1. When someone speaks to you . . .

. . . make that person interesting!

‘To have a real conversation, you must hear what he other person is saying, think about it and then respond. . . .  Many so-called “conversations” really consist of two people saying what they know or think. Neither is really listening to the other; they’re often repeating things they’ve said before, and the exchange is focused on each individual’s thoughts, ideas and needs.’
“How to Have a Better Conversations. by Celeste Headlee, Toastmasters’ Magazine.

It stands to reason: the more interesting we find people, the more connected with them we will feel. However, I’m not going to ask you to manufacture interest in what other people say, even though that’s what the experts recommend. ‘If you want to be interesting, be interested.’, they say. But we can’t simply ‘choose to be interested’. If that were easy, all of us could find anything interesting.

I made that mistake once. A friend of mine, Tom, struggled to take an interest in other people. One day he was complaining about how hard it is to make friends, and I suggested he try showing an interest in what people said to him. I gave him the above mantra,‘If you want to be interesting, be interested’, and he thought that was a good idea.

‘Let’s try it,’ I said to him. ‘I’m about to tell you something about myself. All you have to do is try to be curious about what I say, and ask a few questions.’

‘Righto,’ he said, keen to experiment.

I said to him, ‘This week the football team I support lost its coach indefinitely. The coach has a rare disease.’

Tom is only mildly interested in Australian Rules football, but this was his chance to at least pretend to be interested. He could have asked me questions like,
‘Mark, does this concern you?’
‘Can your team win anyway?’
‘Will the coach be alright by the time the finals come round?’

‘Could this be a blessing? Will the team freshen up under his replacement?

His response?

‘That happened to Arsenal a few years ago. The Manager —’

We examined his response and tried again. I told him I had been on a date the night before, and suggested to him that he show interest by asking me questions about her. I thought he might ask me questions like,
‘What’s her name?’
‘What is she like?’
‘Where did you go?’

‘How did you meet her?’
‘Do you like her?’

  His response? He said something else about Arsenal.

When the experts advise us to ‘be interested’ they don’t take into account that many people don’t know how to be interested. Even if they asks questions to indicate interest, they can’t sustain it. They quickly feel bored, unloved and neglected, and revert to talking about themselves.

However, there are strategies we can employ which will prompt us to become interested. They need to be practised.

Q. ‘But Mark, I want people to like me. If I show interest in them, how will get them interested in me? Besides, if those people want to talk about themselves, they are probably self-centred and high maintenance. To keep their friendship I’ll have to keep listening to them and keep showing interest in them. I’ll be setting myself up for a long and arduous task, just to gain their friendship. It’s just not worth it!’
That’s why it’s unhelpful pretending to be interested. When you are genuinely interested in what the other person says, you will prefer to stay on that subject. Unless you have a skilled questioner eliciting self-revelations from you, you won’t want to talk about yourself. You will find yourself boring, because you already know your material!

Besides, if the other person has good communication skills there will be plenty of opportunities to discuss your interests.

By the way, it’s not the attention you crave, it’s the connection you crave. That connection isn’t built on one person’s stories, it is built on the bond created when two people find the conversation interesting.

‘Because of its rarity, the skill of excellent listening sends a powerful message. It says, “You are important. Your ideas are valuable. You and what you think matter to me.”’
Dr Bev Smallwood.

Tips on how to make the person interesting:
Combine a few of these tips and you can make a person interesting to you.

(1) First, aim to be curious. Have that intention in mind when you’re about to speak with someone. Seek to understand.

(2) Don’t be a ‘conversational narcissist’. That’s Karen Friedman’s (from Toastmasters) term for the people who turn the conversation to what they want to talk about, which is usually themselves.
  Remember Tom, who wanted to talk about Arsenal? Don’t be like him. Don’t direct the conversation to what you’re interested in.

Which do you think is the better response, and why?
Damien: ’I have a new girlfriend.’
 Geoff: ‘Good for you! Tell me about her.’
 Geoff: ‘Lucky you. I haven’t had a girlfriend for a while.’

Elka: ’I am pregnant. At long last I’m going to have a child.’
Elka’s mother: ‘Lovely! Tell me what you know!’
Elka’s mother: ‘At last, I’m going to be a grandmother!’

(3) Ignore the technology.
If you are on the phone talking to someone, ignore your computer. Put it on ‘sleep’. Don’t multi-task.

If you are talking with a person face to face, don’t answer your phone. Or, if you must, pre-warn the person that you might have to talk a call.
 
If you’re planning to have an in-depth talk with someone, have your computer off and your phone out of the room. That way, it won’t haunt you. You won’t be wondering if there is a text, call or email for you. You can focus on the person.

(4) Listen for the message behind what is being said.
One good way to banish the side trips in your mind and keep your focus is to look for the underlying message. If a neighbour talks endlessly about his cat, his deeper message may be ‘I am telling you my problems because I want to feel that I matter.’ Or, the message may be, ‘I desperately want connection with someone.’ Or, he may fear for his cat’s health and wants reassurance from you. Or whatever. Figure out which one it is.

Let’s say Auntie Sue talks about her daughter’s wedding plans. On the surface it might appear to be a conversation about trite things of little interest to you, but by listening for the real message you might, for example, discover that she believes her daughter isn’t yet ready for marriage. Direct your questions there. Your aunt will benefit because she gets to talk about her real concerns, and you both benefit because the conversation becomes more interesting. And, you both experience a stronger connection!

If John is telling you about his great idea, understand the idea as best you can. And discover why he thinks his idea is important. What is his deeper aim?

When someone at Speakers’ Corner kept telling me about the phonetic alphabet he had invented, I looked for his deeper message. I soon realised that as an immigrant, he had suffered a great deal by not knowing the English language. He didn’t want other immigrants to suffer the same fate, so he invented a language that any computer would understand. You only had to talk into the computer and you could speak to anyone in the world. Of course, people have invented that, but that’s beside the point.

(5) Imagine what the person might be feeling.
This can make the conversation more interesting for you, and help you understand their deeper message.

(6) Become comfortable with silence.
 When the person finishes speaking and is awaiting your response, give what they said respect by thinking about it. Use that silence to figure out how you will respond.

(7) Don’t prepare a reply.
Anyway, you’re looking for the deeper message, aren’t you?

‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.’
Stephen R. Covey, from his book, ‘The 7 habits of Highly Effective People’

(8) Let the person know you are listening.
(i) Ask questions. (See the next tip.)
(ii) Even better, let the person know that you understand their deeper message by paraphrasing what they have said.
‘Let me get this right: your idea is to . . . is that correct?’
‘From what you have been saying, I understand that your daughter . . .’
(iii) An even better method comes from Celeste Headlee in her TED talk, ’10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation’: ‘There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.’

(9) Ask questions.
Everyone is interesting if you ask the right question. (Well, that’s the theory, anyway. At least have that in mind.)
  Make sure they’re open questions, not closed questions. (Closed questions are answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.)
Frank meets Gail at a cooking class:
Frank: ‘Gail, do you like cooking?’ It’s a poor question because it’s a closed question.
Frank: ‘Why are you learning to cook?’ Good! That is an open question and it focuses on Gail’s interests.
‘What is it like to —?’
‘How did it feel when you —?’

(10) Don’t ask questions for the sake of asking them. Ask questions to which you want to know the answer.
If you find someone boring it might be that you’re not asking the right questions. Search for a question that makes you want to know the answer. For example:

Gail: ‘I’m learning to cook so that my husband and I can enjoy good food at home.’
Frank ‘What does he like to eat?’ That’s a poor question. Why would Frank ask that question? Why would he care about what Gail’s husband likes to eat? He wouldn’t, would he? The question is not only boring, it’s disingenuous. He is obviously talking for the sake of talking. When we ask a question, we need to ask one that makes us want to know the answer. Frank could try instead:
Frank: ‘For how long have you been married? I’m asking because I’m wondering why you’re learning to cook now?’ There are two questions there, and both are personal. But provided personal questions are not too intrusive, they’re the ones that matter. If Gail is reticent to answer, Frank can back off.

Insightful questions generate interest. Then we have communication and connection. If we ask questions simply to make friends, the only friends we will make are those who also want company. Then we can end up with a friendship that succeeds only because we are company for one another, not because there is a rich closeness between us.

(There are exceptions: boy meets girl. Boy and girl have to ask questions to get a conversation going. Although interesting questons are better, the questions can be trite. That’s understood. But for their relationship to grow, they will have to start asking insightful questions.)

(11) Don’t settle for glib.
Let’s say you learn that your friend, Ali, goes to kickboxing classes. You ask him a question.
You: ‘Ali, why do you go to kickboxing classes?
Ali: ‘To keep fit.’
If you accept that answer it shows you aren’t interested. For example, Ali hasn’t explained why he chose to do kickboxing classes instead of aerobic classes or jogging.

By accepting his answer you have missed a chance to connect with him. Only by pushing for a real answer will you have any chance of getting an interesting answer. The better your questions, the more interesting the person becomes.

  Don’t ask question after question though. It’s okay to go deeper and deeper it doesn’t sound like an interrogation, or creepy. Stop when either your curiosity is sated, or when you feel the person isn’t pleased to be answering your questions.

(12) Interrupt the person if you don’t understand something, or need clarification. That makes the conversation more enjoyable for you, and it lets the person know you are listening.
  But don’t finish a person’s sentence for them. It’s not just the sentence they’re trying to figure out, it’s the thought behind it.

(13) Make a mental note of at least one thing the person tells you.
That so that the next time you see that person, you ask them about it. For example, if Max says he is going trout fishing tomorrow, make a note to ask him how it went when you next speak with him. If you hear something interesting about trout fishing, remember it, and the next time you see Max, tell him.
  ‘I’m not interested in trout fishing. Didn’t you ask us to be genuine? Why ask us to fake an interest?’
I’m not asking you to pretend to be interested, I’m asking you to make a mental note, and then later, ask how it went. That does two things:
(1) It gives him a gift; he feels acknowledged, and therefore, valued.
(2) Having that habit – of making a mental note – increases your ability to listen and build an actual interest.

(14) Notice your judgments and let them drift away.
‘This guy is a fool. Oh, wait, I’m judging him. I’ll let that thought go and keep focusing.’ 
  If you like, after the conversation has concluded, ask yourself, ‘Why was I judgmental? Why did I make the judgment? What does that say about me and my values? Do I really need to impose my values on her?’
  Do that and you will learn heaps about yourself.

(15). Don’t talk over someone.
That tip may seem obvious, and you probably think you don’t do it, but countless people make this mistake.
Gary: In my leisure time I like to count the cars crossing that bridge.
Sue: Really? Is that the best thing . . .
Gary: At night I count the headlights, and divide by two to get the number of cars.

(16) End the conversation on your terms.
Some people may take advantage of your attention, so you need to set boundaries. When you decide the conversation is to end, end it honestly. Don’t fidget. Don’t display boredom. Don’t look away.  Smile and say, ‘I’m going now. Goodbye.’

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