Hacking Conversations

There’s a kind of mechanical dimension to some of these lists “based on the latest science” that you can almost anticipate being parroted back at you one to three years from now in some stupid video training that you will be forced to watch. The list I have in mind is The Week’s [How to make people like you: 6 science-based conversation hacks][list].

Much of the advice is already commonsensical, but I was struck by the top three things being actions I discovered for myself as a field researcher and which I continue to stress as important skills in all my courses. Those three behaviors are:

1. **Encourage people to talk about themselves**.
2. **To give feedback, ask questions**.
3. **Ask for advice**.

These are, in many ways, the foundations of a good interview. As I remind my students, interviews are not conversations: you are not there to talk but to listen. A good interview is the gift of listening. If you have never experienced what it’s like to give that gift, that it is indeed a gift that can be given, then I encourage you to sit down with someone and just, using the three behaviors above, listen. Right around the half hour mark you will see a change in their comportment — and this half hour mark is, for Americans, pretty predictable: no earlier than 25 minutes and no later than 45 minutes. Whatever their usual conversational bearing, the person to whom you are listening will relax or they will, sometimes, light up. Something will change in their bearing as it occurs to them, usually not consciously, that someone is actually listening to them. (And it’s usually at that moment that most people conducting interviews realize how much time we spend in conversations simply waiting for other people to finish talking so we can have our turn at talking.)

My phrasing of number three is a bit different: I like being a folklorist because it allows me to be dumb, to ask the obvious, to be schooled by people from all walks of life in the things they love to think about, and that they think about quite a lot, even when they think they are not thinking. (I’m reminded of Thoreau’s notion of one gnawing one’s own bone here.) So, it’s not just advice I seek, but how to do things, anything. Everything.

[list]: http://theweek.com/article/index/253693/how-to-make-people-like-you-6-science-based-conversation-hacks

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