It’s a funny thing about people skills—very little is about what you actually say to other people. For most, this runs counter to their assumptions of what makes a successful and connecting interaction.
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But as we’ve seen in the first two chapters, there are very real consequences of approaching a conversation that have nothing to do with the words that come out of your mouth. Indeed, there is a very real hierarchy about what matters in interactions, especially for the purpose of people skills and effortlessly gliding in and out of situations as you please.
The chapter ordering reflects this hierarchy quite nicely. Our thoughts and emotions inform our actions, and how we make other people feel is more important than how we make ourselves feel. Without those two components, you are never going to be able to create the impression that you want. It turns out that people are more adept at sniffing out fakery and insincerity than we might assume.
Those two components take you to a position of setting yourself up for success. So in this chapter, we can finally explore how to make the impression that you want—in other words, what to actually say and talk about. Just keep in mind that, while an important aspect, people aren’t moved or impacted by the words you will speak; they will only care to remember the emotions you made them feel. And thus, that is our primary focus at first.
It may seem a bit odd that this is the only chapter to focus on what to say, but again, that reflects the priorities we have with people skills. This chapter may have some of the most immediately actionable pieces of advice, but arguably, every other chapter is more important to being a people person.
One of the biggest problems with people skills is that we don’t know how to close the gap between a stranger and someone that is a more intimate connection. When we treat people like strangers, we shouldn’t be shocked that they do the same. How can we avoid this outcome? A slight disclaimer is probably necessary: some of what follows can probably be considered common sense, and it is indeed not complex. Yet it is still not easy without a blueprint, and even if you have one, how often do you find yourself actually doing it?
Think back to the last time you met someone new at a networking event or party. What was the first thing out of your mouth? You might not remember it, but you can probably predict it. It was likely one of the following:
Where are you from?
Who do you know here?
How was your weekend?
Where did you go to school?
What do you do?
These are normal questions to begin with—so normal, in fact, that you probably did predict all of them. We ask them instinctively because they are supposedly good at breaking the ice. We are searching for the “me too!” moment that can spark a deeper discussion. We’re searching for commonalities and shared experiences.
If we ask the question, “Where did you go to school?” we are hoping they attended the same university as us or a university where we have mutual friends. The next natural question we always ask is a variation of “Oh wow! What a small world. Do you know James Taylor? He also went there around your time.”
While you may not realize that you are always hunting for similarities, they, more than almost anything, set the stage for successful communication. As much as we would like to think that we are open-minded and can get along with people from every background and origin, the reality is that we usually get along best with people who we think are like us. In fact, we seek them out.
It’s why Little Italy, Chinatown, and Koreatown exist. It’s why we get irrationally excited at the prospect of having a mutual friend with a stranger. But I’m not just talking about race, skin color, religion, or sexual orientation. I’m talking about people who share our values, look at the world the same way we do, and have the same perspective on life. As the old saying goes, birds of a feather flock together.
Similarities make us relate better to other people because we think they’ll understand us on a deeper level than other people. If we share at least one significant similarity, then all sorts of positive traits follow because we typically have a positive self-image and we see them as our contemporary, essentially an extension of ourselves. When you think someone is on your level, you want to connect with them because they will probably understand you better than most.
Suppose you were born in a small village in South Africa. The population of the village ranges from 900 to 1,000 people. You now live in London and you are attending a party at a friend’s home. You meet someone that also happens to be from that small village in South Africa. This person is just eight years older, so you never encountered each other.
What warm feelings will you immediately have toward this other person, and what assumptions will you make about them? How interested will you be in connecting with them and spending more time together in the future? What inside jokes or specialized points of reference can you discuss that you haven’t ever been able to with anyone else?
Hopefully that illustration drives home the value of similarity and how it drives connection. We typically use the small talk questions mentioned earlier, but there are better, more effective ways to find similarities with people.
When we go deep and get more detail about people, we find more and more to like, and our communications always benefit. Likewise, when we stay on the surface, everyone appears to be boring and vanilla, including us. It’s just hard to get excited by another face in the crowd, and that’s what staying on small talk topics makes out of everyone.
So to improve your people skills, it’s imperative to go deeper than you thought possible or necessary with people. It can be uncomfortable and you might feel like you’re prying, but going deep doesn’t mean that you assume the position of head interrogator. If anything, direct and invasive questions can cause people to clam up quickly.
But when you are the first to go deep, divulge, and share about yourself, it sends a powerful message to others. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are talking about yourself nonstop like you would during a cathartic therapy session—just that you share more than you normally would. After all, you can only control what you do, not necessarily how others will respond.
You went skiing last month.
You went skiing last month with your two brothers and you almost broke your foot.
Which of those stories is easier to relate to, find a similarity with, and overall know someone better with? Obviously, it’s the second version since there is literally three times as much information. It didn’t take much more effort, and it took literally only four seconds of your time.
If you are having trouble connecting with others, it’s likely you are expecting to find a similarity without sharing anything about yourself. It’s a cycle, because if you don’t share, other people won’t feel compelled to share, and thus there is exponentially less chance of finding a similarity to connect over. You have to become comfortable being the first to share information, even if it seems scary or like you are opening yourself up for judgment and rejection. But when you take on the burden, you make people feel safe enough to share about themselves.
An easy way to break into this habit is to never give one-word answers and always provide context for a remark by using three distinct details. The example from above works well to illustrate this.
You went skiing. This is as good as a one-word answer and it doesn’t provide much, if any, context. If you went skiing, you could surely provide the occasion and circumstances surrounding it.
You went skiing last month with your two brothers and you almost broke your foot. This is an exponentially better answer because you provided two details: you talked about your family and you talked about one of the notable events of the ski trip.
If sharing even this amount of detail feels uncomfortable and unnatural for you, it’s a sign you are probably the cause for your unmemorable communication. You are essentially dropping the conversational ball when it is hit back to you. You may be the cause of awkward silence more often than not, because others will expect a back and forth flow, but they end up doing all the work while you wonder what’s wrong.
In other words, get used to this feeling of discomfort because it’s something you need to improve upon. Your comfort zone is currently too small to be conducive to open dialogue. The feeling that you are oversharing needs to stop because it keeps your guard up unintentionally, and not many people will make the effort to fight through the guard.
Now you may wonder what to share. What kind of information should you disclose to others? Is it as simple as giving out three details instead of one? No, that’s just a starting point. But where is the line? What information is TMI (too much information) and will disgust or repulse others? What information is beneficial to share with others and enhances lines of communication? What should you keep private?
Here’s a better question—what do you talk about with your friends? You probably overshare without shame or inhibition. They may laugh, gag, or declare, “I didn’t need to know that!” But they still share everything, because that’s the dynamic of a friendship. So even if you feel that you are entering TMI territory, that is still better than not disclosing anything, because you are still treating others like your friends. Outside of a strict professional environment, the boundaries between you and sharing exist only in your mind.
Share what is on your mind. This might include personal details or controversial opinions. Share slowly at first to gauge people’s responses, but once you get the sense that someone is on the same page and willing to befriend you as well, you can open the floodgates, so to speak.
The more you reveal about yourself, the more connection points you generate with the other person. You reveal things you like or dislike, which the other person may be able to relate to and disagree or agree with. You can find more things in common as you reveal your preferences, opinions, loves, hates, likes, dislikes, sensitivities, memories, emotions, thoughts, and anecdotes.
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- Patrick King is an internationally bestselling author and social skills coach. Learn more or get a free mini-book on conversation tactics at https://bit.ly/pkconsulting
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