how (i attempt) to win friends and influence people, part ii: listen.

last time on gailgail.com…

in part i, i talked about how connecting with humans and creating meaningful interactions (where winning friends and influencing people is a not uncommon side effect) is a one-step process in which you shift your attention from yourself to the other person. one way you can do this is by being curious about the other person and making genuine attempts at getting to know them. 

so now that you’re an expert at following your curiosity and you’ve asked some interesting questions, you’ll need to continue fixing your attention on the other person by listening to their response. how can you tell if you're a good listener? good listeners can say ‘i get what you mean’ and the speaker will believe them without suspicion. they do their best to understand the other person's experience. by developing your ability to listen, understand, and relate to someone else, you increase your chances of creating meaningful interactions.

interruptions can actually be a good thing.

some naive advice on good listening suggests that interruptions are bad. interruptions themselves are not inherently bad, but interruptions that occur because you weren’t paying attention are indeed bad. if you interrupt me with a non-sequitur, you’re telling me that connecting with me is a lower priority for you than talking about yourself and your own distractions. 

but when someone interrupts me to ask a clarifying question or to get a better grasp of the situation, it signals that they’re paying attention and are interested in understanding my perspective. when speaking, it’s easy to overlook and leave out minor details. when listening, it’s easy to fill in those gaps with our assumptions that might not actually reflect the reality of the situation. instead of assuming, it’s often better to explicitly spell out your assumption or ask the speaker to clarify. some examples of good interruptions might be:

  • wait, what do you mean by ______?
  • before you continue, when you said _______, i assume you were referring to ____. does that sound right?
  • hang on, when you say _______, are you talking about ______?
  • if what you’re saying is _____, does that mean that ______?

but interruptions, even good ones, are still interruptions. it’s polite to acknowledge that you’ve interrupted and steer the conversation back on course once your questions have been answered.

“sometimes it's better to be kind than right. we don't need a brilliant mind that speaks, but a patient heart who listens.”

it’s extremely common among engineers and researchers and rationalists and other analytical types to interrupt in order to correct each other. this makes a lot of sense when your goal is to seek truth, build accurate models, and solve problems. but if connection is what you seek, it’s often not worth it to interrupt just to tell someone they’re misusing a word or that their feelings aren’t justified or that their experience was a fluke or that they didn’t think through the whole situation. you can still connect with someone even if you disagree with them. remember, the goal of listening is to understand the other person and make them feel heard. 

avoid deadending conversations. 

being quiet isn’t the same as being a good listener. if someone is speaking and i’m nodding and uh huh-ing along the way, presumably i’m internalizing their words and am reacting to it in some way. generally, it’s my curiosity (yes, have you noticed how much i talk about curiosity?) that drives my response, which means my attention is healthily focused on both them and me. asking open-ended what and how follow-up questions shows that i’m still interested in understanding the other person, but it also rewards me by satisfying my curiosity. for those who aren’t as curiosity-driven, i’d be curious :P to hear what kinds of strategies you employ for not deadending conversations.

utilize microacknowledgments and body language.

this is pretty basic/ common advice, but i surprisingly still seem to meet people who are clueless, so here's my obligatory list:

  • nod when you understand what the other person’s saying.
  • sincere use of microacknowledgments (“uh huh” “yeah” “i see” “hmm”) lets the other person know that you’re engaged and not lost in your own thoughts. 
  • look at the other person's face while they speak, even if you’re not sitting directly across from each other. pointing your eyes and your body in their direction says, “hey my attention is focused on you.”
  • people notice when you’re looking at things behind them or around them. even a subtle glance at your watch or your phone can immediately tell the other person that you’re preoccupied with yourself. 

making suggestions can also be a good thing.

other well-meaning but naive advice i’ve heard is to listen and not try to solve the other person’s problems. the problem i have with someone trying to solve my problems is that, in most cases, they haven’t gathered enough of context around the situation or problem in order to provide useful suggestions. that can often leave me feeling frustrated that the other person doesn't get what i'm trying to say.

but if i feel like the other person sufficiently understands what i’m talking about and what i’m feeling, i’ll generally welcome suggestions. to get to that point, you’ll first need to display signs of empathy, channel your curiosity, and ask more clarifying questions. it also doesn’t hurt to preface your suggestions with qualifiers (for example: 'you may have already considered this, but just in case, what about ______?'). you can make suggestions without appearing arrogant by first acknowledging that you may not fully understand the nuances of the situation before dispensing your advice.

side note: when speaking, you can also make things easier for the listener by explicitly stating upfront ‘i’m about to rant about a situation. i don’t need you to fix it. i just want to share how i’m feeling and have you acknowledge my experience.’ might seem somewhat weird at first, but i’ve found it to be super effective. conversely, if you do want someone’s input or advice, ask for it!

stay tuned for part iii on how (i attempt) to win friends and influence people.