The Secret to Connecting With People

Deep eye

When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.

~ Ernest Hemingway

For a long time I didn’t feel like I had a lot of people to relate to.  Being shy, I didn’t find myself in a lot of conversations with people I didn’t know, and when I did, I was uncomfortable.  Bonds did form, deep ones sometimes, but it was always a product of circumstance.  I made friends with people I was in class with or worked with, because some interaction is bound to happen in those places.  But to actually form a relationship without the help of circumstances was something I had never experienced.

I’ve shed much of my shyness through deliberately speaking up more and other forms of comfort-zone-pushing, but I eventually made a discovery that really opened the floodgates for me.  I see the potential for connection in just about everyone now; I no longer feel bound by differences of age, interests, cultures, or opinions.

The secret to connecting with people is this:

Always try to understand what people really mean when they speak.

It doesn’t sound like a huge revelation.  Many of you are probably thinking that you already do that anyway.  But chances are you don’t, at least not very well.  Certainly we know what the other person is saying, but most of the time, we don’t particularly care for the topic, or if we do, our minds are already busy forming a response.  Sometimes we take the liberty of finishing the person’s sentence, or even beginning one of our own before they finish.  This is fairly normal behavior, at least in my culture, and as such, it isn’t considered terribly rude in most circles.

Next time you’re out, try watching an exchange between two people.  In most conversations I witness, each person appears to clearly hold his own opinions as being of primary importance, and the other’s as being worth considerably less, though each might pretend otherwise.  It’s not that we’re arrogant, it’s just human nature.  Each person is usually waiting for their turn to talk, perhaps tossing in some polite remarks and nods so as not to appear rude.

However, things do flow more smoothly when one person’s opinion matches the other’s.  That’s when real listening happens without any effort, and conversation is unhindered.  But because of this human tendency to revere our own opinions, many people find they can only really connect with people who carry similar views.  With friends and family, we’ve already established some common ground, so it’s easy to really communicate with them.

But that leaves only a small segment of the population with which we have the potential to connect.  Most people will hold no interest for us.  I think part of the problem is that we think that the other person’s message is what they say.

What they say, in terms of what words come out of their mouth, is just a tiny fraction of what they are communicating.  The real message is not what they say.  The real message is why. Where are these words coming from? That why is what tells us who they are and what they value.

The speaker is rarely just trying to relay basic information to you.  Almost always, they are speaking up because there is some visceral desire to express what they are feeling right now.  Speech is always triggered by a passion, a worry, a judgment, a realization, or some other internal encounter with an emotion of some kind.  If your friend suddenly brings up her job, it isn’t because she wants you to be well-informed about her situation at work, it’s because her job is on her mind and she wants to get it out of her mind. Respect that need and she will not only be grateful, but suddenly she’ll be much more likely to take an interest in what’s on your mind.

If you want to connect with people, make this your social mantra:

Always let the speaker be the star.

Whatever their performance is, whether it’s a story about something their kid is doing in school, a trip to Europe they’re planning, a complaint about what so-and-so said to them earlier — be the most respectful audience you can be.  The chair they are sitting in, the doorway they are standing in, wherever they are — that’s their stage, their pulpit.  Let them say their piece, no matter what you think of the story, or what you would do in their place.

Really, really listen to what they say, and recognize that they are saying what they’re saying because it is important to them.  In every single thing every person says, they reveal what they value.  When you can get a glimpse of what people value, you can see the humanity in them.  And that is how humans connect: by understanding each other’s values.  You don’t have to share those values, though you’ll certainly find you share something with everyone.

I am not into hunting.  I have no interest in shooting a deer or a goose for fun.  But I do know some who do, and in my more conscious moments, I can genuinely appreciate everything a friend tells me about hunting.  The specifics of his anecdotes are not so important; it’s the glint of excitement in his eyes, and more importantly, the enthusiasm that swells in him when he realizes somebody is actually being receptive to his story.  I reserve my judgments; there’s no need to batter anyone over the head with my own stances.  There would be no communication at all if I did that.  Judgments just get in the way and do neither party any good.

To simply know what it feels like to hold something dear, and understand that we all know that feeling — that means you can understand anybody.  But only if you genuinely make a point of seeing where they’re coming from.  Our failing is that we’re usually much more concerned with being understood than with understanding.  Those who reverse those two priorities are very effective communicators and will never have a shortage of friends.

The Barrier

Distraction, in some form, is what typically prevents understanding.  Distraction is letting your attention wander from the other person’s performance.  It could be captured by what they’re wearing, a TV screen, a book in your hands, anything around you.  But the most common place for it to go is into your own (the listener’s) thoughts.  Most people are distracted by what they themselves would like to say.  Sometimes they want to respond before the person is finished, other times they simply have their own opinion locked and loaded to fire off as soon as there is a break in the dialogue.

Forget what you want to say, just drop all thoughts about yourself and your interests, and let them speak their mind.  Think of it this way: when you are listening, the most important thing in the world is to figure out where the other person is coming from.  Make it your entire purpose on earth — for the thirty-seven seconds it takes for them to tell their little story — to understand what feelings are behind what they say.  If, when they stop speaking, you still don’t understand where they’re coming from, ask a question.

All it takes is putting your own interests on hold until they are able to get their point across to you.

The habit of really listening to what someone is saying is a rare one.  And the people who do it can connect with anyone.  I’ve understood the value of being a good listener for a long time, but I didn’t really know what it meant to be one.  I know now: it means to cherish other people’s desire to express themselves more than your own desire to express yourself. Really, just completely defer your interests for as long as it takes for you to understand them.

That idea might scare some people.  Surely our own opinions are important too!

Relax.  You don’t have to worry about being understood, and here’s why: when you make a point of dumping your own thoughts to make room for understanding, people are so grateful that you are trying to see their perspective, they’ll be happy to listen to you afterward.  By then, what they wanted to say is no longer on their mind, so then they won’t be distracted by it while you are speaking.

In other words, take turns understanding each other, but insist on going first. Let the other person have the privilege of being the first one to be understood.  The biggest distraction to understanding someone else is self-importance.  Needing to say something means you have to be thinking about it, and thinking about it means you have very little mental capacity left for empathy.  Free up yours, and it will free up theirs.

Imagine what the world would be like if everyone did this.

That’s all anyone wants, to be understood.  Give it to them.  Give the greatest of all gifts, every time you have the opportunity.  Unless the building is on fire, give yourself permission to let the speaker be the center of your universe, just for a minute.  It won’t hurt, I promise. Forget what you were going to say.  Forget how you might wish to respond.  You can do that all later.  Abandon everything else in the world for the few seconds it takes to let the other person finish their thought.

At first, you will probably experience some angst at the thought of abandoning what you were going to say. Drop it anyway, and see if your life suffers.  (It won’t.)  So what if you didn’t get to make the wisecrack you had saved up?  So what if you don’t get to tell them about your upcoming trip to Europe?

Once you resolve to let all that baggage go, it’s actually a tremendous relief.  It’s like dropping an armload of textbooks you’ve had held against your chest.  You  no longer have to struggle to keep track of your thoughts.  You can safely let them all go.  Let them drift away, unfinished and unfollowed. 99% of them never needed to be said anyway.  And don’t worry, the truly important thoughts will be persistent enough to come back to you when nobody else is speaking.  You will get your chance to make yourself understood, just don’t try to be first in line.

There is such a strong compulsion to make our own opinion known, that even the most courteous among us will often practically ignore what the person says, or even interrupt them.  Most of the time the hurried remarks we do make are just little indulgences, self-important grabs at approval or admiration.

I know that I personally have a history of saying things for the sole purpose of sounding clever, or arousing the fondness of others.  I built my whole identity on looking smart, for years and years.  I didn’t know who I was without that approval, so I was constantly digging for it.  It’s really just a bad habit, to grab at the little ego boosts those self-indulgent remarks provide.  I would even call it an addiction, but that’s a whole other post.  For now let’s just say many of us are very strongly drawn to seeking approval by pointing out certain things or telling certain stories, and it impedes understanding others considerably.

The truth is, your opinions probably aren’t that important.  And neither are the other person’s.  Opinions will come and go, they speak mostly to our emotional state at the time we declare them.  There is usually very little logic behind them, just feelings.  And that’s okay.  There is a brilliant Zen saying:  Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish opinions. This is not a prescription for dismissing what the other person is saying, only for cherishing the human being behind the words, rather than the back-and-forth play of semantics and mental positions.

I’ll be the first to say I’m really not all that good at this yet.  I’ve been getting better and better at relating to people, but old habits do indeed die hard.  But I now understand clearly where I went wrong so often, and I know what to do instead.  The specific concept of letting others be the star only came to me fairly recently, and I’m astounded at the results so far.  My friends and family suddenly became ten times more interesting, not to mention strangers, clients, clerks and passers-by.  I no longer have that bubble of angst growing inside me when someone else is speaking, because I know I can safely drop whatever I was going to say.  More and more I get to witness that wonderful sense of gratitude that washes over people when someone makes a genuine effort to understand them.

And when you do get your chance to speak, their eyes will be glued to you, and you’ll probably have the best audience you ever had.

***

It absolutely helps to make a point of getting better at all aspects of conversation. Leil Lowndes’s How to Talk to Anyone is a quick read and will leave you with dozens of new tools. You will always have quite a few practice sessions offered to you every day.

Photo by VisualPanic



Bill August 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm

This is one of the best I have ever had with 14-years of trying to understand peoples’ perspectives on connecting with others. Great job; keep it up.

maxawa September 16, 2012 at 9:40 pm

I’d be really curious to know if you’d still advocate this technique after trying it for a few years now. This seems like fantastically efficacious advice… and hard as hell to pull off. I think it takes mad Zen skills to clear your mind of thoughts for 10 seconds, let alone the whole duration that someone’s talking. I get the vibe that this was written when you were excited by the discovery before you’d actually battle tested the technique. I’d love to hear that I’m wrong and this has really worked well for you.

David September 16, 2012 at 10:02 pm

I’d been doing it for a while before I wrote this article. I don’t do it all the time, usually only when I’m in a good mood, but I don’t really see what’s so hard about it. There’s no need to clear your mind of thoughts, just to try ditching what your were going to say if you notice it’s distracting you from following the other person. You don’t need to be a zen master to do that.

maxawa September 16, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Ah, good. Glad I misunderstood that. Thanks for the article, I’m looking forward to giving it a whirl. I’ve been choppily working on an emotional brain attentiveness while watching people’s expressions on tv, so maybe that will lend itself to understanding *why* people are saying what they’re saying.

Breahna September 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm

This was an absolutely terrific theology on others and how to connect. It is very inspirational and something we all should acquire an interest in. Success is not measured by one individual, it is by of the other which motivates and loves and appreciates that individual to learn and grow. I think your writing is beautiful.

Della September 29, 2012 at 10:53 am

I have one question. You truly listen to the person and really understand where they are coming from. But then what do you afterwards in response? Relay your own story that brought on similar emotions? Nod as say “how lovely” or “I understand” and then move on to something else? Ask more questions?

I have mastered listening, you give very good advice that makes sense. I get stuck on the few moments following peoples’ stories. How do you show you understand?

David September 29, 2012 at 11:50 am

You can relate something relevant from your own life, or just say “How lovely” or whatever. Anything to show that you heard them. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I think most people can detect when they’ve been listened to.

Della September 29, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Thank you david for your insight! (and for listening ;) )

chris60 October 22, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Most of us are locked in our own rigid worldviews. It keeps us safe, but can also keep us limited. This was a fascinating read. Listeners are rare. Capturing the essence of another person is difficult due to basic differences and most of us are trained to avoid exposing our more vulnerable and precious pockets. Great article. The final tip is to reflect back the listener’s feelings and check you understood what they said and meant… Sometimes you can make a mistake and assume what they said was linked to the wrong response. I remember a young Vietnamese student recounting his father’s death. i was shocked that he kept smiling. Then he explained he felt so glad that his father had died happy. Cultural differences can create big gaps in understanding.

Anra November 16, 2012 at 4:40 am

Thank you, this sounds too exciting and too easy not to try it!

erik rossetti January 8, 2013 at 9:14 pm

This is a great insight with a nice detailed elaboration. This is a point that is critical in How To Win Friends and Influence People by Carnegie. Are you aware of this? If so, then why no credit?

Joanne January 30, 2013 at 9:36 am

It is the “do unto others as you would like them to do unto you”. If everyone would work at this one line, what a world this would be.

Fred February 23, 2013 at 11:57 am

Sorry but this article takes a moral high ground, and makes a sweeping claim about people not “really listening to other people”. Come on, you can’t just claim that nobody has been connecting properly, but now you’re going to set us all straight? Lots of the time people are talking about stuff in a casual manner, and the listener also assumes a casual role in the conversation, with peaks of interest and troughs of vagueness. That’s natural.

Remember that applying an attentive listening strategy in order to fulfill the role of “better human” is in itself a sure way of raising suspicion in your speaker as to your genuine reaction, and may backfire. Basically, putting on an “act” might be detected, and that can further drive a wedge in.

I would warn anyone taking this article’s advice to be very careful. Don’t pander to people if they’re uninteresting. It’s ok to look disinterested if the person is boring for example. Conversation is not black and white, you can’t apply a formula to all situations. Be organic, trust your intuition, be genuine, be nice, but don’t pretend to be interested if you’re not. That won’t help anyone.

nn March 1, 2013 at 10:13 am

I ageee with the comment made on Feb 23rd about being wary of this advice. There’s a fatal flaw. You say most people don’t properly listen, and in order to make a connection you need to truly listen.

If I look ar that one way it raises a question: if most people are inadequate listeners why do most people have satisfactory connections? Most people have at least one highly trusted friend who they have connected with, but apparently most people are terrible listeners which undermines that whole idea

Secondly, most peoples inteeractions and connections are not based on some high level of empathy and understanding – yes there is an amount of that but not to the extent you’re saying. You just have to observe people to see that. Is some happy go lucky young person desiring understanding from a friend or someone fun, bubbly and exciting? Is someone who has plenty od friends wanting to be understood when you listen to them? No their values with regard to what they respond to and connect to are focused elsewhere besides being understood or even accepted, it’s not the priority they are plentiful when it comes to being understood already.

You can’t make out this is a universal tactic leading to more fulfilling relationships it just isn’t that easy or simple there is FAR more things good connections are dependant on. Those od us who struggle forming them are useless at intuitively knowing or fulfilling and finding thosedependant attributes.

Bernie April 12, 2013 at 11:54 pm

After about 5 years of not finishing, I picked up Steven Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” today. Where I had left off was Habit 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Covey is a genius and his book (at least the first half) was life-changing for me. I have to compliment you on the way you took his premise (not implying anything improper, just that I saw it there first), and eloquently elaborated on it in a way that makes it more relate-able. This was much more poignant for me, at least, than the examples in his book. It’s good to know a real human had excellent results with it and this is what they got out of it. Great writing.

James April 27, 2013 at 7:19 am

I was just looking for a way to connect with people to make some money just don’t know where to start!

Thomas May 15, 2013 at 6:23 am

Will it be annoying if I only listen and keep asking questions and not mentioning myself? Btw great article!

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JC Johnson May 20, 2013 at 8:39 am

Great post! The truth is always in the position of the observer.

Rebecca May 24, 2013 at 9:04 am

What a fantastic article for anyone but particularly helpful to coaching others. As a topic “expert” this information is critical. It also emphasizes that what really transforms people is not the material but the human aspect. Thank you so much for this super valuable content!

Endi September 10, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Absolutely wonderful! I loved your article. It is spot on! I was recently placed in a leadership type role, and I will be reading your article over and over again! Thank you :-)

Paula September 22, 2013 at 4:19 am

Hi there! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate!
He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post
to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

Georgie D September 23, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Hey David, SUPER blog, I’m a 43 year old who suffered a closed head injury years ago, which Is the main reason I have this problem of letting people get too close to me. I haven’t been able to connect with anyone, Including wives for 15 years!
I meet someone, we talk, we part ways and I take nothing from it , not even their name. With your tips, I can’t wait to have the next conversation with someone, no, I can’t wait to “listen” to the next conversation Is what I mean.
Thanks.

Lauren September 26, 2013 at 1:48 am

Hi David,

Great post! I’m dealing a little with anxiety and I have been given a job opportunity (first back since my last position fell through- was dealing with depression/anxiety quite profoundly with that job). Although I know this opportunity is the next ‘building block’ and will give me much strength, I am still a little anxious and have spent the last week off staying out of my head! (Hard at times!!!) I’m feeling in a much better place to take on the ‘lil challenge’ than I was when I first agreed to take the job, but now it’s tomorrow.. anxiety (thoughts) are coming up that aren’t serving me. So!, after reading this post, I will endeavour to be the listener tomorrow as I think it will be a good start to slowly put myself back in the social scene (without the thoughts whirling round’ my head)

Great post and will help a million tomorrow :)
Lauren.

Lauren September 26, 2013 at 1:59 am

It’s a training session so I only have to listen anyway!! :p

Wes November 4, 2013 at 11:41 pm

You changed my life forever thank you for producing this article I will now use in my everyday life and conquer what I want and I shall understand those and the world around me including my family school peers and future relationship partner this opened my mind to a new level thank you.

adam November 6, 2013 at 1:04 pm

hi,
I loved your post. very useful.
one thing was on my mind. a lot of times, I don’t like what people say. either it seems dumb or just not my cup of tea. it’s very hard to keep listening. I want to respect people but find it difficult when I don’t much respect their mind. how can I go about that? maybe I need a change in attitude? I usually pride myself to be smarter than most. I tend to think and analyze a lot. so it’s natural for me to jump to conclusions and move forward because I’ve gone over such things many times and there are a lot more to go over, more interesting stuff. of course many people don’t get or like this pace. that is why I don’t connect with many people.

I’d appreciate your input
thanks

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Hi there! This article could not be written any better!

Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
He always kept talking about this. I most certainly will forward this
information to him. Pretty sure he’s going to have a good read.
Many thanks for sharing!

pio January 16, 2014 at 9:00 am

Good advice, but the people I’m trying to connect with at work seem to be playing a different game. It feels more like a battle of wit, and if you can’t play, you’re not in with the group. Or another game I’ve seen is only talk about light and fluffy stuff, so nothing about them is ever revealed. How do others connect with people like these?

David Cain January 16, 2014 at 3:51 pm

That is unfortunate. There’s no accounting for quality of the people around you as potential connectees. Some people are just plain impossible.

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deborah April 17, 2014 at 2:45 am

You know I’ve been doing this for years.. the problem is not a single person has gotten back to me yet.. not such as a wee question about me, my life..what I had for breakfast…. As it stood this was a great secret to my happiness for 20 years, as I was giving only to others…
…As it stands Now, I feel utterly empty, as I was never able to make any real connections this way. I feel isolated as If on another planet now.. peoples lips move.. I can’t ever hear what their saying anymore.
Am I just swarmed by narcissistic people around me, am I not understanding some critical thing you can think of, or am I actually an alien and I should be looking for another planet perhaps? Seriously I’m in dire need if anyone could help me in this matter…

Lyle April 19, 2014 at 4:51 pm

The obvious thing to do if someone is talking to you is listen to what their saying weather its interesting or not.I’am good at listening to people and am quite patient.The problem comes in when the other person realizes your a good listener and then just keeps blabbing on about themselves even though
you do drop in your own opinion from time to time.When I speak to someone I want to have a fully interactive conversation about a certain topic
where I really want to hear the other persons opinion and thoughts more than my own because I already know how I feel about it.This very rarely happens because most people just talk about themselves and it becomes a battle of whose got a more interesting life or has more money which ultimately ends in someone losing. This is not restricted to unknown people but includes family and friends. I like to talk about neutral things to get an understanding of how the other person thinks before going into more personal details.I’m an educated person and at even family get-to-gethers
hardly anyone speaks to me and those who I speak to don’t seem to be interested.I like people and would love to be more socialble but it just feels like flogging a dead horse.

deborah April 20, 2014 at 6:19 am

Thankyou in your reply for my quest to be human. I can sure can relate to feelings of “just feels like flogging a dead horse.”
I just attended a big family event.. after more of the same blah blah blah(see previous post), this was my only resolve -I face-booked this out globally:
“I’ve come to a time in my life where I don’t want to be around hurtful people anymore. People that carry false pretenses also don’t matter that much to me. I wish to spend time with only with those who truly appreciate me know me and want to be a part of my life and are REAL in their nature, I don’t have much fortitude for anything else… Anyone who wishes to be part of my life …awesome”
While rudimentary in it’s communicable depth and ability, it was truly all I could muster… and of course I got no response. Soooo. help! Hijacking the nearest mother ship is also not one my strong suits.
Thank you for replying again I’ll be really awaiting another one as I’m suspended in this vaccum.

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