There’s two real issues that hear when it comes to guy’s issues with conversations that they care most about: “I always run out of things to say”, and “I feel like I’m doing all of the talking and not getting much back in return”. Raise your hand if you can relate to either of these – ok, that’s everyone in the universe. Luckily, about five years ago now, as I was working on developing the conversational material I taught, I had an experience which clearly defined what being a masterful conversationalist entailed – and how to solve these issues – more than any other experience I’ve ever had in my life.
Some would call it fate.
He knows the secret.
I was on vacation in the beautiful city of Amsterdam, staying in one of the most popular youth hostels in the city amid beautiful canals, near the outskirts of the red light district. I love staying in hostels when I travel, finding them the best place to meet new, interesting people to enjoy my trip with – especially when traveling alone. The very first evening confirmed this bias as I sat in a circle of my fourteen co-ed roommates, having some beers, trading stories, warming up for a fun first night on the town. Sitting directly to my right in the circle also happened to be a lovely blonde Romanian girl, and as the night wore on and we flirted more and more, she began leaning in closer and closer to me.
“Ahh, this vacation couldn’t be off to a more perfect start”, I thought to myself.
Then, as life often has a tendency of doing, a wrench got thrown into my plans. That wrench came in the form of three Norwegian guys, yelling and creating some commotion in the courtyard below. These guys were checking into the mens’ dorm just across the aforementioned courtyard and most of the girls in our circle ran over to the window to see what all of the hooting and hollering was about. After some words exchanged, the ringleader of the group grabbed our window sill and pulled himself up into our room with the help of some of those enchanted girls, and then stood in the center of our circle where he proceeded to hold court.
He was the proverbial “alpha male”. He had a strong, commanding presence and told stories and jokes, all the while having the group lingering on his every word – basically doing what people usually think of when they think of a master conversationalist. Most disturbingly, as I looked over to my right I saw my sweet Romanian girl – not leaning toward me anymore – but rather leaning forward toward him and giving him the look that told me she had a new object of her affection.
“Son of a bitch”, was the thought I clearly remember ringing through my head. There goes my perfect vacation.
As I sat there in the same scene that once seemed so perfect, several thoughts which align perfectly with the most common issues guys face in conversation now ran through my head.
My first thought was simple frustration with the situation. “This sucks, why did it have to happen this way? This guy is douche. These people are stupid, I didn’t really like their company anyway. Stupid Europeans. And this Romanian girl, if she’s really going to be interested in a guy like like that then I was never interested in her in the first place, she can have him. I’ll go out on my own and meet some much more awesome people.”
I was a ball of negativity, unfairly dumping my own frustration on everyone else. More than that, I was playing the victim, blaming everyone and everything else for my negative feelings and feeling sorry for myself the same way a guy who “runs out of things to say” simply shrugs his shoulders and feels sorry for himself because the conversation isn’t going anywhere.
Luckily those awful thoughts passed and were replaced by new ones. At least these new thoughts weren’t all mopey and self-defeating like the last ones, but they were negative in their own way. They were: “Who does this guy think he’s dealing with? I’m Nick Sparks – I can be one hundred times more charismatic, funny, and charming than this clown. My stories would blow his out of the water. If I wanted to turn on my social power this guy wouldn’t stand a chance.”
This was my ego talking. I wanted to make it all about me, “look how great I am”. I felt challenged, and my insecurity wanted to pull out the ruler and measure my manhood against this guy. This is one of my biggest and most tempting weakness – I’ve always loved the spotlight, and have developed what most would call a fairly dynamic personality . This though has led to me sometimes making it all about me – which is one of the surest ways to turn off everyone else. Introverts I work with always think they need to be more like extroverts in order to be great conversationalists, when in fact extroverts often have the toughest time becoming a great conversationalists because they can’t get over this tendency. Thus extroverts always feel like they’re doing all the work and not getting much back in return.
More importantly, the thing that most people think of when they think of an amazing conversationalist really doesn’t matter.
I couldn’t have been more tempted to take this path, and honestly I’m not sure why I didn’t – bigger things at work I suppose. For whatever reason though, I caught myself and after clearing that garbage away a very curious thought came into my mind: “everyone else is enjoying this entertainment, they can’t all be wrong. I should stop being selfish and see what all the fuss is about.” If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I suppose.
And so I became his biggest fan. I put all of my energy into really listening to what he was saying and enjoying what everyone else was enjoying. I leaned forward in my seat and started contributing to the conversation as a supporter, “wow, that’s really cool”, “how did you get out of that?”, “I did something like that but not nearly on that level”. What’s important here is that I had to be genuine – people can smell fake from a mile away – I had to really get into it and ‘feel’ what I was saying.
As I did this, the funniest thing happened. He started to react more strongly to me. As I gave him more genuine enthusiasm and interest he started giving me more of his energy and attention – talking more directly to me than he was to the rest of the group. As I reflected on this phenomenon, I realized that I could relate. As someone who is prone to enjoy the spotlight, I knew how the most valuable thing I could receive was strong, genuine validation to what I was saying. From that perspective it came as no surprise that as I became his biggest fan, he became more and more interested in my validation.
After realizing this and seeing him coming closer and closer to me to almost turn what was once a group conversation into a two man show, I started leaning back in my chair, slowing down my energy, and as I did so all of the momentum that he previously had came down with me. As he shifted his focus to me, everyone else in the group shifted theirs toward me, and as I looked over to my right, I see my sweet Romanian girl was leaning back toward me, giving me those eyes that made my heart flutter.
Everything was right with the world again.
This experience taught me very clearly what the best conversationalists already knew: Feeling down on myself, being the victim, and using these excuses to keep me from taking any action surly wasn’t going to get me anywhere, and more importantly, the thing that most people think of when they think of an amazing conversationalist – being the uber-entertaining center – really doesn’t matter.
While being charming and charismatic certainly doesn’t hurt and can be fun (I still enjoy it), it can hurt you if you try to base your “game” on it. What really matters is the ability to get someone else talking – moreso to get them excited so that they start directing their energy toward you while you validate that energy. To put it another way, would you rather be the jester or the king?
The rest of this section of the book will be dedicated to just that. I will be detailing, in order of the strength of effect it has on people, the things that most powerfully get other excited and talking more – basically the things that the best conversationalists in the world do whether they’re aware of it or not. Take a moment to reflect on the lesson I learned in Amsterdam, think about how it challenges your previously held beliefs on what it means to be a great conversationalist, and get ready to learn all of the other ways to become the kind of guy that people are naturally drawn to.
Oh, and just case you were interested in how things with with the Romanian girl, after a few more minutes of interacting with the group, I leaned over to her and asked her if she wanted to get out of there and go have a drink. She did, and we had a wonderful rest of our vacations together.