You know what’s crazy? The key to getting people to think you’re smart is to stop talking and to start listening. Let me share a little story to demonstrate.
Recently, I attended a dinner party with my friend and colleague Dan Solin. We were in a group of 12 sitting at a rather large table. Dan was at one end sitting directly across from a management consultant. During most of the dinner, they were engaged in a rather animated discussion. I was sitting next to them, and I couldn’t help but notice that almost every sentence out of Dan’s mouth ended with a question mark.
He just asked thoughtful questions, one after the other. The consultant talked, and Dan listened. At the end of the evening, something absolutely fascinating happened.
The consultant asked Dan if they could connect on LinkedIn. Dan couldn’t resist asking one more question.
“That would be great, but tell me why you want to connect?”
The consultant replied, “I just found you so insightful.”
Dan said almost nothing and came across as insightful. This exchange was the most recent example of a crazy phenomenon I’ve seen and experienced. While it seems like a ninja trick, it turns out that science backs up the idea that the best way to get people to like and trust you is to listen to them.
A recent study from Harvard proved what we all already know: We love to talk about ourselves. A Harvard neuroscientist, Jason Mitchell, and Diana Tamir, a psychology graduate student, conducted five studies. Their research revealed that “we will often go to comic lengths to avoid talking about others and to keep the focus” on us. At the same time, talking about ourselves lights up the areas of our brain “associated with food, money and sex.” What seems like a ninja trick is actually neuroscience.
Dan has told me that this experience is predictable. He does it all the time. With one conversation, he creates a powerful impression that he is someone you’d want to know, someone you want to trust.
I’ve seen this many times in my life. At the urging of my wife to talk a bit less (a lot less) and to listen a bit more, I’ve been practicing listening and asking questions. As the research demonstrates, the result is predictable. In fact, I experienced it again a few days ago. Someone approached me at a conference and asked for some advice. I said I’d be happy to help, and we found a quiet corner to chat. She explained the problem, and as soon as she finished, my first instinct was to dive in and answer the question. I already had some smart answers formulated in my head.
But I took a deep breath and remembered my ninja training. So instead, I said, “It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about this issue. What do you think about your options?” With every answer, I responded with another question. After about 20 minutes, she leaned over, grabbed my arm, and said, “Oh my gosh, Carl. I’ve had a breakthrough. I now understand exactly what I need to do. Thank you!” I replied that I was glad to help. In the end, I offered this woman no advice. But she left the conversation with that answer she was looking for and the idea that I helped her find it.
The best thing about this ninja trick is that it works in every situation I’ve come across. So I have a challenge for you this week. At some point, you’ll meet someone new or someone will ask you for advice or feedback. It doesn’t matter if it’s at work or in your personal life. Just take a deep breath, and start asking really great questions. Be intensely curious. Listen with the goal of understanding. At the end of the conversation, don’t be afraid to close with the question: Is there anything you’d like to talk about that we didn’t cover?
I’m betting you’ll be hooked when you see how well it works. In fact, I’d love to hear your stories. Shoot me an email at email@example.com. If your experience is something you write about online, make sure I know about it by sharing a link with me on Twitter. Take the next seven days, and see what an amazing impact you can have on the world by closing your mouth and opening your ears and heart.
This commentary originally appeared November 2 on NYTimes.com
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