People are most interested in themselves, according to Alan and Barbara Pease (Easy Peasey: People Skills for Life), and therefore in social situations we should focus comments on the person we are talking to, and ask open-ended questions, talking about ourselves only in response to questions.
At a recent party, I put this advice to the test with mixed results. On the positive side, I enjoyed myself more than I usually do at parties. I think this was because the conversations I had were more interesting: instead of conversing on autopilot, I listened actively to what people said to me and I asked questions that interested me. Paradoxically, conversation was less work than usual.
On the downside, I wondered afterwards if two of my guinea pigs felt interrogated. By responding to comments with open-ended questions, and avoiding talking about myself except in response to questions, I pushed others to dominate the conversation. I don’t think people like to feel they are dominating. I created an interaction that was more like an interview by a journalist than a conversation between equal partners.
In another recent conversational encounter, I took a more equal share. An old friend came to stay for a few days during which we talked pretty much non stop. I was deeply interested to hear her thoughts and stories and she encouraged me to share mine. We both asked questions and both volunteered information. Of course, this natural, deep interaction is hard to replicate with someone I don’t know well, but I think I can apply aspects of it to other conversations.
Next time I’m at a party I’m going to tone down my approach. My plan is once again to work on listening actively and asking questions in response that interest me. And, as Alan and Barbara advise, I’ll be enthusiastic and I’ll avoid jumping in on other people’s stories whenever something they say triggers in my mind a story of my own. But I will volunteer my thoughts and stories unasked when it seems appropriate, and I’ll put more effort into elaborating on my answers when people ask me questions.
I’d be interested to hear what others have found works and doesn’t work to improve the quality and enjoyment of different interactions.