TIME psychology

Mastering the Art of Conversation: 7 Steps to Being Smooth

In The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, Catherine Blyth gives some great tips on handling the subtle nuances of polite interaction.

Here are seven of my favorite bits:

 

How To Make Small Talk

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

Whatever the context, old friends or new, it is best if speakers respect five principles:

  1. Put others at ease
  2. Put yourself at ease
  3. Weave in all parties
  4. Establish shared interests
  5. Actively pursue your own

 

How To Make A Solid Introduction

Mastering the art of conversation has to start somewhere, so you have to know how to begin. Here’s a solid formula.

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

An effective introduction is small-ad brief, splicing in only two ingredients per person:

A (who they are) + B (why they are relevant)

The salient information is not so much formal title (royals, snobs, and servicemen excepted) as how you relate to one another or the event (housemate, client, mother-in-law, single male drafted in for ladies like you). Identify points of contact, charge people up, and you have a connection.

 

How We Judge A Successful Conversation

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

Research has found that with a serious topic or a good friend, we measure a conversation’s success by how enthralled we were by what the other person said. Whereas, the less familiar the other person, the more trivial the topic, the likelier we are to rate the experience by our own performance.

 

How To Make A Conversation Progress

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

Discussion should enlarge by exploratory increments. Pace matters. Too neutral, too long, and you’ll both transmit beige personalities, but accelerate to war’s evils right away and her son will be a brigadier. Instead, use discreet hints to flush the other person out.

If in doubt, the stair to intimacy has four steps:

  1. Courtesies (“Hello, how are you?”)
  2. Trade information (“So what brought you here?”)
  3. Trade opinion (“Isn’t this music unusual?”)
  4. Trade feeling (“Yup, I hate it.”)

Pose questions that circle the personal, noting whether the other prefers a sharp or gentle approach, and adapting accordingly. Andalthough small talk aims to please, don’t make this too obvious.

 

Great Conversationalists Listen More Than Talk

To help doctors be better listeners, their responses are graded from 1 to 6 with the “empathic communication coding system.”

The higher the number, the better.

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

6: Shared feeling/experience

5: Confirmation of an emotion’s legitimacy

4: Pursuit of the topic

3: Acknowledgment

2: Implicit recognition (but changing the topic)

1: Perfunctory recognition (autopilot)

0: Denial/contradiction

 

Two Powerful Pieces Of Advice

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

  • Hear what people are really saying as opposed to what they are telling you.
  • Directness is a privilege of intimacy.

 

How To End A Conversation

There are a number of phrases that can politely signal the end of a chat.

Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:

Arrangements: Talk of the Next rings the knell for Now.

Any statement starting “Finally,” “Lastly”: Suggests an agenda is nigh complete.

Satisfied Customer: A labeling comment to convey a job has been ticked off the list, “Well, I just wanted to check everything was okay.”

Farewell by implication: Pre-goodbye goodbyes: passing regards to the wife, etc.

Past tense: To kill the Now without committing to future encounters, say “It was great seeing you again,” “This was fun.”

Time’s winged chariot hurrying near: That oh-so-pressing world you must be getting on with, or the missus will kill you, or the shops will have run out of Christmas trees, or the kids will be starving…

Mustn’t keep you: To suggest that you’re halting the other person’s day is polite…

I would love to continue with this post, but I wouldn’t want to keep you.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME relationships

Who Talks More, Men Or Women? The Answer Isn’t As Obvious As You Think

A recent Northeastern study joins a long list of literature on the topic

A study released Tuesday sought to answer the ages-old and oft-debated question, do women really talk more than men? This most recent answer seems to be: well, it depends.

Northeastern University Professor David Lazer and his team studied 133 adult subjects in either professional or relaxed settings and gave them all “sociometers,” a device about the size of a smart phone that measures social interactions.

Their results found that the gender who spoke more very much depended on the setting. Women were slightly more likely to engage in casual conversation during a lunch hour but much more likely to engage in long conversations during an academic collaboration. However, men were more likely to dominate conversation when placed in a professional group of six or more people.

“So it’s a very par­tic­ular sce­nario that leads to more interactions,” Lazer said. “The real story here is there’s an inter­play between the set­ting and gender which cre­ated this difference.”

While Lazer might have been the first researcher to use sociometers in such a study, the question of which gender talks more has been asked many times before. A number of self-help books have cited this statistic: women utter an average of 20,000 words a day while men speak an average of only 7,000. A researcher from the University of Pennsylvania who tried to track this statistic’s origin found that it may have come from a 1993 marriage counselor’s pamphlet. The pamphlet’s numbers were, surprisingly, unsourced.

In the world of actual science, one 2007 study found that women and men use roughly the same number of words a day: 16,215 words for women compared to men’s 15,669. And while one 2004 study found that girls spoke a negligibly small amount more than boys, another from the same year found that boys spoke up nine times more in the classroom.

Above all, Lazer’s study proves that the debate on the subject roils on. However, for those who still believe women to be the more talkative sex, this old Chinese proverb may offer insight: “The tongue is the sword of a woman, and she never lets it become rusty.”

TIME psychology

5 Secrets That Will Help You Master Conversation Skills

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Tara Moore—Getty Images

What are the fundamentals of conversation skills?

I’ve posted about the fundamentals of networking, and even how introverts can network but many people have written to me asking about the nitty gritty of conversation skills.

What do you say when you’re face to face?

It’s a good question that isn’t often addressed. First impressions matter even more than you think. And once they’re set, they are very hard to resist.

Let’s break it down:

 

1) “Be yourself” is often bad advice.

Is “be yourself” the best advice before a job interview? Hell, no. Dress nice, be polite and act enthusiastic no matter what you’re like, right?

What does “be yourself” even mean? You’re not the same person moment to moment. Face it, you can be moody.

Fake it until you make it” works. Does acting a bit in social settings mean you’re dishonest? No.

Research shows putting your best foot forward actually reveals the real you:

In sum, positive self-presentation facilitates more accurate impressions, indicating that putting one’s best self forward helps reveal one’s true self.

 

2) Emphasize similarity.

There is extensive research that we like people who are like us.

In almost every conceivable way, from background to word choice, emphasizing similarity improves social relations.

When salespeople were told to mimic the body language of listeners it was rarely noticed but sales increased 20%.

Via Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World:

Despite the rather obvious nature of the copycat animation, only eight of the sixty-nine subjects detected the mimicry (and those mostly because they made a strange movement and then saw the agent making the same unusual motion). The remaining students liked the mimicking agent more than the recorded agent, and rated the former as being friendlier as well as more interesting, honest, and persuasive. They also paid better attention to the copycat presenter and found the mimicker to be more persuasive. In the final analysis, just adding mimicry made the sales pitch 20 percent more effective.

 

3) Get them talking about what interests them.

People who have trouble with conversation always say the same thing: “But what do I talk about?

Wrong question. The right question is “How do I get them talking about what they’re interested in?

Don’t be a conversational narcissist. Want to get along with people? Learn how to listen.

What should you say after you listen? Research shows you should respond with things that are “active and constructive.

Via Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being:

www.bakadesuyo.com

 

4) Make people feel good.

Studies show no matter what people say they prefer likable people over competent people. So don’t worry so much about being impressive.

Dale Carnegie’s work agrees with scientific research.

Even insincere flattery works:

The authors show that even when flattery by marketing agents is accompanied by an obvious ulterior motive that leads targets to discount the proffered compliments, the initial favorable reaction (the implicit attitude) continues to coexist with the discounted evaluation (the explicit attitude). Furthermore, the implicit attitude has more influential consequences than the explicit attitude, highlighting the possible subtle impact of flattery even when a person has consciously corrected for it.

How do you make people feel good without being slimy? Offer sincere compliments and ask for advice.

 

5) How to keep a conversation going.

Avoid extremes in autonomy. Don’t dominate a conversation, but don’t be a non-contributor either.

Add to what they say and bounce the ball back.

Via Brain Trust: 93 Top Scientists Reveal Lab-Tested Secrets to Surfing, Dating, Dieting, Gambling, Growing Man-Eating Plants, and More!:

The trick, according to Finkel, Eastwick, and Saigal, is to avoid extremes in autonomy. Accept your date’s pass, redirect it slightly, and then return the ball— all with warmth and genuine interest in his or her responses.

This acceptance and redirection is the push and pull that creates smoothness.

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TIME career

6 Ways to Become a Better Communicator

Gchat isn't always the best way to talk

I grew up in a pretty blunt household — we said what was on our minds and no topic was off-limits. This level of candor meant no silent treatments, no hiding behind slammed doors, and no letting things stew. While honesty has certainly helped me in personal relationships as well at the office, there are times when my dose of truth serum can be a little too potent. Why does talking (something most of us have been doing since infancy) become so difficult sometimes?

“Communication is, above all, a skill — and very few people know how to communicate effectively, naturally. It takes thoughtfulness and a lot of practice,” says Carl Alasko, PhD, a California-based psychotherapist and author of Say This Not That: A Foolproof Guide to Effective Intrapersonal Communication.

This basically means you need to strategize and practice if you’re going to successfully confront your roommate about her less-than-stellar cleanliness skills (or tell a coworker he isn’t pulling his weight on a project). No worries if your eloquence isn’t quite Brian Williams-level; we’ve tapped top communication experts for their tricks. Get ready to master the art of conversation.

This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

  • Get to the Point

    Designed by Mary Schafrath

    Being honest with someone can be intimidating. I’ve seen “moments of truth” that go brutally wrong and end up featuring tears, accusations, and flying iPhones. But, you shouldn’t avoid confrontation like it’s a bad Nicolas Cage movie; there are instances when it’s necessary to be up-front.

    “Be straightforward with people when the complaint is one that directly affects your relationship,” says Art Markman, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “Beating around the bush runs the risk that they will not understand the message.” The best way to approach a confrontation is to decide in advance what you what to accomplish, explains Dr. Alasko. If you need to call out a close friend for consistently ragging on you, say: “You have been really critical of me lately. I want you to stop.” “You don’t want to play victim and pretend nothing is wrong,” Dr. Alasko explains. Prep beforehand, recalling concrete examples of when you felt upset so you can remain factual.

    At work, be extra-attentive about making sure the point is open for discussion. Since there are more boundaries at play in the office, it’s good to say something like “Would it be okay for me to offer a suggestion?” or “I’d like to provide an explanation and discuss this further.” Whether you are delivering a performance review or proposing a change to a co-worker, you’ll convey a neutral position and open the floor up to dialogue.

    In any scenario, it’s important to realize that anything you bring up can come as a surprise to someone. “I always remind my clients: Just because you’ve known someone for a long time, [it] doesn’t mean you can read each other’s minds…sometimes people don’t realize that they are doing something wrong,” explains Anna Ranieri, PhD, a California-based counselor and co-author of How Can I Help?

    (MORE: 10 Things Not to Say at Work)

  • Quit the Blame Game

    Bullhorn
    Designed by Mary Schafrath

    Being direct doesn’t have to be hurtful. Dr. Alasko urges us to avoid the four toxic behaviors: criticism, accusation, punishment, and humiliation. “These will only create anger and distrust, and push people further away,” he says. When the person you’re speaking to doesn’t feel attacked, he or she will be more open to discussion, and more willing to initiate change.

    An easy way to eliminate criticism is to use strict facts to get your point across, says Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations. Instead of stating, “You were late again,” aim to be more neutral and say, “You agreed to be here by 2 p.m., but you arrived at 2:20.” “By describing the gap between what was expected and what happened, you remain judgment-free,” he says. Being able to phrase the truth in a compassionate manner makes it much easier for someone to view your comments appreciatively instead of defensively.

    For your message and guidance to be well-received, it’s also important to take timing into account; a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that people are less likely to take advice when they are feeling upset or angered by previous events.

    (MORE: The Genius Guide to FAKE Confidence)

  • Don’t Be a Know-It-All

    Bullhorn
    Designed by Mary Schafrath

    I’ll admit it: I love to play therapist. But, as much as I’m thrilled to offer any insightful pearls of wisdom, I’ve learned to dish them out cautiously; it turns out, not everyone wants advice. “Sometimes, people just want to vent,” says Dr. Ranieri. When you are confronted with a tale of despair, go ahead and ask: “Hey, did you want my advice? Or are you just looking to get this off your chest?”

    If your opinions are solicited, keep this in mind: Researchers found that people respond more readily to information rather than votes for or against something. So, cushion your recommendation with facts about what may or may not have worked well in the past.

    On the other side of the spectrum, there are the chronic advice-seekers. You may spend hours counseling these individuals, but they never, ever seem to follow what you propose. In these cases, “It’s okay to be blunt and say ‘You’ve asked me for advice several times already, but I’m not sure we’re getting anywhere,’” says Dr. Ranieri. “Being up-front can help jolt a self-realization that maybe it’s time to take action.”

    (MORE: Are You Being Lied to? 10 Tell-Tale Signs)

  • Talk Online & Offline

    Bullhorn
    Designed by Mary Schafrath

    Gchat, email, and texting can be saviors when we want to communicate at lightning speed — or avoid dealing with someone face-to-face. “Email is an especially good way of bringing up news to introverts, who may need some time to absorb the information, reflect, and prepare a response,” Dr. Ranieri explains.

    But, you don’t want online communication to become your default. It’s a “passive way of handling problems,” Dr. Ranieri cautions. If you have a big announcement to make to a boss or partner, go ahead and bring up the issue via email — but ask to follow up with an in-person discussion. Your smartphone is not the appropriate channel for breaking up, quitting your job, or bringing up any concern that will take multiple messages to negotiate. “You’ll want visual contact so you can determine if the other person is on the same page,” explains Grenny. A study in the Journal of Information Systems Research found that face-to-face discussion reduces misunderstandings because it allows for immediate feedback and social cues (such as posture, eye contact, and facial expressions).

    So, it’s okay to call attention via text or email, but the real hash-out has to happen in person. Looks like that dreaded “we need to talk” text is actually onto something.

  • Think Now, Talk Later

    Bullhorn
    Designed by Mary Schafrath

    Proverbs have declared it “golden,” Simon and Garfunkel dedicated a song to it — yet silence still gets a bad rap. People who don’t respond right away to a comment (or refrain altogether) fear they’ll be viewed as incompetent or ill-prepared.

    “As humans, we’ve been hardwired with the fight-or-flight response to react instantly to a verbal or physical attack,” Dr. Alasko says. While we have learned to control our physical response — you don’t throw a punch at your boss for a bad review — we have a much harder time holding back our words. Adrenaline can cause us to easily blurt out something we don’t mean, simply because our communication channels are compromised by stress.

    Ultimately, though, the goal is not to resort to the silent treatment, which can come off as passive and immature. Instead, simply delay communication. “Pause and prepare a thoughtful response, which can buffer emotions and minimize hurt feelings,” Dr. Alasko advises. Before launching in, he suggests saying: “Let me think about this for a few seconds.” The silence may be initially uncomfortable, but it’ll prevent you from saying something you will later regret.

  • Take a Minute

    Designed by Mary Schafrath

    The goal with communication strategies is not to change your personality or become an emotionless robot; some of us are more blunt, others are more passive — and that’s all fine. To be a more effective communicator you just need to develop your awareness. How we talk (in addition to what we say) can change the outcome of our conversations — especially the uncomfortable ones. Now, talk among yourselves.

TIME Artificial Intelligence

Why I’m Not Impressed By the ‘Thinking’ Computer

Sorry brainiac, you're not fooling anyone
Sorry brainiac, you're not fooling anyone Laguna Design; Getty Images

A machine finally passes the legendary Turing test and convinces users they're communicating with a real person—but the achievement is less than it seems

Huge news for people raising 13-year-olds who can’t get enough of that particular hell. Now there’s a computer program that can simulate the experience too!

That’s the headline that has set the computer world buzzing, as word comes out of the Royal Society in London that for the first time, a computer has passed the legendary Turing test, which had stood unmet since 1950. Named for computer pioneer Alan Turing—who famously declared that if a computer were ever developed whose behavior was indistinguishable from a human’s, the machine must then be said to be capable of thought—the test required at least 33% of human subjects to be fooled into thinking they were conversing with a human during a keyboard exchange with a computer that lasted five minutes.

So one computer finally achieved that, posing as a 13-year-old boy named Eugene Goostman who, like most kids, likes candy and hamburgers, and, like fewer kids, is the son of a gynecologist. That means he might have picked up a disproportionate amount of information about medical arcana or have other bits of knowledge more or less unique to him, but would otherwise be unremarkable. And that, in turn, pretty much describes the clumpy, uneven knowledge base of most kids—which was the whole idea. As Vladimir Veselov, “Eugene’s” developer explained, this allowed the program to “claim that he knows anything, but his age also makes it perfectly reasonable that he doesn’t know everything.”

But here’s the thing: the point of the Turing test is not so much to give the computer a pop quiz on medicine or current events, it’s to create a program that can follow the thread of a conversation in a believable way. And if you’ve chosen a 13-year-old as your model for that, you’ve set your bar pretty low. I’m raising a 13-year-old even as we speak, and I can tell you there is no age group on the planet as adept at the art of the unresponsive non-sequitur as hers. If I ask her if she’s done her home work, the answer could just as easily be “yes,” “no” or “tapioca.” If I ask what she wants for dinner she will hear that question—I’m sure she hears it—and then respond by complaining that her sister is annoying her. These are, you will note, technically answers. The fact that they are answers that have nothing to do with the question I asked seems not to be relevant to her.

Not that a computer modeled on my 11-year-old would be any more responsive—unless it was a computer built with eyes that could roll on cue whenever I say something the program considers embarrassing, which would be more or less all the time. And certainly, a 14-, 15- or 16-year-old computer program would be little better, since it wouldn’t be required to do much more than send out remote commands to slam doors and then sit in utter, world-weary silence no matter what you said to it.

So nice try, Turing guys. But if you really want a meaningful win, you’re going to have to aim a little further up the age spectrum. If you don’t believe me, ask my daughter. I predict her answer will be “purple.”

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