Monday, July 22, 2013

How to be Easy to Talk To: Turning Against, Turning Away, and Turning Towards

Why are some people really pleasant to talk to and some people not? Sometimes it's easy to put your finger on why, but not always. I think a lot of the strange friction we experience when talking to certain people can be explained by some concepts I read in psychologist John Gottman's book The Relationship Cure, that have always stayed with me.

He says that we often pay too much attention to what we say and do and not enough to how we respond to what the other person says and does. When someone tries to communicate with you, he calls that an "offer" (very similar to the improv usage), and there are three basic classes of response to offers: turning against, turning away, and turning towards. These are great terms, because you can guess the meaning from them, and also guess which ones are likely to hurt your connection with the other person and which ones are likely to strengthen it.

But it's not always obvious which one you're doing, so I'm going to use an example to show some types of reaction that are more subtly abrasive.

Your friend Matt: "Hey, I just saw Pacific Rim! The robots were fricking cool."

Your response:

This is turning the person's offer into an opening to attack them, in a way that might make them wish they hadn't said anything. But this might not be large or overt, or intentional. For example:

- "Yeah, all my nerd friends I've talked to are really excited." You're implying that his reaction is because of his membership in a group, not his own perceptions. (calling him a nerd might also be insulting, depending on the person.)

- "Ha ha, I haven't heard 'fricking' in a while." You're jumping on a surface aspect of his quickly-improvised speech, rather than engaging with the contents. The same goes for pointing out a grammatical or word usage error.

- "I have to remember you haven't seen that much Kaiju. The robots in Neon Genesis Evangelion are even cooler." You're using this as an opportunity to flaunt your own knowledge, and imply that he's something of a dupe.

- "That movie had a terrible script." You're attacking the thing he's trying to express enthusiasm about, without anything to transition or soften it.

- "I'm not really into the summer blockbuster thing." Again, implying that Matt is a dupe, and you're on a higher plain.

- "Um, those are not really robots. Technically, they're cyborgs." You're challenging facts in his statement that aren't that relevant to what he's trying to say. (again, keeping in mind the "quickly improvised" aspect of this)


This is simply failing to acknowledge or engage with the person's offer. For example, checking your phone, mumbling something noncommital without making eye contact, continuing with what you were saying before, or interrupting them in the middle to make a joke or comment on their means of expression (which might also constitute turning against). A subtler example of turning away:

- "That reminds me of this awesome tin robot I bought at the flea market." You're wrenching the conversation away to something that's on your mind, rather than engaging with what they said.


What's the best way to respond to an offer? Of course in some situations you want to be a dick to someone, and sometimes it's fun to be a pretend-dick to a good friend (although you have to be careful that it's on a strong background of affection and respect). In many cases something may be more important than the pleasantness of the conversation, like getting a job done. But you have to be aware of when you're turning against and turning away. Even if the other person seems not to notice, or even laughs at what you said, there's a good chance they're annoyed, though maybe below the threshold of consciousness. If you want someone to feel closer to you, and trust and like you, you have to resist that every time. Gottman's idea was that relationships are built step by tiny step: every time you notice someone has made an offer to you, which usually happens many times in a conversation, and restrain yourself from turning against or turning away from that offer.

Instead you have to turn towards the offer. That means listening carefully to the intent behind it, and at the very least acknowledging that you've heard that. In this case, all you would need would be to make eye contact, smile and go, "Cool, man!" That's it. If you wanted to go further, you might ask Matt open-ended questions, even just in the form of "oh yeah?". You could also ask, "tell me about one you liked!" And then keep your mouth shut. If you don't get the feeling he's dying to expand on the initial statement, you could talk about your own thing, if it connects with the *emotion*. So in this case, the emotion is appreciating or finding something cool in art. "I love how good special effects are now. I wish they'd been able to make monsters like that when I was a kid." But in general it's a lot of active listening, and letting the person get through all of what they wanted to say - even leaving a little pause to be sure - then acknowledging it at the end.

The response doesn't necessarily need to be positive. You could disagree, but in a way that acknowledges their offer and shows respect for the feeling that prompted it. "They didn't work for me that well - too many gadgets for my taste."


So much of social skill is just noticing when someone is reaching out to you, and making them feel glad they did. That way they'll want to keep doing it. It seems simple, but I see nerdy guys especially mess this up all the time (and I'm including myself in that). Even if you never have clever things to say, if you acknowledge the person's intent (turn towards) and don't jump on their words (turn against) or ignore what they're trying to say (turn away) people will find you easy to talk to.

Note that this applies to electronic communication just as much, maybe more so since you've theoretically taken time to compose it. Leaving an email sitting there for a long period of time can be a type of turning away, and often you're better off writing a shorter reply sooner, with the goal of aknowledging their offer as soon to the moment of writing as possible.

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