Nancy K. Napier: How to be more interesting — and a better conversationalist

26 March 2016 (IdahoStatesman.com)| As usual this is a very much interesting article by Nancy Napier distinguished professor, Boise State University. nnapier@boisestate.edu. The following are helpful suggestions to mentors whose job is “talk less and ask more.”

Ever wonder how to be a more interesting person in conversations?

Short answer: Get out of your own way.

Recently I discovered two outstanding pieces on how to interview people and how to be a better conversationalist. Cal Fussman and Celeste Headlee are interviewers extraordinaire, but what they really do is create connections and relationships with people in ways that, for most of us, might take hours or weeks. They do it in moments. Here’s some of what I’ve learned from them.

Cal Fussman had the tables turned, when Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week, devoted his weekly podcast to learning from Fussman, who writes for Esquireand has interviewed people from Mikhail Gorbachev to Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy to Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson to George Clooney. The three-hour podcast focused on Fussman’s techniques as an interviewer. He’s a great storyteller, listener, and question asker. Here are two of his key tips:

▪ Ask a question that goes to the heart (not the head), first.

Most people, especially ones in the public eye, get the same questions over and over. Fussman suggests asking a question that gets to what’s important to that person.

Ages ago, he expected to have a 90-minute interview with Mikhail Gorbachev and learned minutes before that he would have just 10 minutes instead (that would include translation time, so really just five minutes). So Fussman asked, “What was the best thing your father taught you?”

That unexpected question led Gorbachev to tell a story that revealed much about him, about his ideas on war, and opened the door for more questions. The interview lasted for perhaps 25-30 minutes, not 10. All because Fussman targeted Gorbachev’s heart, not his intellect, on the first question.

▪ Go with the flow.

Fussman also recommends listening hard to where the interviewee (or conversation partner) goes and trying to build on that. During an interview with Donald Trump years ago, Trump kept taking phone calls, showing off his importance. So Fussman finally asked, “How many hours a day do you spend on the phone?”

Fussman went with the flow of the interview, asked an unexpected question, and allowed Trump to pump himself up and give Fussman a little different perspective on his interviewee.

This week, Kevin Wade, director of information-technology services at Idaho Power, sent me a link to a TED talk by Celeste Headlee, who works for Georgia Public Broadcasting and, like Fussman, has years of interviewing experience.

Headlee dispels the notion of thinking that nodding, leaning forward and making eye contact are signs that you’re a good conversationalist. Instead, she says the ways to connect with people are harder and simpler:

▪ Really, truly pay attention, don’t just act like you are.

▪ Assume you can learn something from every person. This simple idea is easy to miss. Too often (like Trump?), we’re trying to show off. She argues that curiosity and trying to learn from another person make deeper connections.

▪ One of Headlee’s best tips: “Never equate your experience with another person’s. You may have gone through similar experiences, but nobody’s experience is ever the same.”

We all know the “competitive conversation partner:” I mention a death in the family, she trumps it with a more awful death. I mention a job loss, she beats it with a horrific car accident or more-painful job-loss story. I just want to tell my story, but the conversation ends up with me listening to hers instead.

As Headlee says, conversation is not a contest. We need to listen hard to each other to have any hope of understanding, connecting and moving forward instead of just jousting.

Especially in difficult times, hard conditions, or perhaps even during elections, how can we pay attention, listen, and get out of our own way?

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