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Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

When do we really learn good conversation skills? Well, we don’t. We’re just kind of expected to pick them up…

And we wonder why people aren’t better communicators. How can you be that person people love to talk to?

I’ve posted a lot of research and expert interviews on the subject so let’s round up the info and make it actionable.

In this post you’ll learn:

  • How to make a good first impression.
  • How to be a great listener.
  • What the best subjects to discuss are.
  • How to prevent awkward silences.
  • How to politely end a conversation.

And a lot more. C’mon, let’s chat.

How To Make A Good First Impression

First impressions really are a big deal and talking to new people can be daunting, no doubt. What’s the answer?

It’s simple, really. Research shows that if you expect people will like you, they probably will:

Don’t take the cliche advice and “just be yourself.” Put some effort into being warm and open. Ironically, studies show putting your best foot forward actually reveals the real you:

Smiles are powerful and make you more attractive. From Dale Carnegie to peer-reviewed studies, everyone says smiles matter. (In fact, to increase their power, smile slower.)

FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke recommends speaking slowly.

Via It’s Not All About “Me”: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone:

How can you strategically make a good impression?

From the outset, frame the conversation with a few well-rehearsed sentences regarding how you want to be perceived. This will end up being the structure the other person forms their memories around.

Via Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To:

(For more FBI techniques that will make people like you, click here.)

So you made a good first impression. You might be wondering what to do next. Hold on there, partner. More important is what not to do.

Stop Trying To Impress

Yes, we all want to get respect but try too hard and you can come off as a jerk.

Trying to sound smart makes you look stupid. Studies show name-dropping doesn’t work.

Research from Harvard shows people would rather work with a lovable fool than a competent jerk — even if they won’t admit it:

In Click: The Magic of Instant Connections Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman explore how people connect and give some solid insights. What struck me most was their emphasis on vulnerability.

Via Click: The Magic of Instant Connections:

(For more on how to win every argument, click here.)

So you’re not trying to impress people. What should you do?

Encourage People To Talk About Themselves

People who have trouble making 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 themselves?

It gives their brain as much pleasure as food or money:

And when they open up, don’t judge. Nobody — including you — likes to feel judged.

FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke’s #1 piece of advice: “Seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them.” Here’s Robin:

Suspend your ego. Avoid correcting people or saying anything that could be interpreted as one-upmanship.

Via It’s Not All About “Me”: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone:

(To learn on how to talk down angry people, click here.)

Everyone loves a good listener but most people are terrible at listening. What do they do wrong?

Listen — And Make Sure They Know You’re Listening

The difference is you want to engage in “active listening.” Just keeping quiet and nodding isn’t enough.

FBI hostage negotiators use a number of techniques to show kidnappers they are really paying attention:

  • Mirroring: Repeat the last 1-3 words the person just said as a question. (Yes, it’s that simple.)
  • Paraphrasing: Repeat what they just said in your own words.
  • Labeling: Put a name on what they say they’re feeling. “Sounds like you’re feeling pressured.”

A little game I like to play is “Can I summarize what the person just said to their satisfaction?” If you repeat back the gist of what they communicated and they respond, “Exactly” you’re doing great.

(To learn FBI hostage negotiation techniques, click here.)

Of course, you do need to chime in here and there. But when?

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 by 20%.

Via Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World:

(For more on how to emphasize similarity, click here.)

What else should you do?

Questions Are Powerful

What are the best type of questions, in general? Ask open-ended questions. Nothing “yes/no” or that can be answered in just a word or two.

Via It’s Not All About “Me”: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone:

What question should you always have ready? We all face challenges and we like to talk about them. So that’s what to ask about. FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke explains:

(To learn other questions that create the strongest bonds with people, click here.)

Okay, you have to talk at some point, right? (Please don’t talk about the weather. Ugh.) So what’s the best thing to discuss?

Travel, Compliments And Advice

Richard Wiseman studied which topics worked best on first dates. Discussing travel was number one.

How do you make people feel good without being slimy? Offer sincere compliments. Shockingly, even insincere flattery works:

But compliments can be one note. What provokes a deeper discussion?

Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, Wharton professor Adam Grant, persuasion expert Robert Cialdini and many others have all recommended asking for advice as a powerful way to influence others and warm them to you.

I love this method because I get to learn something and the other person gets to feel like an expert. Everyone’s happy.

(For more on the science of making friends, click here.)

So you know what to say. But how should you say it?

Arouse Emotion

Many people make the mistake of thinking conversation is just information exchange. That’s missing the most important part. Think emotion.

Professor Stephen Ceci taught his class the way he had for the past 20 years, replicating nearly everything imaginable — except he started speaking with more enthusiasm. What happened?

His student ratings went up — in every single category. He was seen as more knowledgeable, more tolerant, more accessible, more organized. Students said they learned more. They felt the grading was fairer. They even said the textbook was better.

Via The Tell: The Little Clues That Reveal Big Truths about Who We Are:

(For more on how to be funny, click here.)

Time to get to the scary stuff. How do you avoid awkward silences?

The Conversation Must Progress

Sometime conversations fizzle and it’s reaaaaaaally awkward. Why does this happen? What can we do about it?

Conversations have a natural progression, much like a relationship.

There’s a hierarchy of vulnerability in the types of communication we have, each one being more open and more likely to lead to a solid connection:

  • Phatic: These statements have no emotional content: “How are you?”
  • Factual: These share information, maybe personal information, but no strong opinions or emotions are involved: “I live in New York.”
  • Evaluative: These statements show opinions, but they’re not core beliefs: “That movie was really funny.”
  • Gut-level: Here’s where it heats up. The first three are thought-oriented. Gut-level communication is emotionally based. It’s personal, says something deeper about who you are and is focused on feelings: “I’m sad that you’re not here.”
  • Peak: The most emotionally vulnerable level. Peak statements share your innermost feelings. “…feelings that are deeply revealing and carry the most risk in terms how the other person will respond.” These statements are rare, even with people we are very close to: “I guess at heart I’m terrified I’m going to lose you.”

The authors of Click spell it out clearly: “We can help to create magical connections simply by elevating the language we use from the phatic to the peak level.”

(For FBI methods that can help you negotiate lower bills, click here.)

There’s one more moment that can be awkward: how do you end a conversation nicely and politely?

How To Say Goodbye

There are a number of phrases that can politely signal the end of a chat. It’s smart to memorize one or two of these.

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

(For more tips on how to master the art of conversation, click here.)

Okay, that’s a lot of info. What’s the most important thing to keep in mind if you forget everything else?

Sum Up

What does FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke say is the best attitude to take when trying to build rapport? Make sure the other person walks away better for having met you.

Via It’s Not All About “Me”: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone:

Stop trying to impress people or “win” the conversation. It’s really much simpler than that.

Just listen intently and make people feel good about themselves.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

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