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Producer Brian Grazer on his secrets to emotionally intelligent conversations

Brian Grazer is the producer of films like A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13. In his new book, he shares how his ability to connect deeply with people has influenced his success.

Producer Brian Grazer on his secrets to emotionally intelligent conversations
[Photo: Presley Ann/Getty Images for Hulu; tkoko/iStock]

Brian Grazer may be best known for being one of the brains behind award-winning movies like A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13. But once upon a time, Grazer was a dyslexic kid who avoided eye contact with his elementary school teacher. “I was always inventing new resourceful tools, methods, and manners for avoiding eye contact,” says Grazer. Some of these methods would include “looking down, shooting paper clips with rubber bands, going to the bathroom, staging a cough.” Grazer didn’t want to look at his teacher because he knew that he wouldn’t be able to answer the questions she was about to ask. “They were all based on being able to do rudimentary reading.”

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Fast forward to today, Grazer has released a book that precisely talks about the importance of eye contact, titled Face to Face: The Art Of Human Connection. In fact, he credits much of his success in his professional life to being able to make eye contact with people and in turn have conversations (and develop relationships) with people across all walks of life, from scientists to world leaders. Grazer recently shared some of his tips on how to have emotionally intelligent conversations with Fast Company:

1. Validate people’s feelings

When Grazer was in third grade, there was a playground bully who would find a different kid to pick on every single day. When it came to Grazer’s turn, he decided to fight back. “All the kids were cheering me on because they were terrified by this guy,” says Grazer. It was the first time he felt ever felt validated, he says, and he eventually learned the power of validation when it comes to conversations.

Now, he makes it a point to validate every person he talks to. He notes, however that validation doesn’t mean being fake or giving compliments that aren’t genuine. The other person will be able to see through that, says Grazer. To Grazer, validating—and exercising emotional intelligence—means “entering the psyche of the person you’re talking to.” He continues, “Can you feel what they’re feeling, can you feel how they want to talk, can you feel their fear, can you feel their pleasure and joy?”

This requires paying attention to the person you’re speaking to (rather than looking down at your phone or over their shoulder), acknowledging their feelings, and then taking cues from their body language to gauge how you should respond. When you’re in a group setting and sense that there is a common sentiment, acknowledging that sentiment can also go far in breaking the ice and making people feel comfortable. In the book, Grazer recalled a time when he attended the Oscar Nominees Luncheon in 2002. He wrote, “The luncheon was a strange event: It was designed to be informal and relaxed. In reality, it felt more uncomfortable than the awards themselves.”

That vibe changed when actor Will Smith stood up and said “Isn’t this a blast?! Aren’t we all excited to be here?! It’s great to see everybody!” Grazer wrote, “In that moment, one person single-handedly changed the entire dynamic of the room. By recognizing our shared uneasiness, Will connected with me and everyone else at the luncheon who thought they were alone in their discomfort.”

2. Find a way to provide value

When Grazer was a young law clerk for Warner Brothers, one of his main jobs was to deliver documents to important people. It was, as he wrote, “drudge work,” but he decided to employ some creativity and use the opportunity to engage in interesting conversations with some of Hollywood’s most powerful figures. First, he had to get through the assistants. He simply told them that for the documents to be valid, he had to personally deliver them to the person it was intended for.

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That was the start of what Grazer now calls “curiosity conversations,” where he asks people across industries to meet him for an hour. In the book, Grazer wrote, “Sometimes this results in meetings with several new people a week. I have no other motive than to learn something from them that will broaden my mind and alter my understanding of the world.”

Of course, it’s important to think about how the conversation can benefit your conversation partner. While Grazer’s professional reputation may open doors in terms of the people that he is able to meet, Grazer insists that before he requests a meeting with someone, he does everything he can to ensure that the conversation will provide value for both parties. That means doing a lot of research on that person and starting the chat with something specific and interesting that shows you have respect for their time.

“A lot of people ask generalized questions, that doesn’t excite anybody, it doesn’t make them interested.” Rather than asking questions that you can answer by a quick Google search, it’s important to share an insight that the other person can relate to, says Grazer. For example, if you meet a prominent director you admire, you’ll get their attention much quicker if you tell them that their movies are “mood-elevating,” rather than saying that they are “great.”

3. Have a game plan, but don’t be afraid to go off-script

Of course, research doesn’t provide you for everything. After 40 years of conversations with everyone from Oprah to Fidel Castro, Grazer says, “the number one common thread is . . . as much as I research them and I thought I know what they would be like, I was wrong every single time.” 

That means that Grazer has also learned to go off-script and improvise when the situation calls for it. One of the most memorable anecdote was when he met rapper Eminem. As he writes in his book, “The minutes dragged on painfully . . . No matter how hard I tried to engage him in conversation, no matter how specific or inviting the questions I asked, he simply wouldn’t respond. It was excruciating. Finally, he’d had enough. He heaved up off the couch.”

Grazer decided to improvise. He looked at Eminem in the eye, and said “Come on, you can animate?” Cracking a joke was a risky move, since it could have come across as too aggressive. However that risk paid off; Eminem decided not to leave the meeting, and that conversation eventually led to the movie 8 Mile.

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Ultimately, Grazer writes, “There is no one clear path or prescription to connecting with someone. It doesn’t always happen right away. Sometimes it requires patience. Other times, you just have to try and break down the wall . . . and see what happens. Sure, you might ruin any chance of forming a connection. But, is that really worse than playing it safe and leaving with no connection made?”

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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