ADVICE 11: The Conversational Trick Everyone Should Know


Photo Credit: Brent Stoller

To send in a question, please complete this short Google form. All submissions are anonymous, even to the author.


Today's column is about talking to people -- how to do it, and what to do (and think and feel) when it goes south. I've never been the greatest conversationalist, so I'm hesitant to discuss the technique I've relied on to make it a little easier. I don't want the next person I speak to at a party to think I'm running a designed play as opposed to getting to know them.

But, when it comes to ADVICE, if you ask, I will answer. So please send in your questions through this Google form. All submissions are 100 percent anonymous.

And be sure to check out ADVICE every Wednesday and Friday in the GPS for the Soul section.

Thanks to everyone who's submitted, and thank you all for reading.

(Questions have been modified for space and clarity.)

In social situations, especially when meeting someone new, I have always heard one should get the other person talking. I know people like to talk about themselves. How should one handle the situation when there is no comeback -- when the other person doesn't ask about your life, etc., which makes you feel as if they have no interest in getting to know you?
--Solomon; Buffalo, NY

Meeting new people is difficult. Lord knows it's something I've struggled with. I especially hate trying to do it when there's no structure, like at parties, where everyone is randomly floating in open spaces and I'm forced to fend for myself. This is the free market system, and I'm ill-equipped for survival among the fittest.

In terms of social situations, I am a socialist. I much prefer, say, seated dinners, when everyone is on equal footing, when I don't have to sidle up to a group and hope someone welcomes me into their conversation circle. There's less pressure knowing the person next to me has to listen to what I have to say, at least until the entree is cleared.

Unfortunately, life happens in all manner of settings, making it crucial that we devise a strategy for engagement. For me, that's asking questions, almost as if I'm an interviewer. It's the technique my father taught me. Not only is it a great way to actually get to know someone, but it's much easier to execute than replicating an Aaron Sorkin character.

Like you said, people like talking about themselves. I don't think that makes them narcissistic (though some are), I just think it's the topic they know best. And talking about what you know well makes an unnatural situation a little more comfortable. I also think people like being heard, no matter the context. The more that listening becomes a dying art, the more critical it becomes.

The questioning approach requires patience. And just because someone doesn't immediately reciprocate your interest doesn't mean they won't eventually. They could just need more prompting.

That's why I try to integrate my thoughts and experiences into what they're saying. For example, if someone is talking about how they just bought a house, I'll take the next opening to mention my own bumbling foray into home ownership. I might even mention how I once paid $60 to have a repairman explain to me that the dishwasher wasn't working because its switch was turned off.

With that, I've related and commiserated. There's now common ground, the natural jumping off point for any relationship. At best, this breaks the barrier, opening a new world of conversational possibilities. At worst, the door has at least been cracked for a two-way interaction.

When you reach this point, it's either going to happen, or it's not. Either the person is going to try to get to know you better, or they're going to Alex Trebek you with nothing but one-sided answers.

If it's the latter, there's not much left to do. Quit wasting your time. Go find someone else to talk to, or stare at your phone to make it look like you have an excuse for standing by yourself.

What you don't want to do is take it personally. It's easy to feel rejected, because that's what having another person show no interest in you feels like. But is that what actually happened? Can someone truly reject you if they haven't gotten to know you? And more importantly, if you know someone doesn't want to be friends with you, do you still want to be friends with them?

COMING WEDNESDAY: Is my boyfriend suicidal?

Need more ADVICE? Check out the most recent installments:

ADVICE 10: How Do I Become a Writer?

ADVICE 09: I Was Sexually Abused by my Brother and Father

ADVICE 08: My Husband's an Alcoholic

ADVICE 07: Lessons From the Movie "Can't Buy Me Love"

ADVICE 06: Is My Fiancee Getting Cold Feet?

ADVICE 05: Should I Tell My Ex I Want Him Back?

To send in a question, please complete this short Google form. All submissions are anonymous, even to the author.