In 1936, a former bacon salesman published a tip that became one of the great rules of conversation:
If you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments. Remember that the people you are talking to are a hundred times more interested in themselves and their wants and problems than they are in you and your problems.
This, from the famous “Listening” chapter of Dale Carnegie’s hit self-help book How To Win Friends And Influence People, is reasonable advice. But after 80 years of conflation and repetition, it’s the source of one of the most prevalent communication faux pas today.
We take listening for granted as a noble conversation skill. And as I’ve written before, asking the right kinds of questions can be invaluable for extracting what we want from conversations. But listening too much—and especially using questions to do so—actually stands in the way of building good relationships.
Say you’re at a networking event. You meet a friendly stranger and begin chatting. The stranger asks you about your work, then follows up with a question about something you mentioned, then another, then another. Then another. Every time the conversation lags, the person gets the ball moving again by asking another question. You finally walk away having talked yourself hoarse and learned nothing. At best you’ll think this person was friendly; at worst, annoying. It’s not as bad as that one guy who won’t shut up about himself, but it’s just as useless. He or she contributed nothing.
All you’ll get if you ask only questions is information. But if you want to connect with someone, the goal of a conversation should be to share things at 50/50:
Most people, when they meet someone for the first time, take Carnegie’s advice too far: They use questions to initiate conversation, or to stave off awkwardness if they don’t know what to say. And they think that’s a good idea because “people like good listeners.” (For the record, this is the case at bars and social events just as much as in business.) The better strategy is to use questions to introduce a topic, then follow up with statements, like so:
Questions are a good way to get a conversation rolling, but if you can resist the urge to follow up with more questions, you’ll get to the 50/50 conversation sweet spot faster. Use the person’s answer as a springboard to relate to them, instead of a slip-n-slide to another question.
In other words, if you want to be a good listener, ask questions. But if you want to be interesting, share things. Tell a story. And if you want to be intriguing, share your point of view.
This is analogous, in fact, to what smart businesses have figured out with social media. By sharing interesting stories, a brand has a better chance of building relationships with customers than it does by asking them for their money (or to answer a survey). And knowing someone is listening to you—whether it’s an individual or company—doesn’t make you as likely to like them as if they share something interesting with you.
Carnegie was right: People are generally interested in themselves. But the kind of people we want in our lives—business or personal—communicate to connect, rather than for the joy of monologuing.
If you want to build a relationship with someone, in other words, you need to share more and interrogate less. As it turns out, people like interesting more than they like interested.