an interaction as an opportunity to share some interesting things you know – but how does the other person see the conversation? How do they see you and all the facts you’re spouting? This is the beginning of empathy.
• One big assumption is that the meaning of what we say is somehow only up to us to decide – in reality, our words only take on meaning when they are grasped by the listener, who may interpret what we say in a completely unexpected or unintended way. In conversation, we are not broadcasting, we are co-creating. Therefore, if we are not connecting or being understood, it is not anyone’s fault, especially not the listener’s. Rather, we need to adjust.
We’ve already looked at several practical ways to develop conversational empathy – for example, by being conscious of how much airtime we take, and where our focus falls in the conversation (i.e. on us or others). To stay in the open-minded, discovery frame of mind, it’s easy enough to simply force yourself to replace a statement with a question. Anytime you feel yourself getting on a soap box, consciously abandon that ego urge and become curious about what you don’t yet know – which is the inner world of the person in front of you. Remind yourself to listen with the intention to connect and not to respond. See the interaction as a moment of play, connection, and enjoyment, rather than battling, competing or convincing.
Try the “double click” technique. Do you know how web pages contain hyperlinks that you can click on so they open a new page with more info? People are a little like this. Imagine that almost every sentence they say is blue and underlined, completely unexplored. “Double click” on it to ask them to expand, to tell you more, to go deeper.
Conversational narcissists will instead see these links as invitations to speak about themselves. Instead, be willing to believe that the person in front of you can share something valuable and new with you. After all, don’t you feel that you have a wealth of amazing things to share with people if they’d only ask? Give that gift to someone else.
Another trick to remember is to imagine that you’re two aliens from different worlds, or creatures from different species. Even though we all share in our culture’s conversational rituals and conventions, the truth is we all inhabit completely different universes, internally. Make one assumption only: that the person in front of you lives in a world very different from your own. From that starting point, you assume nothing more – you simply invite them to share that world with you, and you receive what you’re told with grateful, non-judgmental curiosity.
Developing conversational intelligence and empathy takes time and consistent practice. But ask yourself the following questions to see if there are some areas you can start focusing on, today, or in your very next social encounter:
Do you see conversations as “debates” and are you often attached to your own opinion so much that you cannot entertain someone else's perspective (note, not agree with it, just acknowledge it)?
Do you often “lose your head” in conversations because you feel threatened, confused or angry? Do you find yourself going into defensive/protective mode? Think about how this might affect your ability to empathize.
Do you listen carefully to what people say only so that you can decide what you think of it? In other words, do you see conversation as a judgment game, either enjoying picking apart other people’s statements or defending against yours being picked apart?
Do you make assumptions about what other people think, feel and mean that turn out to be incorrect later? Are there some assumptions that you hold right now that are incorrect, but you just haven’t realized it yet?
Truthfully, we all have conversational blind spots. It’s human. But if we can look honestly at them, we give ourselves the chance to remember what conversation is actually about: not delving ever deeper into our own perspective, but reaching out in respectful curiosity to see the world through another person’s eyes.
Human beings evolved language for this very purpose – to reach out of the confines of their own perception and into the worlds of those around them. If this wasn’t our goal, we might as well just stare into a mirror, right?
Go deep often and early
Sometimes, speaking with close friends and family can be surprisingly shallow and uninspired. On the other hand, sometimes you can find the deepest and most interesting conversation with people you’ve just met.A:
The researchers paired people randomly and gave them topics to discuss – “deep” topics like their fears and dreams. Before they spoke, they asked the people to predict how the conversation would go, and most estimated that it would be awkward to talk about such topics, and that it would be hard to be interested or have others interested in them. But then, after the conversation, they revisited these predictions and discovered that they actually did enjoy the conversations.
To dig deeper into this question, another separate study was done where the discussion topics were the typical small talk – TV, the weather – and compared to a group who discussed the deep and meaningful stuff. When the groups were compared, the researchers found that both groups overestimated how awkward the conversation would be and underestimated how connected they’d feel. The deep conversation group overestimated the awkwardness more than shallow conversation group – and yet they ultimately felt more connected after the conversations than the shallow group did.
So, what are we to make of these research findings? First of all, it may be worth remembering that we tend to exaggerate how awkward things will be when chatting to others. Many people assume that they are bad at meeting strangers, but this may just be a fiction we tell ourselves. Another surprising conclusion is that the conventional wisdom around small talk may not be what we thought it was. It may be that going deep with people we don’t know that well is not only easier than we think it is, but also more rewarding.
If just the thought terrifies you, then relax: you don’t need to go baring your soul or break any major social conventions. But if you’ve always hated talking about shallow, inconsequential topics, give yourself permission to talk about what matters to you. If you can, you may come across to others as more authentic, more human, more vulnerable (which means more trustworthy and likeable), more relatable, and more confident – since you don’t feel the need to mask who you are or pretend. “Big talk” doesn’t mean being a massive downer or dominating the conversation with a list of your psychological problems, personal political beliefs, and family dramas. It just means that you’re real.
A few easy examples: if the situation feels right, and someone asks, “Hey, how are you?” see what happens when you answer genuinely. Perhaps you say, “I don’t know, man. Today just feels like one of those days where I’m going a thousand miles an hour and yet not getting anywhere, you know?” Maybe you’re at the hairdresser's, and you tell your stylist, “To be honest, I’ve always battled low self-esteem, and I wasn’t sure about coming out today for a cut, but you’ve blown me away. Genuinely, you’re a miracle worker. Thank you.” Maybe you’re at a bus stop with a group of people when a mother and two rambunctious toddlers walk by. You say to the person next to you, “aren’t kids just so amazing? It's hard to imagine any of us were once that innocent, huh?”
A brief moment of sincerity can be like fairy dust in the most ordinary of situations. It might not feel like a natural thing to do at first – remember, we all tend to overestimate how risky or awkward it is! – but you may be surprised by just how receptive people are to you when you confidently and calmly open up. The Kardas and Epley study found that people tend to assume that others care less about them than they ultimately do. The biggest barrier to genuine connection may be your own assumption that people don’t care about what you genuinely think or feel.
That said, here are some things to avoid as you try to tackle the meatier stuff with people you don’t know too well:
• Avoid complaining. Authenticity is often about doing away with the artificial gloss of mindless small talk, and being honest is often about the less-than-glamorous sides of life. At the same time, don’t whine or dwell on the negative. So say, “I’ve battled with low self-esteem” instead of “Oh god, I’m such a loser!”
• Don’t automatically assume that others want to be shallow with you. You can’t mindread and take as a foregone conclusion that people are not interested. Go out on a limb and be deep with people in small ways at first, then see how they respond so you can calibrate. If you start small, you can always pull right back if it doesn’t work out.
• Don’t make demands of people. It’s fine to share, but try not to present your vulnerability and openness as something that others feel pressured to respond to in certain ways. Nobody likes, for example, the person that blurts out a deep secret and then demands you do the same. If people feel that you are only sharing something personal to intrude or put people in situations they never agreed to, it’s likely to come across as manipulative and overly familiar. Just say something honest and genuine, and let it be – don’t convey that you need anyone to respond in a particular way, or you’ll just bring awkwardness to the encounter.
• Finally, don’t overdo it. A little goes a long way, and it’s a good idea to mix things up. Say something a little deep, and then be lighthearted afterwards. Sometimes, the most touching moments need a little levity to balance them out.
Predicting with cold reads
Cold reading is an infamous technique used by “psychics” and other charlatans to give people the impression that they know others better than they do. The tactic is essentially a way to use covert observation, suggestion, misdirection, leading questions and high-probability guesses to make it seem like you can almost read your audience member’s minds. The classic example is when the TV psychic says, “I’m seeing an old person, someone who died from something to do with the heart? I’m seeing a name with a D?” In a large audience, there’s almost 100% chance that someone has lost a loved one who was old, and had heart disease. If someone says, “I lost my grandfather to a heart attack. His name was Paul,” the psychic skips right over the D name and suddenly claims that he can see a man’s pocket watch – when before he never claimed to have seen a man, just a person.
Despite its dubious associations, the cold-reading technique is incredibly useful for those who want to be better conversationalists, because the underlying principles are the same. When you cold read, you practice a few tricks that will turbocharge feelings of connection and make the other person feel that you are genuinely seeing them. Simply, you put forth an assertion, and you force them to confirm or deny, and you can move onto the next.
You observe. Any observed detail could be a thread to grab hold of and run with. You pay attention to body language, appearance, and gestures. Maybe you notice that the person keeps saying “we” instead of “me” in the conversation, or she’s wearing a necklace with the letter “M” even though her name’s Ellie, or he’s choosing to stand when everyone is sitting.
You collaborate. The person being cold read usually doesn’t feel like they’re playing along, but they are. In cold readings, the person is invited to make their own connections, to contribute, to help the reader make guesses or find a way for those guesses to be right – which is why it often doesn’t work with skeptics!
You have a conversation. It’s in the back and forth that you get to test some of your guesses, refine your connections, and home in presenting the other person with an understanding of themselves that will seem almost spooky, if done right.
Redirection. If done wrong, though, it’s no problem. Because you’re not actually a psychic, you’ll get a lot of stuff wrong. When you do, you just swiftly move along from mistakes as though they didn’t happen, and focus instead on what is getting a reaction. Magic!
Have a look at the following ordinary conversation, where cold reading tactics are used on a getting-to-know-you first date:
A: I have to warn you in advance, though, I’m extremely good at reading people.
B: Oh really?
A: Yeah, I kind of have a six sense about these things (keeps quiet)
B: Well… go on, prove it! What do you think about me so far? I know we’ve only been chatting a few minutes…
A: You sure? As I said, I can be scarily accurate!
B: Haha, I’m not scared. I bet you couldn’t tell me something I don’t know about myself.
A: Ok, well, here goes. You’re the kind of person who’s very intelligent, and sees things for what they are… but there’s a part of you deep down that really just craves approval.
B: Huh. Yeah, I guess that is true. But I wouldn’t say I “crave” anything…
A: No, obviously, crave is the wrong word. What I mean is you don’t need people’s approval, but you do appreciate it.
Granted, this is a slightly cheesy example where the two are almost deliberately playing at a game of cold-reading, but from B’s perspective, A’s observations must seem like they come from nowhere. But how did A do it?
He deliberately requested collaboration. In this case, he said he was good at reading people, then went quiet, so she had to prompt him to do it. You can similarly cue the other person or set the scene by saying something like, “I may be completely wrong about this, but are you the kind of person who…?” Your caveat also covers your tracks if you make an error.
Next, the conversation seems to come out of the blue, but person A had already made tons of tiny observations by that point. Within a few minutes of meeting her, he notices the woman using complicated vocabulary when simple words would do, and that she is wearing a jumper printed with tiny cats doing algebra. He also notices she has taken great care to dress up nicely for the date. He guesses that she is someone who places her intelligence at the center of her identity, and that, in putting so much energy into her appearance, she would like to make a good impression.
He also notices that she says, “what do you think of me?” rather than “what kind of a person do you think I am?” which, combined with her eager body language, suggests she is invested in him approving of her. He puts all these pieces together and makes the guess: “You’re the kind of person who’s very intelligent, and sees things for what they are… but there’s a part of you deep down that really just craves approval.”
He throws in “sees things for what they are” because she has just said, “I bet you couldn’t tell me something I don’t know about myself.” What this implies is that she believes she has high self-awareness, but her playfully saying “I’m not scared” and putting in a mild challenge of “I bet you,” she is, in effect, laying down a playful challenge – she wants him to guess right!
The thing about his guess is also that, even if he’s wrong… he won’t be wrong. Why? Because everyone likes to think of themselves as intelligent, and everyone would agree to some extent with the idea that they like approval from others. These are so-called Barnum statements – they appear to be specific but are so general that almost everyone would agree with them:
“You’re a kind and compassionate person, but when people cross you, you can get very angry” (you are covering both bases here, essentially saying nothing!)
“I’m betting you have a big drawer at home full of junk!” (Doesn’t everyone?) or “you’ve probably had problems with family members in the past.”
“You’re quite a rare sort of person, and don’t think quite like other people.” (Again, a slight bit of flattery that feels targeted to you, but really isn’t…)
Finally, note the final lines of the dialogue where the woman protests the word “crave.” She actually doesn’t agree with his reading of her, but he jumps in so quickly to say that’s “obviously” not what he meant, and corrects himself so swiftly, that she behaves as though he did get it right the first time! Here, B acts fast: he sees she doesn’t like the word “crave” – what does that imply? She doesn’t want to appear needy, and doesn’t like this picture of someone who’s desperate for validation. So, he immediately feeds that back to her: “No, obviously, crave is the wrong word. What I mean is you don’t need people’s approval, but you do appreciate it.” He acts as though he hasn’t made a mistake, only been misunderstood. And it works.
Though it doesn’t seem like a phony palm reading or Tarot session on the surface, person A has used cold reading techniques to great effect. It’s all about combining your quick observations into a guess or hypothesis, throwing it out there, and seeing what comes back. You can combine high-probability guesses and Barnum statements with open loops. In this case, notice the things the other person says and gather them in your mind, making connections that you can share later. The other person will feel seen and understood.
What really makes cold reading effective in conversations is also the fact that your focused attention builds intimacy. Good conversationalists aren’t psychic, but they do commit to being super aware of what’s going on with the other person, which, in our narcissistic world, may as well be a superpower! Remember that intimacy and connection is the goal. Keep things warm and playful, and the other person will play their part and help you get to know them better. Even if you’re not especially accurate, you will succeed if you can entertain the other person, put them at ease and show them how interesting you find them. Nothing that a person says or does (or doesn’t say or do!) is inconsequential. It all means something. Simply pay attention.
The great escape
Timing is everything. And sometimes, the best thing you can do for a great conversation is know when to end it. Have you ever been stuck in a conversation with someone you were desperate to get out of it? Maybe you’ve wondered if they wanted out of the conversation, too!In a:
The results? Conversations seemingly never ended when both parties wanted them to! In fact, only 2% of people reported that the conversation ended when they wanted it to. Almost 70% wanted the conversation to be shorter, and most people wanted it to be shorter by around half. They found that
“…conversations almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to and rarely ended when even one conversant wanted them to and that the average discrepancy between desired and actual durations was roughly half the duration of the conversation. Conversants had little idea when their partners wanted to end and underestimated how discrepant their partners’ desires were from their own. These studies suggest that ending conversations is a classic “coordination problem” that humans are unable to solve because doing so requires information that they normally keep from each other. As a result, most conversations appear to end when no one wants them to.”
So, what’s going on? The researchers guessed that people get trapped in such conversations because they hide their true feelings. Nobody wants to come across as rude or offend the other person. So, inside we might think, “Oh god, I wish this was finished already” but on the outside we say, “Oh? How interesting, tell me more.” It’s no wonder we are so bad at guessing when the other person is ready to stop talking – we all hide it so well!
The researchers found that 64% of people were wrong in their guesses about the other person’s desires, in both directions. How do we deal with the discrepancy? On the whole, most people tend to want conversations to be shorter. Even when they’re enjoying the conversation, take it as a given that you don’t really know how the other person is feeling, because they’re likely not sending signals either way.
Play it safe and end the conversation when you’re feeling like it’s time, rather than carrying on when you’re actually ready to stop. Assume that ending it prematurely is better than letting things go on too long! After all, ending on a high note can close off a conversation in a neat, positive way so that you both feel eager to talk again the next time you meet. Leave a few things unsaid, create a little mystery, and who knows, you might be letting someone off the hook!
The trick to ending conversations is to calm and confident about it. The firmer and more relaxed you are, the more smoothly things will go.
Step 1: Wait for the right moment. Look for a lull in the conversation or a small silence when one thread is dropped, and a new thread hasn’t yet been picked up. Unless the person you’re talking to doesn’t give you a word edgeways, try to avoid interrupting them to end the conversation. Instead, end it when the ball is in your court, so to speak, and when the conversation naturally feels a little thin.
Step 2: Start with a positive. In a way that almost recaps and summarizes your conversation, give the other person a compliment by saying how much you enjoyed the chat, or reiterate something you’ve learned from them. Without this little bit of flattery, ending even a bad conversation can feel a bit like a rejection.
Step 3: Make an excuse. It doesn’t have to be long and complicated (or even particularly true), but you simply need to signal that there’s a reason you’re ending the conversation that’s not “I’m tired of you now”! This is mere politeness and tact.
Step 4: Firmly disengage. Once you’ve signaled you want to end the conversation, end it. Lingering around second-guessing yourself can actually make things more awkward, or put the other person on the spot. Make a decisive move away from the person, but keep friendly, warm and open, and smile.
For example The other person concludes an anecdote by saying, “and so that’s how we ended up choosing that name for our daughter!” and you say, “Wow. Still, I think you chose wisely. Rebecca is a lovely name.” You both stand there for a moment, nodding and smiling. There’s not much more to say. It’s time. You quickly perk up and seize the opportunity, “It’s been really nice chatting, I always forget how much I enjoy our talks! I’ve got about a million things to do today, so I’d better be going, but we’ll talk again soon? At the PTA meeting this weekend, maybe?” The other person need only smile and say “sure,” and then you can beat a hasty retreat. Simple!
Let’s finish our book where we started: with the concept of charm. What is charm, anyway? As we’ve seen, so many of us fail to be charming simply because we have a completely wrong idea of what it really means to be charming. We think that charm and charisma mean:
• We say the right thing, the funny thing or the witty thing at the right time
• We are intelligent and dazzle people with our brilliant insights and opinions
• We come across as sexy, confident, and popular
• We are entertaining
What any “conversational genius” will tell you flies in the face of this picture: they will say that what makes a person charming is their ability to listen. To be present. To be playful, curious, warm and open. That’s it! And yet how difficult it is to get this right…
It is completely unnecessary for you to be smarty pants or ultra-cool and confident. Think about it: there’s no shortage in the world of people spouting their opinions, and saying what they think. Look at any social media site, tune into any news channel or open any book or magazine – the world is packed to the brim with people who are trying to be interesting, right, and entertaining. And who cares?
In good conversations, the people we tend to love the most are those we feel we can conjure up a genuine, warm and exciting connection with. And anyone can do that, so long as they’re willing to learn a few commonsense tricks, gently shift their mindset… and practice!
• Being charming is about developing social awareness and conversational intelligence. Much of this depends on empathy, and being able to step outside your own reality bubble and honestly see your own blind spots in conversations.
• Try not to ever assume that other people think, feel or believe as you do, or that their conversation experience is the same as yours. “Double click” on what they share with you and be genuinely curious and open minded, rather than making assumptions and guesses.
• Contrary to the conventional advice about small talk, you can build rapport with relative strangers by consciously choosing to go deep with them – and such conversations can be less awkward than you imagine. Just don’t complain or pressure people to respond in a particular way.
• Show people that you’re paying attention and understand them by using the principles of cold reading. Invite their participation, use high-probability generalized statements, downplay incorrect guesses, and collect observations to show people that you really get them.
• Generally, people tend to hide the fact that they want a conversation to end, and most people wish conversations ended sooner. Play it safe by quitting while you’re ahead. Gracefully disengage by waiting for a gap, starting with a positive, making an excuse, and leaving with warmth but also firmness.