Connection is a theme we will return to over and over in this book. And again, it comes down to a fundamental shift in how we understand the purpose of conversation. When we see the goal of conversation as connection, play, appreciation and authentic emotional exchange, we behave in entirely different ways than if we see conversation as a battleground, a courtroom, or a stage on which to strut.
Robin Dreeke is a behavioral and interpersonal instructor at the FBI’s Counterintelligence Training Centre, and understands a lot about the power of suspending ego in effective conversations. Ego suspension is simple but not easy: it’s when we deliberately put other people’s perceptions, wants and needs ahead of our own.
FBI agents know that when fishing for intelligence, it’s never their job to be right; it’s their job to obtain information. Granted, we’re not FBI agents but people wanting to have better quality conversations – but the principle still has value. Choosing to temporarily step into someone else’s worldview takes courage because so many of us want to prioritize feeling right and in control. The irony is that ego suspension is actually an ultra-fast way to feel more control in a conversation, and be better heard, since the connections you make with others will be much richer.
According to Dreeke, “Most times, when two individuals engage in a conversation, each patiently waits for the other person to be done with whatever story he or she is telling. Then, the other person tells his or her own story, usually on a related topic and often in an attempt to have a better and more interesting story. Individuals practicing good ego suspension would continue to encourage the other individual to talk about their story, neglecting their own need to share what they think is a great story.”
Honestly, when last did you do this? Many of us like to think that we’re attentive and empathetic, but are we really?
In the same way, as you notice yourself going into “declaration mode,” try to notice when you’re loading up an anecdote to tell, and deliberately choose to let it go. Instead, choose to immerse yourself in someone else’s story for a while. You don’t have to agree with it, or adopt it as your own. All you have to do is entertain it for a while. Just listen.
Rather than finding it boring or unfulfilling, most people discover something special when they do this properly: conversations with others can be engrossing and valuable even when they’re not about us! Watch closely to see if you have an “information compulsion” – the urge to jump in with a story about something that vaguely connects to what’s just been said. Instead of trying to add your bit, seek to more deeply understand the other person’s perspective.
Imagine you’re a reporter getting the whole story (or an FBI agent!). Willingly imagine that it’s possible you could learn something from the person in front of you, or that their view on the topic at hand is actually more interesting and nuanced than your own – if you can only suspend your ego long enough to notice it!
There are a few practical ways to suspend your ego, even if you find it excruciating at first:
• Instead of saying “yes, but” say “yes, and” (we’ll look at this handy technique later in the book). It changes everything. Resist correcting people on minor details or adding in a useless fact just to prove you know it. If you must disagree, present it as an additional piece of information, rather than a conflicting one: “Yes, you’re right, we don’t need to worry too much about overspending. I also think that we could comfortably extend the budget by 10% to cover any possible shortfalls.”
• Resist the urge to connect their story with your own – even if it comes from a place of wanting to show solidarity. If someone says, “Well, I’m originally from Malaysia,” don’t launch into a story about when you went on holiday to Malaysia. Instead, invite them to say more. “Wow, so you grew up there as a child?” Your ego can kill a conversation, but gently stroking someone else's ego can make it flourish!
• Try nonjudgmental validation. Forget about the idea of agreeing or disagreeing – it’s irrelevant. Simply communicate that you’re interested in the person in front of you, and that you respectfully and curiously acknowledge their perspective (and not in a “well, you have a right to your opinion, I guess” way!). Give the conversation your full attention, respond genuinely, and really listen to what you’re told. When someone shares something, just absorb it without trying to jump in with your own interpretation, judgment or personal reaction. Believe, in that moment, that you are in the presence of the most important and interesting person in the universe – it will make more difference to your conversations than you can imagine.
Understand the three levels of rapport
When you imagine yourself in the middle of a conversation, and you feel like you’re totally charming the other person and coming across as ultra-charismatic, what does it look like? Maybe you think of someone bold, confident, flawless… even a little arrogant. There’s one thing that you probably don’t associate with charm and charisma: vulnerability.
If you’re one of those people that can manage small talk and is friendly enough but never seems to get beyond the niceties and into deeper personal connection, this one’s for you. Many people mistakenly think that being good socially is about invulnerability – that you have to play it cool, calm, and confident. The opposite is true!
Connection and vulnerability go hand in hand. Rapport can be thought of as a matter of degree. You get to know people in stages, first a little, then with increasing intimacy. How do you cover that distance? One way is through gradually increasing moments of disclosure (i.e. sharing vulnerability).
Stage 1: Light disclosure
To inspire trust in people and be likeable and relatable, you need to take the risk of being a little vulnerable around them. But you don’t just dive into it – you work up slowly, by starting with light disclosure first.
Let’s say you have a new-ish friend with whom you share a mild secret, or tell an embarrassing story from your childhood. Maybe you reveal a harmless flaw you have or confess to something a little unexpected. The story itself doesn’t matter. What does matter is the intention behind it: the other person will get the message – I’m opening up to you here, I trust you… It’s a universal signal that shows you’d like to gently further your connection (and this is not just in romantic relationships, but connections of any kind).
Practice light disclosure with new acquaintances and possible friends. Choose something playful and relatable.
“Oh, you think that’s bad? Not only did I have braces in school, I had that awful head gear thing! Don’t tell anyone, but my nickname used to be Jaws…”
Stag2: Medium disclosure
If (and only if) that is received well, or the other person responds with their own disclosures, then you can dial things up a notch. You do this by sharing opinions, beliefs, and ideas that are a bit closer to your heart, or by sharing more private experiences. Light disclosure can be amusing and playful, but medium disclosure is a bit more serious: you are showing someone the real you. This is a risky move, so if you make it, you are conveying a sense of trust to the other person, and a willingness to connect, despite the potential for being judged.
“Not many people know this about me, but my faith is actually very important to me, and always has been.”
Stage 3: Heavy disclosure
If you open up about your weaknesses, fears, vulnerabilities and scars, it is a powerful way to strengthen rapport, build trust and generate warm feelings. Dropping your guard for someone is an act of faith and goodwill. It frequently inspires the same from them. Because the risks for this type of disclosure are greatest, you reserve this level only for those you want the deepest levels of connection with, and for those who have earnt it!
“To be perfectly honest with you, after my divorce, I felt like I didn’t even want to go on anymore. It took a long time to come out of that black hole.”
And here’s the point about levels of disclosure: you need to be discerning. Start small and then ramp up. It doesn’t work if you dive into the deep stuff right off the bat, and it also doesn’t work if you’ve known someone for years and never even broached stage 1 with them. Disclosure makes people feel special. It draws them into a private club of just the two of you, and creates bonds and friendship. That’s why you shouldn’t make a rule of disclosing everything to everyone!
Disclosure is like seasoning: too much or too little, and the dish is ruined. Human beings are built for emotional connection, deep empathy, and friendship and community. But that doesn’t mean we always know how to do it! If you’re stalling at the “acquaintance” level of friendship or find that you frequently alienate or freak people out, it could be a question of vulnerability and exposure.
There is no deep connection without risk and vulnerability. Yes, people can hurt you if they know your deepest self, but that’s the price we pay for intimacy. It’s what makes it worth it. Here’s how to make disclosure work for you:
First, take a look at your current friendships and connections and try to discern which level you’re at. Pick a handful of people you’d like to get to know better, and choose a moment to consciously disclose to them, just to the next level.
Then, importantly, watch their reaction. If they reciprocate or respond warmly, congrats! You’ve just advanced your connection. If they don’t, don’t panic. Just pull back again. Don’t disclose again until you have some indication from them that they want to go there. It’s a calculated risk, but you don’t have to feel bad if you overshoot or encounter someone who’s a little chilly – vulnerability won’t kill you!
Naturally, there are a few things you want to be careful about. Try not to dump a load of upsetting or inappropriate material in the lap of a friend, especially if they’re not expecting it. Vulnerable disclosure is not about recklessly baring all your most intimate problems for others to see – you still need to use discretion and good judgment. Also, the heavier the disclosure, the more infrequent it should be. Everyone knows someone who is an over-sharer, and today many people cynically use their trauma as a kind of social currency. But in truth, you will get better results if you share specific things with specific people with a specific intention in mind. Publishing the grisly details of all your secrets on social media 3 times a week is not vulnerability!
Construct connection stories
Once you’ve mastered small talk (and it’s easier to master than you think!), then what?
Breaking the ice is one thing, but if you hope to consistently charm people and make them like you for longer than a few hours, then you’ll need to build genuine rapport. One good way to do this is to tell “connection stories.” Essentially, these are stories that tell people, in a simple, relatable way, who you are and what you stand for.
Since the dawn of time, human socializing has not just served to support group members and ensure people’s survival; it’s also about deciding who’s not part of the group. Even in the most benign of situations, new people are an unknown quantity – they’re strangers. To be considered not a stranger, somebody needs to know your character, your motivation, and your perspective. Basically, we want to know is this person like me? If the answer is yes, then a bond can be formed. That’s what a connection story is: it tells others Here’s who I am, and in many ways I’m like you.
You will notice this tactic used by people in the workplace, and you will especially see it in advertising or corporate branding strategies. Human beings are built for stories, and it’s a big part of the way we communicate. So when someone begins a speech with “I remember the first time I walked into Jim’s office…” or “I want to tell you about the exact moment I knew I would marry this woman” they are telling you Here’s who I am, and in many ways, I’m like you.
People will be consciously or unconsciously guessing how you tick from your body language, your appearance, your speech, your behavior, and more. But deliberately telling a connection story is a quick way to take charge of their perceptions and say, “this is who I am. This story encapsulates my values and principles.”
Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner says, “Stories of identity—narratives that help individuals think about and feel who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed—constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal.”
The famous influence psychologist Robert Cialdini demonstrated that we are more moved to act to help those we feel are more similar to us. In an experiment, he wrote letters in different languages and left them next to mailboxes, so they appeared to be dropped there by accident. The finding was that when, for example, a Spanish letter was dropped in a predominantly Spanish-speaking area, the letter was more likely to be picked up and posted. The conclusion is obvious: people feel kinder and connected to those who are like them. If you want to deliberately foster this feeling of rapport, you need to write that metaphorical letter in the right language!
So, how do you tell a good connection story? Well, let’s start with how you tell a bad one:
• You simply list rational, factual information about yourself that sounds a bit like a resume (even in a work context, you need to show a human side!)
• You ramble. People are complex, and you will never convey the full depths of your entire character to a person in one go. But sometimes, brevity is your friend. You might find that if you give it some thought, you can come up with ultra-short connection stories that do the job of a longer anecdote (“My mother tells me that my first word was no. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about me!”)
• You are not sincere. Nobody likes being given a sales pitch, or feeling like they’re being manipulated. The strength of a connection story is that it shows rather than tells. People will lose interest if they feel you’ve deliberately curated a flattering “ad” for yourself.
So, what should you say? Before you next find yourself on the spot and having to introduce yourself, think for a moment about what your core values are. This doesn’t have to be a deep exercise. Just home in on those things that matter most to you – perhaps family, your faith, the idea of fairness and justice, whatever.
Now, think of a moment in your life when you became aware of how much this value meant to you. Think about this event or realization and how it helped shape your worldview today. For example, you might remember a moment when your daughter fell suddenly and seriously ill. You could tell a story about hearing this news while on a work trip, and realizing that in the two days it would take to travel back home, she might pass away. This dawning realization made you understand in that moment that no job, and no amount of money, would ever replace her if you lost her. You can talk about how, when you arrived home, you began to completely rethink the way you structured your lifestyle, and that’s why you now work for yourself, on your own terms.
In just a few short lines, you can quickly convey so much to your listener: that you are a hard worker, that you have a daughter, that you take family life seriously, that you’re capable of personal change and transformation, that you aren’t afraid to take risks and try something new, that you’re not materialistic, that you think carefully about your principles, that you’re brave enough to share a vulnerable story… and so on.
Author of Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, Annette Simmons, says that “People won’t listen to you until they know who you are and what you want." So, tell them. But to make sure you’re telling a story that will really build rapport, make it a genuine and considered story that speaks to something genuinely meaningful.
Whether you’re asked to introduce yourself to new people or new work colleagues, or you’re simply trying to get to know a new friend better, don’t be afraid to show yourself. Keep things short and sweet, and don’t worry about coming across as boastful or inappropriate. When people voluntarily open up and share their genuine beliefs, it almost always inspires trust and respect in others. It invites others to do the same. And that’s how connection grows!
Be charismatic: hang a label on it
In conversation, labeling is a way to listen actively, reflect what we’ve been told, and communicate the message I’m paying attention. Labeling is not unlike mirroring, where we essentially reflect some aspect of the other person’s experience back to them, creating feelings of understanding and empathy. For example:
“I’m completely shocked by this whole thing…”
The above is simple mirroring – you’ve used the very same word they have. But take a look at what labelling looks like:
“I’m completely shocked by this whole thing…”
“Seems like it’s really taken you by surprise.”
This is more of a label you’re putting on the other person’s experience. You hear that they feel shocked, but you are also making your own inferences, and offering up your appraisal, almost helping them find the words to better express themselves. If done right, the other person may say in response to a label, “exactly!” and then you know you’ve boosted feelings of understanding and rapport between you.
Human beings communicate because they want to be understood. But there are levels of understanding. Sometimes, you can quickly create a sense of connection when you’re able to read between the emotional lines, so to speak, and show the other person that you really get what they’re saying.
“I’m completely shocked by this whole thing…”
“It sounds like you had hopes that everything would turn out quite differently.”
In the above, there is quite a big leap of conjecture, but if this leap is accurate, the other person will feel so much more seen and validated. You can probably guess that labelling doesn’t always go to plan, though, and when it flops it’s because we’ve moved into assumption rather than accurately labelling how the other person feels.
“I’m completely shocked by this whole thing…”
“It looks like you’re disappointed in yourself for letting this happen.”
Uh, what? If you put the wrong label on someone else’s emotion, expect to create instant feelings of distrust, alienation or just awkwardness! You don’t want to interpret, diagnose or judge – you just want to paraphrase. That’s why the best labelling is actually quite basic – make it a blend between mirroring and labeling by finding an obvious synonym for what they’ve literally just said.
“Man, I’m tired.”
“Aw, seems like you’re feeling pretty exhausted.”
Logically, you’re not introducing any new information, but the person will nevertheless feel like you’re taking in what they say, processing it, understanding it, and passing it back to them. That’s worth a lot!
It seems like…
It looks like…
You look like…
It sounds like…
Avoid using the word “I” or you instantly signal that you’re making interpretations rather than just reflecting what you’ve heard. So, don’t say, “I wonder if…” or “I think you…” or “In my opinion…”
Labeling can help you defuse conflict and help bring shape and resolution to a tricky conversation. Imagine you have an angry customer on the phone who is ranting about a long list of things they’re angry at your company for. You can say something like, “It seems you’re really unhappy about this.” Now, the customer might never have said this word – unhappy – but may feel more validated simply because you’ve accurately summarized the situation.
However, if you really want to bump up your communication skills, a good idea is to label the more positive emotion to bring attention to it, while not labeling more negative or unhelpful emotions. In this example, you may reach a comfortable resolution more quickly if you can say, “It seems like you’re really just looking for a way for us to make this right.” By focusing on potential solutions, you encourage this customer to move beyond complaint and into reparations. A lot of this comes down to instinct – but our instinct takes awareness and active listening to hear what’s going on beneath a conversation. Why is this person complaining? Basically, things are wrong and they want you to make them right again!
Remember that labels are there to clarify, to signal empathy, to build rapport, trust and connection, and to show genuine understanding. Here’s a great trick for using labeling in more professional contexts, such as at work. Even though people may be communicating dry data, seek to understand the emotional content of what you’re being told. Knowing how to do this can cut through a lot of potential misunderstanding and streamline things incredibly, since everyone’s needs will be met (communication, after all, only exists because people are trying to get their needs met, one way or another!).
For example, someone can go on at length about an upcoming deadline and what still needs to be done, and you can say, “It seems like you’re worried we won’t get this done in time.” This will create far more rapport and understanding than if you’d just zoomed in on the literal details of the deadline and the workload, completely sidestepping the underlying emotion of anxiety behind it all.
Finally, a warning: nobody likes an amateur psychoanalyst. You know the kind!
“Ugh, I’m kind of dreading this big family Christmas thing I have this weekend!”
“It seems like you have a toxic relationship with your mother.”
There can be a fine line between expressing empathy and rushing to “diagnose” or pathologize a person’s experience. Stick to labels that simply put words to a human emotion (“worried” or “tired”) rather than making a convoluted theory about their experience – which can feel extremely invalidating!
Don’t “be” boring
Now, this one isn’t rocket science. If you want to be a better conversationist and charm people with your charisma, then… don’t be boring.
All we need to do is closely examine the traits and behaviors of people we consider boring, and then do the opposite! You might not like to think of yourself as a boring person, but truthfully most of us can come across that way now and again purely because we’re not always self-aware. You can drastically improve your charisma simply by not engaging in boring behaviors… and this only requires a little forethought and willingness to “self-edit.”
Think of a person you consider boring. What are they like? What do they do? You might like to know that a study led by Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg and published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that there are predictable stereotypes of what counts as boring. What’s more, people tend to actively avoid and dislike people with these traits.
None of the traits they identified will come as a surprise: people who had no sense of humor, who had boring hobbies like collecting things, and who had few real opinions were all felt to be boring. In fact, in experiments where people were asked to read stories about fictional people, those who had plenty of these boring traits were judged as less warm and less competent. Ouch!
Importantly, nowhere in these stories were the readers told the person was boring – they simply inferred this by looking at the traits. When asked if they would enjoy spending time with such a person, most people showed a preference for those who didn’t have the boring traits, and said they’d likely avoid the ones who did. The researchers actually quantified this by asking how much money a person feels they’d need to be paid to spend time with a fictional person – the higher the amount, the more boring and unlikeable the person!
We should note that this is all about perception – collecting things as a hobby is arguably no more or less boring than, say, skydiving, but what the research uncovered was people’s attitudes towards a collection of traits. If people are universally repelled by certain traits and behaviors, it’s worth deciding if we want to showcase those in our social interactions.
Something the researchers note is that there may be personal and cultural differences in what people consider boring. For some, hobbies like reading or gardening seem boring, but for others, watching TV or being interested in sport makes someone boring. And this brings us to the important point: when interacting socially, there’s always a degree of artifice involved. Truthfully, nobody is a boring person. Everyone is a unique, fascinating individual who has had a history of some kind. The problem is, we might portray ourselves in ways that downplay how interesting we are, or fail to take into account what engages and interests other people. It’s not that we need to be fake about it, but we do need to pay attention to our presentation.
The social stereotype of the “boring person” actually contains many smaller conversational transgressions – a boring person is often just a person who is not paying attention to others, not making an effort, and not treating conversation as a lively, engaging activity. Some of the traits the researchers identified include:
Notice anything about all this? It seems to be a question of fun. Boring people are simply those who are not enjoyable to be around. Let’s reverse all these traits:
Doesn’t take things too seriously
Interested in others
These traits fit perfectly with our model of conversation as play, not work! Think about it, why would anyone want to engage in a conversation with someone that felt like a boring slog or a chore? When we call someone or something boring, we are really saying, “This is no fun.” The best conversations are alive, dynamic and pleasurable. They move quickly, they’re active and novel, and they make the people involved feel good. Bad conversations with boring people are slow, plodding and predictable. There’s no joy in them. The next time you’re hung up on proving a point or being right, remember that this puts you firmly in the boring camp!
There is one simple method for making sure that you demonstrate un-boring traits: have fun. People enjoy people who are enjoying themselves. Allow yourself to share your passions and enthusiasm, and focus on conversation as an art, a game, and something to enjoy. Laugh at yourself.
You can’t do much about having a perceived boring occupation (like accounting, insurance or finance), but you have complete control over the hobbies you share with others and the traits you demonstrate in conversation. If it happens that you genuinely are enthusiastic about puzzles and sleeping, then you may need to “self-edit” somewhat – it’s not that you’re boring, it’s just that you need to be conscious of working around ingrained stereotypes. Perhaps play up other parts of your personality that you know fit the un-boring mold better.
• Conversational charm is about connecting genuinely to others. First, get your ego out of the way by suspending judgment and forgetting about agreement or disagreement. Listen actively, pay full attention and avoid the temptation to connect everything they say to yourself!
• Move slowly and sequentially through the three stages of rapport by making appropriate disclosures to signal trust and willingness to connect. Light disclosure can be an embarrassing tale. Medium disclosure shares your beliefs and deeper feelings. Finally, heavy disclosure is about your more serious vulnerabilities. Don’t be a closed book, but be selective about who you open up to.
• Use connection stories to tell people about who you are – instead of dry facts, share anecdotes that sincerely convey your values as a person.
• You can come across as more charismatic if you show you’re paying attention by labeling the other person’s experience or emotions. Use “it seems like” or “it sounds like” to paraphrase and demonstrate your empathic understanding.
• Finally, don’t be boring! Boring traits are those that downplay fun. In conversations, be relaxed, playful, open and warm, and forego needing to be right or appear smart.