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by Mark Goulston, AARP Bulletin, March 2010
CHAPTER 6: Be More Interested Than Interesting
Boredom is what happens when I fail to make someone interesting. ~Warren Bennis, Founding Chairman, USC Leadership Institute
You’re not just held hostage by the people who resist, bully, annoy, or get upset with you. You’re also held hostage to your own mistakes when you fail to break through to people who either (a) don’t know you at all or (b) don’t act like they care to know you well.
Do you ever think in frustration: “I could get somewhere if only I could get this person interested in me?” That’s exactly what I’m talking about. But here’s the thing: embodied in your statement is the reason you’re not getting through.
Why? Because you’re focusing all your attention on what you can say to make that person think you’re cool or smart or witty. And that’s your mistake, because you’ve got it backward. To figure out why, look at what two of the world’s most successful people do.
“Deep listening” is one of the terms most often used to describe Warren Bennis, founding chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California. Warren is one of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet, but when you’re with him—I don’t care if you’re the guy parking his car, or the CEO of Google—he is more interested in you.
I saw this talent recently when I was invited to a dinner with some of his close friends who were all smart, thoughtful, and driven. As the evening progressed, lively dialog turned into heated debate. Back and forth, these brilliant people fired salvos at each other, eventually reaching a point where I heard much more talking than listening.
Through it all, Warren sat with rapt attention and said nothing. At one point during a lull in the conversation, when the debating parties paused to reload their verbal ammunition, Warren stepped in and said to the more unrelenting of the debaters, “Bill, tell me more about that point you made about that philosopher.” By not entering into the debate and by inviting one of the participants to exhale, Warren changed the entire tenor of the conversation and made it better.
Jim Collins is also one of the most interesting people you could ever meet. He’s the author of Good to Great, one of the most successful business books of all time. He’s been published in 35 languages. He received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Stanford, and he’s climbed El Capitan—which puts him in the major leagues of rock climbing. But in a December 1, 2005 Business 2.0 article entitled: “My Golden Rule,” Collins explained why his rule is not to tell these interesting facts to everyone he meets:
I learned this golden rule from the great civic leader John Gardner, who changed my life in 30 seconds. Gardner, founder of Common Cause, secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Johnson administration, and author of such classic books as “Self-Renewal,” spent the last few years of his life as a professor and mentor-at-large at Stanford University. One day early in my faculty teaching career—I think it was 1988 or 1989—Gardner sat me down. “It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting,” he said. “Why don’t you invest more time being interested?”
If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet—their lives, their history, their story. Where are they from? How did they get here? What have they learned? By practicing the art of being interested, the majority of people can become fascinating teachers; nearly everyone has an interesting story to tell.
What wise men like Warren Bennis (and no doubt Dale Carnegie) instinctively know, and what “smarter than wise” younger, ambitious people like Jim Collins and yours truly are still learning, is that the way to truly win friends and influence the best people is to be more interested in listening to them than you are in impressing them.
From a brain science standpoint, here’s why: The more interested you are in another person, the more you narrow the person’s mirror neuron receptor deficit—that biological hunger to have his or her feelings mirrored by the outside world. The more you do that, the more intrigued the person is with you in return, and the more empathy the person feels toward you. So to be interesting, forget about being interesting. Instead, be interested.
The “Interesting” Jackass
Here’s another illustration to help you grasp how important this rule is. Imagine that it’s holiday time, the mail just arrived, and you’re sorting through a stack of cards. You open the first one and out falls a letter. It says:
“Bob and I took the family to Machu Picchu this year—unforgettable!!! Now we’re into ballroom dancing and artisan bread baking. Call us crazy, but we just weren’t busy enough even with all our charity work. (Was I ever surprised when the hospital gave me their Volunteer of the Year award last month!) Bob just got promoted to vice president—the youngest one in his company’s history. Jessie’s soccer team took first place in the state tournament, and we nearly burst with pride when little Brandy got a standing ovation as the lead in The Nutrcracker—she clearly has the family’s theatrical genes! Hope you’re fine … we’d love to catch up with you the next time we’re in town ….”
Next, you come to a card from another friend. Scribbled inside is this note:
“Hey—how’s it going? Nate and I thought of you the other day when we spotted an old junker that looked just like that car you had in college. What did you ever do with that monstrosity? (And how did you ever get so many dates when you drove it?)
We’re hoping to swing through town someday soon and take you out to lunch. We’d love to see the kids, too. Did Lisa apply to Julliard yet? We listen all the time to that tape of her performance last year, and it gives me chills every time I play it. What an amazing voice—tell her we can’t wait to see her on Broadway.
As for us, the kids are fine and Nate and I are still working too hard and earning too little— but having fun anyway. Happy holidays--we miss you!”
Consider these two cards. The first people win the “interesting” game hands-down—right? I mean, it’s no contest. They have money. They have cool hobbies. They’re intelligent and well traveled, and they’re clearly highly successful. The people who sent the second card probably lead mundane lives by comparison. In the “aren’t we interesting?” game, they obviously should lose.
But they don’t. They win—and they win big. Why? Because they’re interested in you. As a result, you’ll probably say “yes” if they invite you to lunch. And Couple #1? When they call, you’ll most likely tell them, “So sorry—we’re out of town that week”—and breathe a sigh of relief when you hang up. That couple’s fatal flaw is that they’re trying too hard to be interesting ... and as a result, they come off as annoying jerks.
The same thing holds true when you talk to people in person. The more you try to convince people that you’re brilliant or charming or talented, the more they’re likely to consider you boring or self-centered. That’s especially true if you step on their stories in a rush to work in your own.
Focusing your energy on making yourself sound interesting can backfire even more painfully if you’re trying to reach people in the stratosphere: corporate CEOs and other high achievers. These people are secure in their own interestingness, and so are the people they admire. Try too hard to impress them, and just like the nouveau riche—whose garish displays of wealth irritate “old money” people—you’ll annoy them and drive them away.
Don’t Just Act Interested—Be Interested
As the old joke goes, “You can’t fake sincerity.” You can’t fake interest, either, so don’t try. The more you want to influence and get through to discerning and successful people, the more sincere your interest in them needs to be.
Recently, I was having lunch with an insurance professional in his mid-thirties and a lawyer in her early thirties. He asked all the right questions: “Where are you from?” “How did you get into what you do?” “What do you like about what you do?” “What would be the best client for you?”
I was impressed with his questions, and the young woman answered them with enthusiasm. The only problem is that when he asked them, he didn’t seem earnest. Instead, he seemed to be following a script he’d learned in a sales training course. He did well enough to win over the young and somewhat inexperienced woman who’d joined us, but more experienced senior clients, customers, and prospects—who typically have highly refined bullshit detectors—would have picked up his insincerity and eaten him for lunch.
So: how do you master the skill of being interested—and be sincere when you do it? The first key is to stop thinking of conversation as a tennis match. (He scored a point. Now I need to score a point.) Instead, think of it as a detective game, in which your goal is to learn as much about the other person as you can. Go into the conversation knowing that there is something very interesting about the person, and be determined to discover it.
When you do this, your expectation will show in your eyes and body language. You’ll instinctively ask questions that let the other person fully develop an interesting story, rather than trying to trump that story. And you’ll listen to what the person is saying, rather than thinking solely about what you’re going to say next.
The second key to being interested is to ask questions that demonstrate that you want to know more. It’s not always easy, of course, to get another person to open up so that you can be interested in what he or she is saying. In a business setting, the best way I’ve discovered is to ask questions like these:
* “How’d you get into what you do?” (I credit Los Angeles super mediator Jeff Kichaven with this; he says it never fails to start and keep people talking.)
* “What do you like best about it?”
* “What are you trying to accomplish that’s important to you in your career (business, life, etc.)?”
* “Why is that important to you?”
* “If you were to accomplish that, what would it mean to you and what would it enable you to do?”
In personal relationships—for instance, at a party or on a first date—questions like these can often trigger a heartfelt response:
* “What’s the best (or worst) part of (coaching your kid’s soccer team, being away from home, etc.)?”
* “What person has had the biggest influence on your life?”
* “Is that the person you’re most grateful to? If not, who?”
* “Did you ever get a chance to thank that individual?” (If the person asks, “Why are you asking these questions?,” you can say: “I find giving people the chance to talk about who they’re grateful to brings out the best in them.”)
* “I’d like you to imagine that life is perfect … Okay, tell me—what do you see?” (I credit Los Angeles-based human resource specialist Monica Urquidi with this tip. If the person asks why you’re asking this, say: “I find that learning about people’s hopes and dreams tells me what’s important to them—that’s a good thing to know, don’t you think?”)
When I meet new people, I try to engage in conversations in which I ask questions that will cause them to say: “I feel x, I think y, I did or would do z” (what I call FTD Delivery). I know that when people ask me questions that generate all three of these answers, I feel “known” by them in ways that I usually don’t if we’re talking exclusively about what we feel or what we think or what we did or would do. Much of who we are is composed of what we feel, think, and do, so when we’re in conversations where we get to express all three, we feel more satisfied.
Eventually, one of your questions will click and you’ll see the person lean forward eagerly to tell you something with enthusiasm or intensity. When that happens, do the right thing: Shut up. Listen. Listen some more. And then, once the person reaches a stopping point, ask another question that proves that you heard (and care about) what the person said.
For example, if the person tells you that her college math professor had a huge influence on her life and explains why, don’t reply by launching into a speech about your own professors. Instead, follow up with a question like: “I’m curious—why did you decide to go to that particular school?” or, “Whatever happened to that professor? Do you still keep in touch?”
Another way to show you’re interested is to summarize what the person is saying. For instance, is the person regaling you with the story of a nightmare vacation trip? If so, repeat back some of the money points of the story: “Holy cow! You broke your leg, and you still made the flight. Unbelievable.” (Another good move, if the conversation offers an opportunity, is to ask for advice: “That’s amazing—you grow all of your own herbs? Tell me: how do you keep your cilantro from bolting?” People love offering advice, because it makes them feel both interesting and wise.)
At some point, if you’re doing this skillfully and sincerely, the other person—who’s grateful to you for really listening, which almost never happens in this world—will probably turn to you and say something like, “And what about you?”
And that is the big win you’re looking for, because at that moment the person will return your interest by being interested in you.
“I’ve got a question,” I blurted out just before the moderator of the panel asked for questions, and even before I knew the question I was going to ask.
I’d come to attend a town hall meeting at the Staples store in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles for one purpose. That was to ask the first question—one that he’d want me to ask, and one the audience would want to hear—to Tom Stemberg, Staples founder and CEO.
One of my business colleagues, Patrick Henry, a professor in the entrepreneurial school at USC and an expert in networking, says that one of the best ways to get through to a powerful person is to be the first one to ask a question after the person speaks to a large audience. As Patrick explains, the audience will appreciate your courage at being the one to break the ice—and the speaker will appreciate you for starting the ball rolling with a good question and for preventing the awkward pause that can occur when there’s a call for questions and nobody speaks out.
The trick, however, is to ask the right question.
I’m pretty quick on my feet, having appeared as a guest on more than two hundred television and radio shows, so the five seconds it took to get the microphone to me was more than ample time to formulate my question. I quickly thought, “What’s a question the audience and I would want to hear and Tom would want to answer?” As soon as the moderator handed me the microphone—I felt like someone was handing me a baton in a race—I had the answer: “Mr. Stemberg, if you had it to do over, what is something that would have saved you a lot of hassles later on in your career?”
Tom Stemberg is a brilliant entrepreneur, but that day he looked a little like a fish out of water. However, after I asked my question he brightened, clearly accepting the challenge.
He replied enthusiastically: “I would have waited longer to get venture capital money. I didn’t realize that when you come up with a great new idea and the venture community hears about it, you’re inviting a lot of competition. If I had it to do over again I would have delayed that and made sure I had a better head start instead of having 25 competitors that we had to beat in the early stages of our company.”
Someone else wanted to answer the question, but Tom was on a roll and grabbed the microphone back. “Another thing,” he added even more enthusiastically, “we were later than our competitors at doing home and office delivery. We pride ourselves on customizing our products and services and we should have thought that women secretaries probably don’t like to carry cartons of paper up several flights. So Office Depot got a jump start on us there, but we’ll catch up.”
And just as Patrick predicted, both the audience and Tom appreciated my breaking the ice with my question, and Tom spoke directly to me with his answers. That gave me a chance to follow up with him afterward and to write him following his talk so I’d be remembered.
My approach worked because I didn’t do what most people would. I didn’t ask a question designed to make me look cool or clever or witty. Instead, I asked a question that Tom would want to answer, and one that let him be interesting to his audience. And that took me from being a face in the crowd to being someone he might himself find—dare I say it?—interesting.
Usable Insight: The measure of self-assurance is how deeply and sincerely interested you are in others; the measure of insecurity is how much you try to impress them with you.
Action Step: First, select two or three people you consider deadly dull and make it your mission to discover something fascinating about them.
Now, do the opposite. Select a person you find interesting ... someone you wish liked and respected you more. When an opportunity arises as a party or meeting, ask questions designed to show the person that you’re interested rather than interesting.
Bonus round: Are you married, or living with someone? If so, the next time you’re home together in the evening, ask, “How did that (work project, cooking experiment, etc.) that you were going to do turn out?” This will show that you don’t just care about the person but also take the extra care to know what’s going on in his or her life—and be interested in it. And after you ask this question, stun your partner by actually paying attention to the answer.
Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone © 2010 Mark Goulston. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books. Division of American Management Association. 1601 Broadway, New York, NY 10019
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