Are you one of those people that loathes small talk, considers themselves an introvert and wouldn’t dream of striking up a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop? Perhaps you’re the type who constantly finds they accidentally offend others, or that every other interaction feels a bit “off” somehow. Or maybe you’re just aware of the fact that in our world today the conversational arts seem to be in decline, and you’d like to make an effort to be more charming, more likeable, better understood and more socially connected to people.
Whatever your current social stumbling blocks are right now, the material covered in this book will help you master one of life’s most challenging subjects: other people! In the chapters that follow we won’t just look at easy tricks and hacks to use to make you more confident and engaging. We’ll also look at why these approaches work, and the underlying mindset shift that’s required to become a charismatic, cooperative and genuinely likeable person, socially.
We’ll explore practical ways to start fine-tuning your social perceptions and awareness, to begin strengthening your empathy muscle, to make small tweaks to your language so that other people really get what you’re saying, how to listen, how to assert your own boundaries, argue effectively, apologize when necessary and, trickiest of all, navigate those situations in life when communication breaks down and you have a conflict on your hands.
Even if you consider yourself socially awkward and hopeless in conversation, rest assured that there is a version of you that is confident, likeable and socially at ease, and getting there is just a matter of understanding a few basic principles and applying them to your everyday life. Strengthen these skills even a little and you will find the rewards are immense. The right people skills can completely change your life – whether professionally or personally, it’s hard to imagine a situation that isn’t improved with a little more tact, charm and skillful communication!
The Triangle Eye Contact Technique
There are so many “people skills” to master and so much to learn that it can be difficult to know where to start. One easy place to begin: the eyes. Even those of us who find socializing difficult know that body language is the foundation of all other language. Arguably, of the entire body, our gaze and where we rest our eyes is the most important.
Yet so powerful is eye contact that not doing enough can make an entire interaction feel cold and detached, while doing a fraction of a second too much can make that same interaction feel “creepy” or off somehow. The goal with eye contact is to ensure you’re connecting with the person in front of you in a very primal, nonverbal way, without that connection feeling too intense or awkward. How?
The “triangle technique” is one approach that promises to help. The idea is that this will make the other person feel that you are engaged in what they’re saying, but you’ll avoid dwelling too long and making people feel weird!
Career expert Kara Ronin has this to say about the triangle technique:
“If you feel a bit awkward staring into someone else’s eyes, try this little trick: Draw an imaginary inverted triangle on the other person’s face around their eyes and mouth. During the conversation, change your gaze every five to ten seconds from one point on the triangle to another. This will make you look interested and engrossed in the conversation” (The Muse, “4 Reasons Why You Don’t Get Noticed at Networking Events”).
Does it work? Yes! But not for the reasons you might think. Using the triangle technique will actually help you feel more focused and less awkward as you talk to someone, especially if eye contact is something you struggle with. If you feel less awkward, that means you’ll convey more relaxation and ease, which the other person will pick up on, and respond to.
Have you ever been talking to someone when you suddenly became aware of the fact that you were staring into one another’s eyes? Depending on the context, this might have felt acutely uncomfortable or embarrassing, and one of you might have quickly looked elsewhere—cue all those awkward feelings. This is exactly the situation where you can use the triangle technique to its best. If you notice that there has been some suddenly intense eye contact, relax and simply shift your gaze to the other eye or the mouth. You show that you’re still connected and paying attention, but you’re switching off that glare of direct eye contact.
What you don’t want to do is be rigid about following this rule—which isn’t a rule at all. If you’re getting hung up on counting five seconds before methodically switching to the next triangle corner, you can expect to create awkwardness, not avoid it! Instead, fall back on this technique whenever you are feeling a little flustered or uncomfortable in a conversation and eye contact is the reason.
Try not to avoid eye contact or seek it out relentlessly—both lead to awkwardness. Instead, think of eye contact like a muscle during a workout. Both can’t be active or tense continuously, or they get fatigued. Instead, focus, then take a break. If the triangle technique is still not relieving some awkwardness for you, give yourself permission to occasionally gaze off to the side or down, but if your goal is to connect with the other person, remember to keep coming back to eye contact with them. Keep it light and dynamic, shift your gaze to a new place roughly every five or ten seconds, and relax. One more tip: very few moments of slight awkwardness can’t be dispelled with a quick and generous smile!
We know that body language matters. For example, most people might guess that if someone is laughing, smiling, and leaning in toward another person, then this communicates friendliness and warmth, right? However, if someone laughed, smiled, and leaned in just a few inches from a stranger’s face, most people would interpret this body language very differently!t. al., Current Anthropology,:
Hall identified four main proxemic “zones” of increasing intimacy: public space, social space, personal space, and intimate space.
As an anthropologist, Hall was interested in the fact that certain cultures and groups seem to have different preferences. For example, Latin Americans and those living in cities are comfortable standing closer to one another, while East Asians or rural farmers prefer standing a little ways back. There are naturally individual differences, too, and people’s preferences may change depending on social context or even the time of day or season in the year. Let’s take a closer look at the zones:
The Intimate Zone
Physical contact to around eighteen inches apart
Lovers, family members, and very close friends. Also common during sports!
Stepping into this space is essentially saying, “I’m seeking more intimacy.” This can be a flirtatious cue or, in the case of interrogations, a threat designed to provoke anxiety. Be extremely careful deliberately moving into this space. Your intentions will almost always be viewed as inviting sexual or romantic escalation (which may not be reciprocated!) or a not-so-subtle power move designed to literally get in someone’s face. So, unless you are already on close terms with the person or have very good reason to believe they’d welcome the escalation, stay out of this zone.
Between one and four feet apart
Friends and close, harmonious relationships
This is the comfortable zone in which friendly and warm relationships are played out. However, there are some gender differences. Whether these are down to biology or socialization is an ongoing debate, but it generally appears that women tend to stand closer to other women than they do to men. This strongly suggests that between men and women, negotiating the sexual element usually means keeping a little more distance, just for good measure!
People who stand closer to others are in general perceived as warm, trustworthy, and likeable, but it’s probably more a question of matching your distance to the other person’s comfort level. It’s not that distance or closeness alone signal anything; rather, welcome closeness will be felt as warmth, and unwelcome closeness will be felt as intrusion. How can you tell?
Pay attention. Try body language expert Joe Navarro’s “shake and wait” technique when you meet someone new:
1. Greet them and immediately lean in
2. Give them a handshake (or other greeting if handshakes are inappropriate)
3. Maintain eye contact and a friendly smile if appropriateo, What Every Body is Saying,:
As a rule, if the other person actively comes closer to you, they’re comfortable and you can match this by moving in. If they take a step back or angle their body away from you, they might need a little more space, so subtly move back a little or mirror their turned-away posture. If they stay where they are, assume they’re happy. Later, when you know them better and if you want to, you can lean closer and observe their reaction. A good rule of thumb is to never continue encroaching or closing distance if you have not received any signal that it’s welcome.
The Social Zone
Around four to twelve feet apart
People walking down the street, or during business and social events
This is a neutral, very comfortable space, but it’s not as warm and friendly as personal space. So, you’re unlikely to cause offense here, but you’re also unlikely to make any strong connections.
The Public Zone
Twelve feet apart or more
Strangers and people sharing a public place
At this distance, people are barely interacting at all, and most towns and cities buzz along on the premise that people can enter and leave one another’s orbit almost without registering it.
So, how can we use proxemics to improve our people skills? First, you have to understand Hall’s main finding, which was that people manipulate social distances as a way to regulate their social stimulation. Basically, we moderate our psychological closeness by changing our physical closeness to others (our proximity). This means that you can use physical distance to:
1. Understand what other people want from you and your social interaction
2. Make others understand what you want from the interaction
So, for example, if we are dating someone we’re really interested in, we can read their body language by noticing that, as time goes by, they’re moving closer and closer to us. We can infer that they are getting psychologically more comfortable with us. But we can also signal our own intentions by moving close and observing the reaction we get. Maybe every time you move a few inches closer, they subtly move that same distance away from you. Even though they never verbally tell you, “I’m not really interested in progressing things with you,” their body language is crystal clear!
A few caveats here, though. No single body language act or gesture is definitive; before we jump to any conclusions, we need to take in as much information as possible and look for consistent patterns of behavior, as well as consider context. So, if the other person is from a culture that favors bigger personal spaces and more traditional or distant dating practices, their failure to lean in when you do might signal very little of their intentions. Likewise, a woman leaning in when you’re in a tiny elevator and it’s extremely cold is probably not signaling keen interest just because she’s standing close to you!
Perceptual Positions for Empathy and AwarenessProgramming, or NLP. In their:
1. Better understand our own perceptions of the world
2. Better understand other people’s perceptions (i.e., have empathy!) and so gain deeper insight into relationships, conversations, and situations
3. Better understand the objective world (Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 16, 10-11)
Later in this book, we’ll consider all sorts of social skills, such as good listening, conflict resolution, strengthening emotional intelligence, and even just the dark art of small talk. But all these skills rest on our ability to be aware of ourselves and others, so that’s why we’ll start with the awareness-building exercises of perceptual positions.
According to the Andreas & Andreas paper, there are three basic positions that we can take in any situation:
First position: seeing the world through our eyes
Second position: seeing the world through someone else’s eyes
Third position: seeing the world through a neutral observer’s eyes
Each of us has a “map of the world” that includes our beliefs, values, assumptions, needs, and so on. When you view the world through your perspective, the facts are colored by these beliefs. At any time, we can choose to switch between our own map of the world and someone else’s. The third, neutral position is about looking at things without beliefs, values, and biases at all—as much as is possible, that is.
You will become a better communicator and improve your social skills if you are able to flexibly shift between these perceptual positions, i.e., be aware of all perspectives in a situation and not just your own. This technique allows a three-dimensional understanding of situations and opens you up to much more information, understanding, and empathy. One caveat: genuinely and cleanly switching perspectives does take some practice, especially if you’re not used to it. You will only bring more conflict and confusion to interactions if you only think you’ve changed perspectives but have really just dug your heels deeper into your own!
How can we use this model to improve our social skills? There are a few ways. First, we can use the framework to retrospectively look at situations that have already passed or which are not currently unfolding; for example, a tense situation at work. You can do a “postmortem” on the situation by actively inviting yourself to switch perceptual positions.
Step 1: Take first position and ask yourself some questions:
What’s the problem?
What are you thinking and feeling? Can you identify any thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, or biases? How are you explaining this situation to yourself? What are your needs here and are they being met? How are you interpreting events or other people’s actions?
When you’re done fleshing out your own position, go to step 2: adopting the second position. Ask the same questions. However, answer them as though you were the other person. For example, don’t say, “They think they’re always right,” (this is really first position!) but rather, “I feel quite certain about what I know,” (spoken from their perspective).
Again, explore thoughts, feelings, assumptions, fears, needs, and interpretations, but from inside the other person’s perspective. Start sentences with “I” and don’t rush or put words into their mouths. Next, step 3 is to go into the neutral position. Zoom all the way out and pretend you’re a neutral outsider looking at both first and second positions with no emotional attachment to either. What is the relationship you see? What is happening and why?
When you’ve explored all three positions, “shake it off” and come back to your normal everyday perspective. Ask yourself which position was most difficult to occupy and why. See if you have discovered any new insights into the situation. Have you been making assumptions? Are there things you don’t actually know? Maybe you can see something you hadn’t considered before, or a new cause for a problem is emerging.
With this exercise, it’s really important to make a proper break between perspectives. You can do this by literally standing up, stretching, exhaling, or moving to a different body posture or place in the room. Let go of any ego that wants you to blame, judge, or find fault. Instead, just try to be curious and genuinely seek to try on the perspective of someone else. Ask what they would think and feel, not what you think they would think and feel—big difference! This means that you may find yourself doing something you never have before—actively considering a point of view that you don’t agree with or which doesn’t actually make sense to you.
Congratulations! You’re beginning to develop empathy and social awareness.
In the example of a conflict at work, you may find the following:
First position: I feel attacked and undermined by the feedback I got.
Second position (a manager): I feel like I’m just doing my job and telling people how they can improve.
Third position: This is a pretty normal interaction, but it seems like there’s not a lot of rapport between these two people.
The insight here is to understand that your feelings of being attacked are not the full picture. The next time you talk to your manager, instead of saying, “You’ve been really mean to me with this feedback,” you can try to acknowledge their position by saying, “I know you’re only doing your job and want to help me improve, but I felt a bit upset by this feedback.” This way you solve the problem in an expanded way and develop the much-needed rapport.
You might be wondering if this approach is only good for resolving conflicts (which we’ll explore in more detail in our final chapter). It isn’t! Switching perceptual positions is something you can do any time, and in small ways, even as interactions are unfolding.
If you’re having a hard time connecting with or understanding the other person, quickly reframe things and ask, “What position are they in right now?” While some naturally empathic people do this automatically, the truth is that most of us are not as good at it as we think. Even a brief moment of reframing can show us that others don’t necessarily know what we know, think what we think, feel what we feel, or want what we want. Even if we don’t fully grasp their position, just knowing that it’s not the same as ours can be a massively useful insight!
This technique underpins so many others. and can be combined with them. For example, let’s say you’re a man trying to flirt with a woman you’re interested in, but you notice she keeps avoiding eye contact and turning her body away from yours despite flirting with you the day before. You very quickly put yourself in her shoes and see what she might be thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Doing so, you realize that today you’re talking in a busy public space at night whereas yesterday you were in a relaxed, secluded space during the day. You combine your understanding of proxemics, eye contact, and perspective-switching to realize that she hasn’t suddenly lost interest; she’s just a little uncomfortable in the current environment. Nothing has changed here—but you have become more aware of yourself and of others, and that makes all the difference.
Three-Step Active Listening: Paraphrase, Clarify, and Summarize
In talking about body language and proximity, you could be forgiven for thinking that good social interactions were somehow mysterious and governed by unspoken gestures that you had to work hard to decode. But of course, people have one brilliant advantage: we can speak! Arguably the only reason humans evolved language was so that we could effectively communicate our perspectives to others without them having to guess.
Active listening will turbo-charge your social awareness skills. People communicate almost constantly, and they share almost everything you could want to know about them. The trick is, though, that we really need to know how to listen to what they’re saying. It’s an amusing irony that some people who are very interested in reading subtle body language cues often miss out on the really obvious words coming directly from people’s mouths . . .
“Active listening” is a bit like driving—everyone thinks they’re above average! The truth is that genuinely listening to another person takes effort and practice, and most of us are pretty bad at it. It’s not just giving the impression that you’re paying attention. It’s genuinely, sincerely taking in what you’re being told and putting the focus of your attention on that person so that you can deeply understand what they are trying to convey.
One big thing that gets in the way of genuine understanding is assumed understanding—i.e., we don’t listen all that well because we think we already know what’s being said. Another major problem is when we judge or evaluate what we hear. Good listeners listen primarily so they can connect and understand, not so they can decide if they agree, or what they think of the person speaking.lleagues conducted a study in:
How do we achieve this same outcome? Here are some conventional active listening strategies people usually recommend:
• As you listen, consciously resist trying to think of what you’ll say when they stop talking.
• Wait a few seconds after they stop so you don’t come across as rushing in to say your own thing. Take time to absorb what they’ve said.
• Don’t assume people think or feel the same as you, or that their values are the same (see perspective-switching above).
• Don’t pretend you understand them when you don’t.
• Don’t interrupt.
• Avoid cliches like saying “Oh, I totally understand” when you don’t sincerely mean it.
These are all really good suggestions, but even still, if any of them are followed with the intention of only appearing to be a good listener without actually being one, then you’re still going to fail. The goal is not to improve yourself by being perceived as a better listener. To achieve the results we see in countless studies, the goal is to genuinely understand the person in front of you better.
This means that there’s really just one main rule to being a better listener: get yourself out of the way!
There’s a practical way to do this: paraphrase, clarify, and summarize:
Paraphrasing is repeating what you’ve been told but in your own words.
Clarifying is asking questions to confirm that you’ve understood what you’ve been told.
Summarizing is condensing the essence of what you’ve been told into a summary that reflects their message back to them.
If you consistently do these three things, you will be well on your way to mastering active listening—and the other person will notice and feel more heard and seen. But again, these three actions are really just a way to demonstrate that we have taken ourselves and our own ego out of the picture so that we can more effectively perceive and understand the other person.
Here’s how a conversation looks without active listening:
A: I feel like you’re picking apart everything I do, and that I can’t do anything right.
B: That’s ludicrous. I never do that. I’m very fair.
A: But your feedback was really harsh, and you didn’t give that feedback to anyone else. I feel like—
B: Look, I know you’re feeling upset, but you’re making a really big deal out of this. You don’t want me to give you feedback again, fine, I get it.
A: That’s not what I said.
Can you identify the judgment, the interrupting, the glib and meaningless reassurance, and the total misinterpretation of what is being said? Here’s the same again with active listening:
A: I feel like you’re picking apart everything I do, and that I can’t do anything right.
B: I’m really surprised to hear that. Why do you feel this way?
A: I think your last feedback was quite harsh, and I noticed you didn’t give that feedback to anyone else. I feel like I’ve almost been singled out.
B: So if I understand you correctly, you’re saying you feel as though I’m being unfairly critical and that I’m not that critical with others?
A: Yes, exactly.
B: Is this something you’ve recently noticed or is this an ongoing problem?
A: Well, to be fair, it was only once with this most recent feedback.
B: Okay, I see. So it seems like you’re unhappy with how I’ve managed this last feedback, and you’ve come to talk to me about it.
Can you identify the paraphrasing, clarifying, and summarizing above? Importantly, active listening won’t magically make problems or conflicts go away, but what it will do is allow people to engage with those conflicts without jeopardizing the harmonious connection between them. It makes sense that you can only move forward from misunderstanding or conflict if you actually understand where the other person is coming from. Similarly, you can only really develop intimacy and empathy with someone if you actually know what they are going through—not just what you guess they’re going through.
Sometimes, in the natural flow of conversation, paraphrasing, clarifying, and summarizing can be blended together. The trick is to maintain an open, respectful, and curious attitude to the other person, and don’t make assumptions—you may be surprised at what you learn when you shut up and pay attention!
Active listening doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated.
To paraphrase, literally repeat what they’ve said using synonyms. If they say, “I could sleep for a week,” you could say, “Poor you, you sound tired!”
To clarify, you could literally take the same observation and frame it as a question. “Would you say you’re exhausted right now?”
To summarize, all you have to do is find the nub of what they’re communicating. Here, a good trick is to ask what the overall emotional message is. They may never literally say, “I’m tired,” but if they give you a five-minute list of everything they’ve had to do that day and tell you about the four cups of coffee they’ve had just to keep awake, then you are summarizing when you say, “Wow. So all in all, you’re running on empty right now?”
Notice that this last sentence is, in a way, a paraphrase, a clarifying question, and a summary all in one. That’s because when we clarify, we are not just looking to gather accurate information; we’re also demonstrating our willingness to listen, our interest, and our reassurance that we care enough to get the details right. Similarly, a summary or paraphrase isn’t there to add information or solve a problem—it’s primarily there to signal, “I’m listening. I heard you.” Here are some other turns of phrase you can use:
If I’ve understood you correctly, you're saying that . . .?
So XYZ . . . is that right?
Did I understand you when you said that . . .?
It seems like . . .
Wait, could you tell me more about . . .?
When did this start/what happened next/what do you think about this?
I’m not sure I understand. Could you explain what you mean when you say . . .
• No matter who you are, it’s always possible to improve your people skills and become a more charming and more likeable conversationalist.
• Start by building more social awareness. If eye contact is often awkward or uncomfortable, try the triangle technique: Draw an imaginary inverted triangle on the other person’s face around their eyes and mouth. During the conversation, change your gaze every five to ten seconds.
• Be aware of proxemics as a nonverbal mode of communication. Intimate, social, personal or public space are used in different contexts and can signal intentions, with people regulating their social closeness by changing their physical proximity.
• “Perceptual positions” can help you build empathy and switch perspectives. First position is seeing the world through our eyes, second position is seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, and third position is seeing the world through a neutral observer’s eyes. You can gain insight into a situation by adopting each position in turn.
• To be a better and more active listener, paraphrase, clarify and summarize. Avoid judging, interpreting through your own perspective or interrupting, and simply listen.