MORE DILEMMAS

Question:

Dale Carnegie wrote “How to Win Friends and Influence People” in the 1930’s and it remains a standard reference on the subject of conversation — not to mention the theory of having one mouth and two ears, use them in proportion.

— Posted by Rich

Answer:

A classic text. However, what Carnegie lacked was the rich knowledge we now have, courtesy of grovers in the vineyards of sociology, psychology and anthropology, about the dynamics that can tilt conversation for or against us. The little tricks that shift a mood; the extraordinary truth about how listening and laughter really work (and how, by extension, to make people laugh). Not to mention the fun stories and examples, new and old, from around the world, history and literature, and even the odd film star, which bring the mysteries of conversation alive.

I love the two ears/one mouth ratio. Spot on. It gets to the heart of what makes a conversation sink or sing. If you don’t pay attention, you can’t focus attention — or redirect it. If you don’t listen, you disengage, and the conversation’s purpose (and your incentive for making it) disappears. Direction and relevance bring conversation alive, and keep it flowing.

Question:

I have a very sweet co-worker who is unable to hold a normal conversation with me or the other members of our work team. We all avoid him because talking with him is so awkward, draining and, at times, annoying.

He is your classic über nerd-geek type, straight out of a sitcom or cartoon. He is extremely knowledgeable about a few arcane topics — mostly work-related ones and, yes, science fiction — but little else. If you engage him in a chat, he will go on and on and on in a trivia-filled lecture. He tries to sprinkle in a few jokes, but they are invariably unfunny, childish or lame. We generally respond with a weak, forced smile.

He does not browbeat you; he just does not know when to stop or how to mix up the content or tone of his talk. He also has this unnerving habit of resuming a conversation about some small, forgotten topic that went unfinished days ago — it’s as if someone released the pause button of a recording of his lecture.

I recently mentioned to him that it was sometimes hard to have a conversation with him because of his lecturing habit, and he apologized. Now — in an effort to be a better conversation partner, I suspect — he has taken to drilling me with questions that he thinks I might find interesting. I try to answer them earnestly, hoping it will lead to a real give-and-take, but it does not: I answer his question, he asks another, I answer, etc.

I find this situation extremely unpleasant, since interacting with my co-workers is a very critical part of my job. Do you have any suggestions that might help the situation for all of us? Thanks, in advance.

— Posted by Anon

Answer:

Your co-worker is afflicted by a conversation-stunting condition called expertise. He does not recognize that his enthusiasms are a specialist subject. He could profit from the reams of entertaining trivia at his fingertips, with which he could dot conversation, to general illumination. Sadly, like many experts, he lacks a sense of perspective and a light touch. And as for the new, interrogation style, you have my sympathy.

A question: Does he have a sense of humor? Have you ever laughed about anything organic — that is, not a forced joke, but something amusing that has happened in your world? Something neutral, in the room? I mean, you do not need to be best friends; all you are after is a natural, easy vibe. Have you ever reached out, to use therapy-speak, and tried to make a joke with him? Rather than consider him some exotic monster, plopped in there to make your lives difficult, maybe you should focus on what you have in common. Your situation. Your bosses. Look for that common ground.

I feel a bit sorry for this guy. Obviously he is willing to change. But the more you and colleagues scapegoat him, the more he will feel like an alien, and act like one. And what is his crime here? You seem to be demanding that he perform as a better “normal” conversationalist. If you are so much better qualified, socially, than he, be generous and take the lead. Why style yourself as the passive party, victim of his ineptitude? Rather than answer his questions earnestly, surely you could do so amusingly. And don’t just answer: ask what he thinks. That would be true give-and-take.

Question:

When meeting people, it sometimes doesn’t work to say “What do you do?” because a) it is too abrupt and b) it might not work well if the person has no job. Instead I try: “How do you spend your time when you are not [doing whatever we are doing right now]?” This is O.K., but awkward. Suggestions?

— Posted by Michael

Answer:

I’m so glad you agree that “What do you do?” is a bad idea. It reeks of status sniffing, salary sifting. And direct questions are inherently hazardous, because they put people on the spot (making them self-conscious). “How do you spend your time …?” is more oblique. However, it sounds like a windy circumlocution; inevitably, since it is basically the same question, muddied. In my experience, if people like and want to talk about their job, they bring it up fairly quickly. But if they do not bring it up, or if they sense that you are interested in talking only to learn whether their job or position in life makes them a useful contact, they will not be charmed. It is a paradox: we want our conversation to be purposeful, but if we scent an agenda behind what someone is saying to us, we become suspicious.

So if you really need to know, try to levitate the question out of the ongoing discussion. Discuss general topics, whatever is in the news, in the room. When the other person lights up, when he starts digging into a subject, sounding like an expert, that is your cue to find out. “You seem to know a lot about X/how do you know so much about Y?” If you can say it in a complimentary manner, even better.

Question:

Do you have any tips for maintaining friendships with beloved compulsive talkers, and dominant conversationalists?

I try to do my part to steer the conversation and stay engaged — but it’s not a pleasurable experience.
What do you do?

— Posted by Caroline

Answer:

The key word is ‘beloved.’ To which I would add: lucky. With friends like you, Caroline, they are fortunate indeed. But you might do them, and yourself, a bigger favor if you helped curb their despotic ways. Do they never ask you a question? Or are their questions thinly disguised cues to return to their preferred subject, themselves? Or have you fallen into the habit (easily done) of simply tugging talk along, by showing empathy, occasionally uttering “What/when/why/how?” because it is less effort? Whatever the reason for this lopsided friendship, you must start giving yourself a stake in discussion or you will lose interest.

Now your friends breathe, right? When they pause, jump in. If you have something you want to unburden, and can find a link from what your friend was saying, great: “Oh, funny you should mention that, because …” If the link is tenuous, the simple fact that you want to talk is justified grounds to signal a change in subject. Begin with that commanding word, “Listen.” Then, if you want to ratchet up their anticipation, you might add: “There’s something I’ve been meaning to share.” If you do not have a big topic on your mind, but you definitely want to wind down whatever your pal is waffling on about, before gently broaching another topic, you could try my patented list of “sympathy shutters.” These are phrases that extend sympathy while tactfully drawing a line under a subject. Too many to go into here (see my book). But why not venture a platitude? Clichés provide very friendly full stops to topics. What can you add to: “Oh well, least said, soonest mended,” or “Life’s not a bowl of cherries,” or “But there’s no use crying over spilled milk”? Maybe a positive exhortation: “I know you’ll get through it/solve it/at least you’ve got it off your chest.” Then you could flash your friend a “light bulb” expression (as if remembering something in a flash). And say: “Oh! I know what I meant to tell you.” Then darn well speak.

If they still don’t listen, maybe you need to reappraise that word “beloved.” Good luck.

 

As seen in the New York Times

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