Saturday, July 25, 2009

Today's Conversational Assignment: Wait!

This came to mind--again--while typing a deposition transcript.

In conversation, people talk over each other. All the time. I had never really noticed this before I started typing up depositions; I was always as much an offender as anyone. Beyond not perceiving it as rude, most people tend not to even notice the constant interrupting each other they do in conversations, unless one party or the other is being especially egregious about it. When I have to type every word, it becomes extremely noticeable when two people are at once talking, and when one person cuts another off.

You cut the other person off in conversation--constantly--not because you're a jerk, but because when he's halfway through his sentence you know what the rest of the sentence will be, and you're skipping ahead to save time, hitting the fast forward button. The other person is not offended; in fact, as often as not he'll cut you off halfway through your sentence, for the same reason, and you won't think a thing of it. This is normal and accepted.

But it's not optimal. You're losing conversation-control value.

Tomorrow, I am going to go the entire day without interrupting anyone in conversation, even once. (This will be a challenge, because as much as I am madly in love with my wife, her propensity to ramble redundantly is amazing.) I've actually been paying attention to this for a while now and have gotten a lot better at it, but it's time I really mastered it--and you can, too.

Don't interrupt!

Think about the alpha male (or, now and again, alpha female)--the person who's at the center of whatever room he's in. How does he handle himself in conversation?

The intuitive answer is, aggressively. He lets no one interrupt him or cut him off. If someone tries, he'll slam the door on the offending party with a witty riposte or simply by raising his voice. Aggression is the key to success in life. This is true.

But that answer, in this case is completely wrong.

The person full of confidence, who never lets anyone upset his self-balance, is deliberate. Aggression does not necessarily mean loudness, stubbornness, or insistence. In fact, those are all marked characteristics of people that lack confidence--they lash out with these things, and try to dominate conversations, to cope with their inherent insecurity. And rambling is a nervous habit. Habitual ramblers are, almost inevitably, people with a nervousness problem, people who are uncomfortable in social settings.

The confident person does not need to get the most words, or the last word, to control the conversation he's in. In fact, very often he'll control the conversation while contributing 10% or less of the word count--he just leans back and lets the other party talk, and contributes only when he's certain of what he wants to say and why. Do you see how this gives him control? The other party is, generally, all over the map (as most people are), but he steers the conversation with his occasional contributions. And his self-confidence and assertiveness are very, very obvious to everyone else.

To-do list:
1. Don't cut off a single word in conversation! Wait for a period of at least three full seconds of silence before you speak, even if you know exactly what you want to say. If the other person gets nervous at the silence and speaks further (and MANY people do this, as you'll notice if you try this), let them.

2. Speak slowly! If you're a natural fast talker (as I am), this will take a lot of practice. You'll feel unnaturally, painfully slow to yourself--but trust me, others will respond much better this way. It also allows you to carefully choose your words, and minimizes having to repeat yourself. Remember, confidence -> deliberateness.

3. Be selfish! Yes, you got that right. Holding your silence in conversation is the selfish thing to do, counter-intuitive as that seems at first blush. Conversation is an exchange of information. When you speak, you give it; when they speak, you receive it. When you receive more information than you give, you come out ahead. Simple as that. And even the many, many things people want to talk about that don't interest you, listen to them anyway! This carries two important benefits:
  1. The other person will appreciate it and like you more, even if after they finish talking you express your lack of interest in the subject. It's true! Try it if you don't believe me.
  2. If you get in the habit of listening to people talk about subjects of their choice even when they don't interest you, you will in short order realize how useful this will become. You'll learn things that will later prove unexpectedly useful.

Most importantly of all, this is the low stress way of conducting conversations--and the low stress life is the happy, and healthy, life.

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