We’ve heard a lot about difficult conversations, but you believe all conversations are difficult. Please explain.
In recent years we have heard a lot about so-called difficult conversations from the realm of academic research and in the public discourse. The focus has been on conversations like negotiations, delivering constructive feedback, giving hard advice or other things that we have come to think about as difficult. But what I’ve come to realize through my life, teaching and research is that even easy conversations are difficult. That’s because every conversation we have involves uncertainty and a lack of control. We are co-constructing this interaction right now, Matt. I don’t know what you’re going to say next; I don’t know what you’re thinking — and I can’t possibly know. I can’t control how you react to what I say or what you think of me. That uncertainty is always there.
Once you delve into the complexity and nuance that live and breathe within each conversation, you begin to see why conversations are so hard — even when our goals align and when our only goal is to have fun. We might say the wrong thing. We don’t know how other people are feeling or what they’re thinking about. If you can make each conversation just a little bit better, over your lifetime it will make a massive difference for you, your career and for the people you love.
Talk a bit about what you call the mechanics of conversations.
Few people ever think about these things, but they underlie every conversation you have. One aspect is turn-taking. I speak, then you speak, and then someone else speaks, then I speak again. Ideally, you try to avoid as much crosstalk and overlapping turns as possible. One thing you can start to think about is the time gap between turns. Research shows that shorter pauses between turns, or inter-turn silences, indicate that you’re closer with the other person or people, that the discourse is exciting and/or it’s going well. You’re clicking.
Another aspect I study is topics. Once we’re on a particular topic, how do we steer it ahead in a direction that serves my purposes and your purposes best? And how do we manage the boundaries between topics? What we don’t realize is that we are making these micro-decisions constantly. Literally every time you speak, you’re choosing whether to stay on topic or switch to something else.
Then, there’s the content of conversations, which is made up of three streams. The first is verbal, the words we say to each other. The second is nonverbal, with pertains to how your body is moving, your hand gesticulations, your facial expression, your eye gaze. Everything that you can perceive visually about other people.
Then there’s a third bucket, which people tend to know the least about, and that’s paralanguage. This consists of everything about how we’re talking to each other that is not words. Words are the carriers of meaning, but paralanguage can change the meaning of them. It can include the tone of my voice, how fast I’m talking, my pauses, whether I laugh when I say something. There are many aspects of paralanguage that can completely change a conversation.
People who assertively switch topics are great conversationalists.
Describe the difference between ‘supporting choices’ and ‘shifting choices’ within a conversation.
Every time someone speaks, they are making a microdecision that you can imagine as, ‘I am either going to support the topic or I’m going to switch.’ That’s a good heuristic, but actually, there is some gray area in between those two poles. There is also, ‘I’m going to actively encourage us to stay on this topic’ by saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing. Tell me more,’ which is very different from saying ‘Uh-huh.’ Sometimes there are really aggressive switches to new topics, where we’re talking about something and someone says, ‘Guys, let me tell you about my chicken salad sandwich. It was so yummy. Everyone should eat chicken salad.’ When we’re making choices about how to manage topics, there are degrees to which you can support the current topic or switch to something new. What we find in our research is that people who assertively switch topics in those moments are great conversationalists. They can sense if there are long pauses, if there’s awkward laughter, if people start repeating things they’ve already said, and they recognize these as signals that it’s time to switch. Doing this assertively is something we can all aim to do a little bit better. The risks are quite low, because if either party feels like they actually have more to say, they can always come back to it. That’s the amazing thing about conversation. You can always go back and say, ‘Oh, wait. There’s one more thing I wanted to mention, and this was the thing I meant to tell you all along.’ Or you can text or email this to them afterwards.
We have this instinct to be a bit afraid to switch topics because it feels rude or abrupt. We worry the other person has more to say, when in fact it’s much safer and usually a good idea to switch to something new, because boredom and stagnation are even bigger risks.
Small talk is a fact of adult life, but it can be really challenging for some people. What advice do you have for those who dread it?
Small talk gets a really bad rap. Its purpose is to help us coordinate around more important topics. Everything about conversation is this sort of coordination kerfuffle. We’re trying to coordinate with another human mind, ‘What should we be talking about? How should we be interacting here? What do I feel safe sharing with you? Small talk is really useful. It’s the predictable way that we open up this really crazy experience we’re about to have together.
There’s an amazing article from The Atlantic called “Ode to Small Talk” by James Parker. He has this amazing quote: “The merest morsel of speech can tip you headfirst into the blazing void of another person’s soul.” That’s pretty dramatic, but it captures the spirit of ‘we are preparing to discuss a topic that we are both excited to move on together.’ If you lean in to small talk, it can become less awkward.
What does it mean to be a good listener?
My colleagues and I have some exciting research about listening that’s just come out. What we realized is that the human mind is built to wander. It is not built to focus on one person for long stretches of time, and yet that’s what conversation demands of it — to really pay attention to those three streams of content I mentioned earlier: verbal content, non-verbal cues and paralanguage.
It’s like drinking from a fire hydrant. We’re bombarded by information, and that information is very interesting. It often makes our minds make connections to random ideas, and then we want to elaborate and think about something else. For everyone, it takes tremendous work to stay focused on a conversation partner as the conversation unfolds. What we have found in our research is a key piece of this is, if you’re putting in the effort to listen attentively to someone, show it to them. Don’t just assume that they know.
There is extensive research on active listening, which focuses on things like eye contact, nodding and smiling, laughing at the right times and physically leaning toward your partner. These are all nonverbal cues that you’re listening to somebody, and they are great — but only as a basic starting point. What we are finding is that actually expressing your attentive listening with words is what makes someone a compelling communicator and listener.
I heard you mention earlier that you eat the same lunch every day. I could have asked a follow-up question like, ‘That is so interesting, Matt; why do you do that?’ Follow-up questions are undeniable cues that you have heard someone and processed what they were saying. That’s a sign of good listening. Too often, people put in the work to listen to someone, but they forget to show it. That’s a huge missed opportunity to build relationships and trust.
In addition to follow-up questions, you can do ‘callbacks’ to earlier topics, paraphrasing what someone has said, or if someone said something that’s confusing, revisiting it. It’s okay to say, ‘I actually heard you say something that I didn’t quite understand. Can you explain that a bit more?’ All of these things show that you’re listening attentively and that you care.
To become a better communicator, you have to be engaged in the conversation and present in the moment, but at the same time, you need to observe the conversation from above to see what’s going on and what’s needed. Really effective communicators learn how to toggle between these two areas.
The human mind is not built to focus in on one person for long stretches of time.
You have developed a simple approach to help people cope with public-speaking anxiety—and all anxiety for that matter. Please describe it.
We tested out a very simple coping strategy. The question we asked people was, Can you try to reframe your anxious feelings as excitement by telling yourself, ‘I am excited’? It’s such a simple idea, but it often works. By telling themselves this, the people in our study gave better public speeches, sang better in our karaoke lounge, and did better on a math test.
When we feel anxious, we have a powerful instinct that we should try to calm down. But that isn’t easy, because it requires mitigating the physiological signs of anxiety — a racing heart, sweaty palms and spiked cortisol in your body. You’re trying to suppress all of that, and at the same time, move from negative emotions into the positive zone of calmness. That two-step move is nearly impossible to achieve. Instead, reframing your feelings as excitement allows you to remain in the high-arousal zone. Rather than trying to combat automatic physiological processes, you’re just performing a mental reframe from negative to positive.
What is the best communication advice you have ever received?
I heard something a while back that sticks with me. Harvard Business School Executive Fellow Rachel Greenwald said: “Be more interested than interesting.” To me, conversation is the vehicle by which we express our humanity to each other and our caring for other people. So the idea of being more interested in others than trying to be interesting yourself is a good nudge to keep in mind. It’s not only about us. It’s also about the people that surround us.
Alison Wood Brooks is the O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration and Hellman Faculty Fellow in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School. This article began its life as a podcast: Author Matt Abrahams, a Lecturer in Strategic Communication at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, hosts Think Fast, Talk Smart. His new book is Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot (S&S/Simon Element, September 2023).
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