When you’re communicating, silence can talk. Of course, it’s all about silences at the right time, for the right reason. Pauses are effective when:
• They’re consciously chosen
• They add structure and meaning to what’s being said
• They relax you and your listeners
Some people talk a lot and talk without pause. They may gush forth with a flood of information for many reasons. Maybe they’re excited to share a passion. Maybe they’re anxious. Or maybe they have low self-esteem and don’t believe that they are truly being listened to, and so they have to keep making their point over and over.
Whatever their reason, the irony is that such people tend not to be listened to – they tend to get tuned out! “Talking too much” can mean many things: repeating yourself, using extraneous or complicated words when simple ones would do, drawing out sentences or making them overly long, or constantly going on tangents. A big part of this, too, is simply filling every moment with speech, seemingly never pausing to take a breath!
But if you can just pause, reflect, and carefully consider your next word before you say it, you’ll find a few things happen. Firstly, you’ll make yourself feel more relaxed. If you’ve ever found yourself nervously running out of breath or hearing your own voice change or get choked or awkward sounding, this is probably the reason: you’re not breathing! When you breathe, your body relaxes and your voice box, being part of your body, relaxes too. And it sounds relaxed. When people can hear the relaxation in your voice, they will themselves feel relaxed, not to mention read it as confidence and ease.
When you pause, you give your listeners time to actually process what you’ve said. Choosing not to blast your listener with a fountain of information is just polite – remember that you already understand the point you’re making, but they don’t yet, and they need a few seconds to get to where you are. Rush off without them and you’ll probably just lose their interest.
When you use pauses to pace and moderate your speaking, you convey a sense of calm control, dignity, and presence of mind to your speaking. Have you ever looked back and wished you had spoken more carelessly? Nope, but you’ve almost certainly regretted being rushed, saying something without thinking, or speaking in a way that could have been more carefully considered. When you pause you give yourself time to check in with what you’re doing and why.
Pausing also gives you breathing room to slow down and notice how other people are reacting to you, so you can adjust there and then. Have you ever spoken to someone who seems clueless to the fact that you’re bored to tears with their never-ending story? It’s probably because they’re so engrossed in the telling of that story that they don’t notice that you aren’t! Finally, a pause is a perfect thing to substitute instead of aggravating filler words like “um” and “like.”
Slow down. Practice peppering your speech with pauses from a split second longer to one or two seconds long (you can count “one Mississippi” in your head to measure!). You will instantly come across as more deliberate, confident, and in control. Many people worry about pausing because they fear others will lose interest or interrupt them. But just try it as an experiment, and you’ll notice that when you give your own words more time and respect, people are more willing to do the same.
Where should you pause? Keep it natural and put them wherever you’d have commas or periods in written speech. Pause after you make an important point, or just before you start a new sentence or reveal an interesting piece of information. Pause in the places you want your audience to think or reflect. Done right, a moment of silence can be powerfully engaging, for example, right after a rhetorical question. Paired with the right body language or facial expressions, a silence can be more powerful than any combination of words. Watch stand-up comedians and famous public speakers and pay attention to where they pause, as well as their overall pace.
For example, try listening to the first part of Obama’s Presidential Acceptance Speech. Notice how he uses pauses (a lot of them!) to give his speech gravitas and potency, and also to allow his audience to simply react to what he’s saying. The pauses allow him to really savor his speech, demonstrate his full command of himself and the moment, and grab hold of the attention of the crowd. Doing a little of this yourself will give your speech much more authority and weight than if you had just hurriedly bumbled through.
You can find a paragraph of text and practice saying it out loud, alone, to match that pace, just to get a feel for it. Focus on your breathing first and foremost. When your breathing is smooth and even, you’ll feel relaxed and confident, and you’ll sound more interesting and likeable. Practice drawing a deep breath, and then imagine that you’re easily letting go of that breath, but as you do so, you shape it into words, without rushing. Then repeat, finding a smooth flow. Often, when we’re nervous (or just excited!), our shallow or irregular breathing can come across in a voice that’s tight, high pitched, breathless or rushed. But when you breathe, your message can flow more freely – literally.
Apply the Pareto Principle
You might know this as the “80-20 rule.” Very simply, the idea is that just 20% of inputs yield 80% of the results. This principle has been applied extensively in business, but we can glean a few insights when we apply it to the world of communication and conversation skills – especially to help us become better listeners.
Let’s start with a question: in your last conversation, were you trying to be interesting or interested? Or we can ask it another way: is the function of a conversation to show someone what you know, or to learn what they know?
We’ve all heard about active listening and can all agree that it’s important, but how many of us are truly listening to the people around us? When we apply the Pareto principle to listening, the rule becomes: 80% of the conversation should be about the other person, and 20% about you. If this seems crazy to you, just consider how many conversations you’ve had where the ratio was reversed!
Here are some ways that you can quickly alienate, bore, and exhaust people in conversation:
• “Dumping” your story on them, hogging the conversational airtime, and making everything about you.
• Constantly trying to steer the conversation in the direction you want it to go, for example, someone makes a gentle shift in topic, and you listen but then immediately carry on talking about your point again, as though the other person hadn’t even spoken.
• Trying to impress, speechify or boast to others, trying to one-up in conversation, show off or connect every idea back to yourself with a personal anecdote. Being that person who interrupts others to correct them or say, “well, actually…”
• Being fake and inauthentic, or running a boring, predictable “script.” For example, you ask how someone is doing and then zone out, completely indifferent to their sincere answer to the question.
Here’s an uncomfortable truth: most of us want to be better conversationalists, but the irony is that this desire can actually backfire, since we tend to think, “How can I be better? More interesting? More charismatic?
You can see the problem – it’s all focused on you.
If you truly want to be a fascinating person to talk to, then the questions you need to ask are different: how can I make my conversation partner feel good? How can I enjoy and deepen the connection with the person in front of me? What can I learn from them? How am I going to make them shine?
It’s a completely different mindset. It’s the difference between being an interesting person versus an interested one. The most interesting person in the world is a drag to talk to if they make others feel unseen, bored or talked over!
Being an active listener is harder than it looks. You don’t just want to act the role of someone intently listening – you have to genuinely listen! First, just observe. Go into conversations without an agenda, assumptions or bias. Try to grasp the fact that anything can arise in a conversation, and what happens is a living, breathing, emergent co-creation – isn’t that exciting? Become curious about what is unfolding.
As you listen, completely forget that you get to speak at some point in the future. Don’t plan your response in your head. Don’t run everything past a filter to see if you like it or agree with it. It’s not your job to judge or appraise (at least, not yet) but only to listen. Just gather and absorb. Look the person in the eye. You’re not just listening to comprehend facts; you’re listening to really grasp this other person’s worldview. What is it like to be them right now? Where are they really coming from?
If you can lavish this kind of attention on someone as they speak, they will be thrilled, guaranteed. A common active listening trick is to feed back what you’ve heard in your own words to show your understanding, but even this is not strictly necessary if the other person genuinely feels like you’re paying close attention.
Active listening is iterative, meaning you will need to adjust and fine-tune as you go. Prepare to be surprised. If the conversation takes an unexpected turn, let it. If you hear something you disagree with, don’t jump in to say why. If someone says something about an area you’re an expert in, don’t automatically rush in to share what you know. You are always listening with the intention of understanding and connection, rather than listening with the intention to reply, appraise or negate. Big difference! And it’s a difference the other person will feel.
Now, you might have wondered, “If I’m listening a whole 80% of the time and only talking 20% of the time, how do I ever get to say what I want? Do I have to constantly put myself second to be a good conversationalist?” But if you think about it, this question comes from the mindset that sees conversations as competitions and battles rather than shared, mutually enjoyable interactions. It assumes that speaking is innately more valuable than listening. Remind yourself of this: it is perfectly possible to have a brilliant, deeply enjoyable conversation with someone with whom you speak very little. Really!
The truth is, if you are consistently giving people the space to talk, and making sure they feel heard and validated, you will find that they want to return the favor, and you will not have any problem being heard in turn. On the other hand, if people get the sense that you’re always vying for attention and just waiting to talk over them, they will be less inclined to let you speak, not more.
Watch yourself the next time you’re in a conversation. Moment by moment, ask whether you are focused on yourself, the other person, or more generally, on the conversation. It’s OK to take the limelight here and there, but try to keep bringing your attention back outside yourself. Do this by:
• Asking a question (“what inspired you to emigrate in the first place?”)
• Encouraging them to speak more (“Yeah?” or “Then what?”)
• Exclamations (“Wow!”)
After someone speaks, pause. Don’t jump in immediately. Take the time to process what they’ve said, and let them feel like they’ve stopped speaking because they are done, not because you are subtly pushing them off the stage to have your turn. Ask open-ended questions and then keep quiet, inviting them to share. Use open body language and turn the full beam of your attention on them as they speak.
If you ever want to see what deep active listening looks like in practice, watch any great TV talk show hosts interview their guests. Notice how, paradoxically, the host comes across as seriously likeable and charming even though they have completely gotten out of the way and deliberately set up their guest to shine.
Watch how, ironically, their ability to comfortably let the other speak makes them appear confident, in control and relaxed. They know they have one job: to make their guest look good. Put yourself in this mindset the next time you speak to someone, and notice how drastically everything changes!
Microexpressions are worth a thousand words
So far, we’ve explored a few tips and tricks to make sure that you’re doing your best to communicate properly and connect with others to make you instantly more appealing and relatable to others. Now, let’s shift our attention to the other side of the dynamic, i.e., reading people.
Communication always has two sides: the sender of the message and the receiver of the message. The better you are at seeing how your message has landed, and the more accurately you can perceive what is being shared with you, the better the conversation will go. You will not only understand others better, but they will actually feel as though you understand them better, and in turn, that will make you seem more friendly, likeable, and even charismatic.
If you’re someone who frequently finds interactions a bit awkward or weird but can’t say why, or if you often find that you’re misunderstood, it could be down to the annoying fact that what people say is often different from what people genuinely feel and think. Being a good people reader is a big part of being a good conversationalist, and it rests on equal parts observation and intuition.
Microexpressions are ultra-quick (1/15th of a second!) facial expressions that are said to be genuine indications of people’s emotional state. They are the same as “macroexpressions” only more fleeting, and the main ones include anger, fear, disgust and surprise. While anyone can fake a smile, a microexpression, the theory goes, cannot be faked or hidden, and this is because it stems from our automatic physiological response to the world. Therefore, if you can spot one, you get a glimpse of what people are really experiencing, despite the image that they want to portray.
What’s the point of knowing about microexpressions? Well, they help us understand why we may sometimes leave social interactions feeling “off”. There may be two conversations going on – the official one, and the hidden, unspoken one. When these two stories conflict, you may perceive it unconsciously and feel strange without knowing why. Become more consciously aware of microexpressions, though, and you may be better able to detect ambivalence, masking, or flat-out deception.
Developing enough fine-tuned social intelligence to pick up these nuances takes time and practice, but it is something most people can do. Keeping interactions smooth and harmonious (or even just civil) is non-negotiable. But sometimes, to find that harmony, you need to be aware of what people are actually feeling. One great way to do this is to simply look for discrepancies.
For example, when you’re out with your partner and a few friends, one of them suggests you go out drinking somewhere, even though it’s late and everyone’s tired. You watch your partner smile and say yes, but immediately she flashes her glance towards you. She’s smiling, but you can’t help but notice her tense body language, and the flicker of a frown the split second the suggestion was made. You can see that she is simply trying to be polite, but doesn’t really want to go. You smile and turn the friend down politely.
Here, noticing discrepancies allowed you to get a far deeper reading on an everyday situation. Your wife said yes officially, but unofficially her microexpressions showed what she really meant. Had you missed this, the evening could have gone in all sorts of different ways. But in being sensitive to even small “tells” of genuine emotion, you become someone who is more switched on and empathetic.
You might be at work and notice that a colleague is acting angry, but by reading other cues and observing his microexpressions, you begin to believe that he’s actually more afraid than angry. So, the next time you speak to him, you take pains to put him at ease, to slow down, and to help him find reassuring solutions, rather than go on the defensive (which is what most people do when they’re in the presence of an angry person!). This colleague may feel, after talking to you, that you are especially intuitive or empathetic. But it’s not magic – you’ve just paid attention to things that most people do not.
Finally, one benefit of reading microexpressions is catching out a lie! If someone tells you, “I really love this birthday present you gave me, thank you!” right after they flash a microexpression of disgust and shock, then you know what not to get them next year!
Just remember that reading microexpressions is something best done in concert with other observations you make. Especially with people you don’t know, it’s best to compare any noteworthy observation against a baseline. Look for patterns, also, rather than one-off incidents. After all, something only 1/15th of a second long can easily be missed or misinterpreted!
Some would argue that most of these fleeting facial movements are so fast that they are undetectable consciously – in that case, you can give yourself permission to trust your gut instinct. If someone is all smiles and kind words, but you can’t help feeling weird and anxious in their presence, don’t discount your perception. You may have subconsciously detected a discrepancy between what they say and what they really feel, and your body and mind are simply telling you to stay alert!
Be quick, be responsiveublishing their findings in a:
What they did was ask pairs of either strangers or friends to have a chat and then afterwards self-report on their level of connection, i.e., how well they “clicked.” The team found that when the pair had relatively fast response times, they were more likely to report that they clicked. It would seem that the quicker and more responsive the other person appeared, the more we felt that they were connected to us and flowing with us in the conversation. Faster responders generally tended to make people (unconsciously) feel more connected.
The effect was even found when others were asked to observe a conversation between a pair and rate how well they thought the two were clicking. They, too, seemed to recognize that faster response times = better connection.
But first, a few caveats about this study. The researchers only found that people were more likely to report connections with fast responding partners. In other words, they felt like the other person got them and that the conversation was flowing well. Whether this actually correlates with a genuine depth of bonding and understanding is not clear. But then again, is there all that much difference between being connected versus merely feeling connected? Maybe not.
Another caveat is that the research only made an observation – conversations with fast reaction times tended to be described as more connected. But does that mean that if we respond more quickly, we can increase how well connected the other person feels to us? The study didn’t investigate this, but you definitely can try it out for yourself.
The next time you’re in a conversation, try to pay attention not just to your response time (which is, after all, only a metric) and focus on your overall responsiveness. There’s good reason to believe that in conversation, people feel most connected, seen, acknowledged and understood when it appears that the other person is right there with them, responding swiftly, paying attention, and listening closely. You only need to think of how badly a chat goes when you’re on an international call with a lag to understand how powerful this could be! For that matter, Zoom calls with slight delays can have the same effect – we feel like it’s so much harder to get a responsive, genuine flow going.
Old friends can often have perfectly comfortable silence between them, but for the most part, try to avoid gaps in your conversation. If there is a lull, return to an open loop (see how useful they are?) or ask an open-ended question to get things rolling again. However, you may also find that you don’t necessarily need to add anything new to the conversation for it to count as a quick response. Simply make sure you’re showing that you’ve heard and understand. Say things “uh huh” or “yeah?” as the other person talks, but consider nonverbal responses too, such as nodding or matching your facial expression to theirs as they relate a story.
In almost every situation, you can get conversational momentum going again by simply asking a question. One thing to consider as well is that conversational lulls sometimes happen when you’ve simply exhausted the topic at hand. If you’ve both said all there is to say, it could be a good time to try and deepen the interaction somewhat. In other words, a quiet spot in a conversation might not be something to worry about but actually a signal that the dialogue is ready to go a little deeper. If this feels like the case, then practice a tiny amount of disclosure, or switch the conversation to a slightly more personal topic.
That said, while it’s good to keep things flowing and light, it’s not good to get so hung up on filling quiet gaps that you become anxious or desperate. If you panic and rush in to say something, anything just to fill the gap, your obvious sense of anxiety will end up filling the gap!
Let’s be honest – sometimes, no matter what you do, conversations are a little awkward, and silences creep in. Not every one of those silences needs to be filled. And not every conversation is going to be a brilliant, sparkling exercise in wit and sophistication. If you find yourself floundering badly, sometimes the best thing is to cut your losses and gracefully end the conversation so it’s still possible to return to it later, when the chemistry may be better.
Keep calm and confident, stay friendly, and frame the end of the conversation as something slightly regrettable. “Well, it’s been nice chatting. I have to get going, but good luck with your presentation next week, and I’ll see you around sometime!”
Navigating conflict landmines
So far so good, but what about those conversations that don’t go so well, seemingly because you and the other person just can’t seem to stop butting heads? Today, getting into ideological arguments with people seems more common than ever before, and the stakes feel higher. You feel like the other person doesn’t listen to “logic” – but they feel the same about you!
Have you ever encountered someone who seemed to hold two separate beliefs that actually didn’t go together at all? If so, you’ve encountered someone with what’s called cognitive dissonance – the ability to simultaneously hold two mutually exclusive beliefs. The thing is, people don’t give up beliefs just because you pointed out the dissonance. Instead, most people (that’s including you!) tend to hold on even more tightly to yet more beliefs and ideas that help support their mental scaffolding, even if those ideas are pretty irrational.
How do we deal with this? Well, first things first: recognize this tendency in yourself. We all like to think that we’re always rational, logical, and make sense. But if we can realize just what it takes to let go of this, we better understand what it feels like from someone else’s perspective. Next, learn to notice when someone is talking to you from a position of cognitive dissonance:
• They are surprised by new information but don’t adjust their position.
• They are unable to paraphrase or correctly summarize your perspective
• They assume that your intent in the conversation is malicious
• They shift goalposts or change definitions as they go
• They yell or get angry and indignant
• They focus on your character and identity rather than the argument or claim you’re making
• They quickly retreat from the conversation without any concession
Ok, so what if you notice these in other people? Should you roll up your sleeves and get ready to go to battle with them? Absolutely not! Why? Because this person is likely not arguing in good faith, and, because they hold a cognitively dissonant position, they will not be able to debate with you in any meaningful way.
Returning back to our golden rule of conversation, it’s important to remember what our ultimate goal is: to connect, to understand, and to bond with others. Sometimes, when we’re in the heat of an argument (especially with someone who drives us crazy because they just won’t listen!) we can forget that it doesn’t matter if they agree with us or not. Everyday conversations between friends, colleagues, and partners are emotional in nature, not logical.
When we encounter cognitive dissonance, the best thing to do is not to take the bait and get embroiled in a (completely pointless) sparring match with someone who cannot and will not be convinced otherwise. Instead, we should find a way to establish rapport again. Remember that people respond in the above ways out of fear – when they perceive a threat to their dissonance, they will do whatever it takes to protect themselves and stubbornly reinforce their position. The more you push, the more they push back.
So, stop pushing.
The next time you’re in an argument like this, pull back and reconnect. One way: crack a joke that isn’t at their expense. Lighten things up and send the message: even though we disagree, we’re still on the same page, there is still respect, and I’m still listening. This dials down perceived threat and will dampen their defensiveness.
Here’s something many people don’t want to hear: if you frequently encounter defensiveness and cognitive dissonance in others, it may be because you inadvertently invite it with your own attitude and approach. How? You may put people on the defensive if you approach their agreeing with you (or “coming over to your side”) as a sign of your superiority. As we’ve seen, framing dialogue as a zero-sum game where the loser ought to be ashamed of their mistake is a one-way ticket to conflict. Being haughty, arrogant or stubborn will inspire the worst in others!
The second mindset is one in which you unconsciously force people to be perfect, and faultlessly live to their values, immediately adjusting their lives to new information or else risk losing integrity. Let’s say someone admits that eating meat causes some harm in a conversation about vegetarianism – they would only grow defensive if you then started demanding they change their diet that very day and immediately live according to this new understanding. Sometimes people are not inconsistent or in denial – they’re just taking time to come around!
The third mindset is when we hold people’s inconsistencies in the past against them. Think about it: if you make your conversation partner into an opponent, then the act of them agreeing with you is an admission of defeat – who would want to agree if that was the case?! If you convey the message that you are trying to win, you put the other person on the defensive because they don’t want to “lose.” If you communicate that your intention is not to connect, learn or understand, then expect resistance.
Here's something that will serve you well the next time you feel yourself in a conversation that is spiraling into combat mode: just stop. Take a deep breath and literally lean back. Become aware of your body. That weird feeling in the back of your throat, your rising pitch of voice, that edgy panic you feel – it’s your fight or flight response. Pause and remind yourself that you’re just having a conversation. That’s all.
Realize at that moment that if you continue in the same vein, then communication breakdown is likely. But you have a choice. You can conduct yourself as a person who prioritizes harmony, understanding, and flow over the ego’s need to be right. And you’ll realize that once you do that, then the real conversations can start, and it’s way more fun than squabbling over who the king of the castle is!
• What you don’t say is also important. When you speak, remember to include pauses in the right places to convey confidence or emphasis. Give your listeners time to digest what you’ve said.
• Use the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule, and try to make 80% of the conversation about the other person and 20% about yourself. Listen, ask questions, and pay attention rather than forcing a particular topic, being fake, trying to impress or interrupting.
• Be aware of microexpressions (tiny, ultra-rapid facial expressions), especially those that don’t seem to match what is being said. Microexpressions tell the “truth” about someone’s feelings, so observing them can give you empathy and insight into how they really feel.
• People feel like they “click” more often when responses are swift, so pay attention and keep things flowing and responsive. That said, it’s better to end a flagging conversation than panic too much when it goes quiet.
• If you find yourself inching towards conflict, pause and ask whether the other person is speaking from a position of cognitive dissonance and, if they are, back away and try to re-establish rapport, since pushing will only invite more resistance. And, of course, be on guard against the tendency to hold incompatible or irrational views yourself!