Eloquent English

How a Demon Can Use Open-Ended Questions to Destroy (and Create) Empathy as Well

My last blog was on learning how to become a great conversationalist through careful observation and listening, and asking targeted questions. As mentioned, when you do this, you can create a bond with the other person, and through such bonding, many wonderful things may happen. (https://eloquentenglishsite.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/i-know-the-difference-between-open-ended-and-close-ended-questions-and-i-still-cant-talk-to-strangers-whats-going-on/).

I just finished a book by Michael Faber* called Under the Skin. What a strange book: part science fiction, part horror, part black comedy. After reading it, I realized that it perfectly illustrates how to use open-ended questions to create an empathic bond with others — but in this case, the reason for developing this empathy is so, so wrong.

Potential Spoiler Alert

The main character’s name is Isserley, and when you meet her, she is driving around Scotland, trying to pick up men: she only wants well-muscled, fit specimens. As you continue to read, you realise that there is something not quite right about her: her appearance, the way she talks . . . and that she happily anaesthetises each man after she’s chatted with him. Eventually you realise that she is taking them to her company’s headquarters so her colleagues can kill them for meat. Isserley and her co-workers come from another planet, and they do not recognise us Earthlings as being truly human; they do love munching on our tender flesh, however.

I know—yukkk

Isserley understands that she must select people who do not have family or friends in the area, because their absence would be immediately noted; hence, she drives extremely carefully to avoid police detection and asks all her potential victims targeted, open-ended questions to get them to open up to her so she can ascertain whether they can safely disappear. Forever. Bums, drunkards, students, professionals; she knows how to chat them all up.

Below are two examples of her conversations with potential victims. I have sometimes changed the words to standard English versus the thick Scottish dialect Faber has his characters speak. (I stands for Isserley and V for Victim.)

#1

I: “So what brings you out on the road today?”

V: “Staying at home was driving me crazy.”

I: “In between jobs, then?”

V: “Jobs don’t exist up here. No such fuckin’ thing.”

I: “The government still expects you to look for them though, doesn’t it?”

Go, Isserley. She infers that the guy is out of work because he is staying at home all day. Aha! If this guy isn’t working, maybe he doesn’t have a lot of contacts, so he could be a possible specimen.

#2

I: “What is there for you in Thurso?

V: “I don’t know. Perhaps nothing.”

I: “And if there is nothing?”

V: “I’m going there because I have never been there.”

I: “You’re travelling through the entire country?”

V: “Yes.”

I: “Travelling alone?”

V: “Yes.”

I: “For the first time?”

V: “When I was young I have travelled a lot in Europe with my parents.”

OK, she does ask close-ended questions as well, but Isserley is weaving a web of questions around her victims, just as a spider does to a fly. Very soon, these men find themselves giving away far too much information under her seemingly harmless queries.

Hopefully, you do not want to create empathy for destructive purposes! I hope it can be argued that one can learn from terrible people (or aliens) as well as from wonderful ones . . . and fiction, in the hands of a skilful writer, can illuminate communication better than almost anything.

Next time you pick up a book, start noticing the type conversations the characters have with each other. Doubtless you can learn tons from your own books, as well. Feel free to email me with interesting titles!


*Under the Skin by Michael Faber. New York: Harcourt, 2000.

(In 2014, this book was the inspiration for a film of the same name, starring Scarlett Johansson.)

 

I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: www.eloquentenglish.com. 

I offer workshops in public speaking, self presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.

Advertisements

I know the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions—and I still can’t talk to strangers! What’s going on?

I was leading a workshop on Having a Conversation with Australians several weeks ago when a participant stated, “Look, I understand that you’re to ask people open-ended questions in order to have a good conversation. But once I ask this type question and they give a response, I’m like, ‘Uhh . . . OK,’ and then I don’t know what to do.”

Excellent point. First, let’s backtrack a bit.

#1, what’s the issue with open-ended and close-ended questions and socialising? Open-ended questions are just that: a question that requires more than a “yes-or-no” response. Close-ended questions are answered with a single “yes”, “no” or single-word response.

Close-ended question: Did you have a good time at footy yesterday?

A: Yes

Open-ended question: Tell me a little about the footy game you went to over the weekend; I’ve never been to one and am thinking of going to a game.

A: Well, FIRST . . . (and away they go!)

I’m sure you can see how trying to generate open-ended answers will be much more fruitful—and interesting—than simply getting a lot of “Uhh . . . yes . . . no . . . yellow!” as responses. That’s like pulling teeth! Generating extended narratives and (potentially) exciting stories is what you want for the following reasons: 1) The speaker will think YOU are a fabulous conversationalist (even though YOU’RE doing all the listening) and 2) You can really get to know a person this way and create a bond with that person. Which is what you want, whether you are seeking potential mentors, friends or business connections.

Active listening is what it’s all about.

But that workshop participants had a good point. Plying the active listening trade really is easy, but you should know a few tricks in order to become a master.

Let me give you an example. This young participant and I were doing a role play about chatting with someone in a café. The conversation was to be on coffee. (And using the old “come-here-often”? ploy usually falls F.L.A.T.)

P (participant): “So, err, what kind of coffee do you prefer?

M (me): “Black, usually.”

P: “Uhh . . . OK . . .” and she looked at me helplessly and fell out of her role. “See, now I don’t know what to do!”

So, what DO you say, now that you know this person likes black coffee? Lots! Scour your brain. What do you know about black coffee and human beings? Keep being focused on that person. Look at that individual closely and try and make connections between coffee and that individual. It’s not about YOU, it’s about the PERSON YOU’RE TRYIING TO GET TO KNOW. Here are a few options. They may not be witty, but they’ll get the job done and will require a detailed response from the other individual:

  • Black! Wow. You must be a real coffee connoisseur.

     

  • I tried drinking black, but I need milk and sugar. How do you get used to drinking black coffee?

     

  • Are there certain coffee beans that you like more than others?

  • I also love black coffee. Do you think certain types of people that like their coffee black? (This one may be a bit . . . yukky, perhaps like you’re trying to flirt. And if you are—try it!)

  • You look very fit (if the person does look athletic). Do you deliberately drink black coffee as part of your diet? (This response will give the person a compliment, AND demand a more detailed answer—killing two proverbial birds with one stone! Good on ya!)

You might NOT want to puff up your own knowledge and say things such as: “Coffee originated in Ethiopia, you know. . .” and then spout a litany of facts, or say, “I read a report that stated that drinking black coffee can make your hair fall out.” Remember, it’s not about you.

Let’s say this person answered to your #2 question, on getting used to drinking black coffee:

It took me a few years, but now I can’t stand milk or sugar in my coffee; it’s too sweet and rich for me that way.

Now, THERE’S an opening. You could then say:

  • You must be a disciplined person. Are you disciplined in other areas, as well?

  • Let me guess. You don’t consume many sweets, do you?

     

  • Do you eat cheese, then? Cheese has milk in it. I couldn’t live without cheese! (OK, this response DOES have “you” in it, but you are humorously contrasting yourself with that person who you are praising as being very disciplined.)

I hope you see the pattern here. FOCUS ON the person, LISTEN to the person’s response, make connections, actively show your interest in what that person has to say and see where it takes you.

I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: www.eloquentenglish.com. I offer workshops in public speaking, self presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.

 

 

 

Can We Have a Respectful Disagreement in this Age of Trump and Brexit? We Can Try!

I’m from the USA, and, like many, am surprised over the recent election results. These results have revealed an incredible, seemingly unsurmountable divide between Americans. We got a taste of this divide in the UK with the equally shocking Brexit choice. While I can’t speak for people in the UK, I can state that people in the good old US of A have forgotten how to disagree with each other respectfully. There seems to be an insurmountable divide: Many Republicans truly believe the Democrats point the way to hell, and vice versa. There is name calling. Violence. We’re acting like fearful animals under attack.

I’ve lost a friend in this election—a woman I still believe to be thoughtful, intelligent and incisive. Initially, I tried to hold a dialogue with her: “Show me evidence that Trump’s policies are viable.” It didn’t work, and we ended up digitally yelling at each other. It doesn’t help when all of us choose the media we think has “the facts,” and state confidently that YOUR source of information is biased and unreliable.

Is there a way out of this mess? I don’t know. Below, I’ve taken some tips by consultant Judy Ringer (http://www.judyringer.com/resources/articles/being-heard-6-strategies-for-getting-your-point-across.php) that seem to make sense.

  • Stop pushing your point of view. Try and understand your conflict partner’s point of view.
  • “Don’t give in, give way,” she says. Let your conflict partner know you are willing to hear them out and to seriously consider their point of view. Show the other person empathy.
  • Offer relevant information. Don’t say things such as “Your reasoning just doesn’t make sense.” That will get the other person’s hackles up right away. Start by acknowledging their argument, summarise it, and look for the one thing you can agree upon. Try and step into that person’s shoes. Don’t try to shove your point of view up that person’s . . . nose. Try and offer information that the other person might find actually useful.
  • Once you think your conversation partner might be willing to listen to you without blowing a fuse (and vice versa), start the conversation NOT INSISTING ON WINNING, but instead TRYING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM. Maybe that person won’t be persuaded to come around to your point of view tomorrow. But maybe, out of the conversation, will come increased respect on both sides. One can only HOPE.

So. How do you communicate YOUR point of view, once you’ve heard the other person’s perspective?

  • a. Be aware that that person’s reality could be much, much different from yours. Research has shown that individuals are increasingly living in areas next to people who feel the way they do; watch the same programs that they do; and have absolutely nothing in common with people who think differently.
    b. Think of the interchange as one of mutual education, not one of blame or recrimination, and try to communicate this in a hopeful way to your conversation partner.
    c. Stay interested in the conversation. Try and understand the reasons for disagreement.
    d. Try, try to extend positive energy. I don’t know if I’d be capable of this; but it IS worth striving for!
    e. There are no guarantees. You two may end up staring at a brick wall that cannot be broken down. At least, try to end the conversation on a note of mutual respect.

What times we live in. More than ever, mutual understanding is needed to keep us sane!

I’m located in the Melbourne region. For a free session on communications and public speaking, feel free to email me for an appointment: arashap@eloquentenglish.com.

My website: www.eloquentenglish.com

Humour: Careful how you use it when giving presentations in other countries

I was attending a training session in Singapore. The audience was primarily Singaporean, with some people from the U.K. and the USA. The trainer was a friendly, blustery gentleman from the USA. He genially beamed at his audience and thought he’d start off the session with a bang.

He told a joke.

Let’s just say—his session started with a whimper. The Singaporeans stared at him, stony faced. As an American, I kind of liked the quip and snickered. The Brits smiled politely.

The lesson here: BE CAREFUL WHEN USING HUMOUR. While scholars have noted that almost every culture worldwide does recognise, appreciate and produce humour, the kind of humour that different people like varies greatly from culture to culture.

What IS humour? Charles Darwin suggested that it is a form of communication that binds people (and others) together—indeed, many of the apes engage in laughter. Freud—being Freud—thought of humour as the release of sexual or aggressive tension. Contemporary scholars note that humour happens when we are given surprising information which is resolved in a bizarre manner.1 That is true. Think of a typical sit-com or movie and how people react to a situation. It’s their strange reactions that are so funny (Mr. Bean!).

Many of us will travel to different countries and work with people from different countries. Please note: what you think is funny—others might find un-funny. Here are some quick thoughts about the use of humour cross-culturally.

  1. Share common ground. It’s easy to crack a joke or tell a humorous narrative when you and your audience share the same culture or experiences. You and they will have “insider” knowledge that will allow you to tell jokes everyone will appreciate.
  2. Clear language. Make sure you do not use ambiguous language when being humorous. Keep the language simple. And if you are giving a joke in a language that is not your mother tongue—go over the material with someone who is a native speaker of that language to make sure you do not have some unintentional bits of humour.
  3. Body language. Some cultures (France and Italy) adore physical, slapstick humour. Other cultures (Malaysia) do not.2

Below is a very unscientific list of a few countries and the type humour they exhibit. (As always with this type breakdown: this list gives generalities. Different people in different countries will exhibit a wide range of humour. No generality will work for everyone.)

  1. Australia: Not only was the country “officially founded” by British convicts, it is DANGEROUS: snakes, treacherous waters, insects—if it’s hazardous, Australia has it. Ozzies have learnt to laugh at these conditions, with “no worries!” as their rallying cry. Folks from Down Under love to throw darts at people in authority. (Criticising politicians is a national sport here.) Similar to its British counterpart, Australian humour can also be dry and ironic. Australians love to joke, and don’t separate work and play—which can confuse some Asian co-workers, who often keep both realms separate. Aussies are serious about the work they do, but are also committed to having fun at the same time.3
  2. U.K.: Many people consider the Brits to have the most astonishing sense of humour in the world. Certainly, British comedies, with their blend of slapstick, irony, and verbal wizardry, are adored worldwide. People in the U.K. love to use irony—using the meaning of a word to denote its exact opposite—which can be wrongly perceived as sarcasm (see USA, below).4

  3. USA: The humour is like the Americans themselves: straightforward and un-subtle. (While many Americans love British humour, some will mistake the famous British irony for sarcasm.) Americans will often use humour to put themselves down, which can seem strange to many Asians who come from a culture that emphasises keeping one’s dignity (“saving face”). USA humour is often aggressive, and Americans love to tell sexual jokes. (However, it is not advisable to tell off-colour jokes at a business meeting!)5

  4. People’s Republic of China: Chinese jokes can be very hard for a Westerner to fathom, in large part because of its intricate written characters: they can be read left to right, right to left, or even from top to bottom. Many jokes will play with this positioning, so this specific humour will elude even the most open-minded Westerner. The Chinese may find jokes about one’s personal life as being—well—too personal. Contemporary Chinese comedians may tell sarcastic jokes about Fu’erdai,or the ‘rich second generation’: spoiled children born of newly wealthy parents.6

If and when you find yourself in a new culture and country—listen. Learn. And soon you’ll be laughing with them, and they will be laughing with—and not at—you.

 

I am available for individual coaching:

www.eloquentenglish.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EloquentEnglish1955/?ref=bookmarks

 

 

 

1https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/culture-conscious/201205/whats-funny
2https://www.toastmasters.org/Magazine/Articles/Being-Funny-Across-Cultures
3http://www.meldmagazine.com.au/2011/09/aussie-humour/ & http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-humour
4https://www.toastmasters.org/Magazine/Articles/Being-Funny-Across-Cultures
5http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-04/06/content_321053.htm
6http://gbtimes.com/life/getting-sense-chinese-humour & http://www.expatfocus.com/c/aid=2152/articles/china/learning-to-laugh-in-china-appreciating-the-chinese-sense-of-humour/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Think of your job interview as a series of stories: Think balloons

Balloons and job interviews? Yes. All my blogs talk about the importance of storytelling and active listening in all forms of communication: “small talk” in the office, in writing science articles, and in acing that job interview.

 

When you have a job interview, you have to “show, not tell.” Never say, “I will work hard.” Blecchhh. SHOW how you work hard—and work BETTER. In other words, if the interviewer asks you a question such as “What is the most significant thing you have ever done?” he or she wants more information than “I successfully meet challenges when I’m faced with them.” Too vague!

You will want to give a story such as the one below (and this actually happened in my own professional life when I was marketing and sales director of a U.S. publishing company):

 

It was September 12 and 13, 2001. The Twin Towers had just crashed. People were devastated, but they also wanted to buy any and all available books about the Twin Towers. It just so happened that my publishing company had recently published such a book. Demand for the title was overwhelming. I was dealing with my own shock of the situation—we all were—yet I was able to work with people in production, customer service, and acquisitions to develop a production plan that would immediately meet the public need, and yet not produce too many so that we would be inundated with returns. It was a horrible time in our history, yet we had a public service to do, and we did it very well. (We ended up with very few books being returned.)

In the story, above, I illustrated how I was able to demonstrate team work, leadership under stress, both professional and emotional. THAT is the kind of story you would want to have at your disposal.

Think of these stories as brightly coloured balloons. Before the job interview, make sure you have created at least three or four of these stories. Frankly, some of the stories could be interchangeable. I could use this story to answer the question “How well do you deal with stress?” as well as “What is the most significant thing you have ever done?” Have a story ready for the following questions:

 

  • How well do you work under stress?
  • How successfully do you meet challenges?
  • What is your strong point?
  • What is your weak point?
  • How do you demonstrate leadership?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?

    (Yes, even for a question like this, have a story ready: this story should demonstrate how you have taken some job or task and made it better / more efficient. That story will show how you are always looking to improve both the work situation and yourself. Then conclude the story by tying it in to the job interview at hand: “So you can see that I am always eager to try new things, to do things in a better way. I look forward to doing this, and perhaps rising within your company.” Even if you’re pretty sure you won’t want to stay with that company, NEVER SAY that . . . always show your creative, innovative side, and how that can benefit the company you’re interested in now.)

 

So. Start thinking of stories.

SHOW, not TELL.

When the time is ripe, pull that red balloon story out of your mind and use it.

Contact me at arashap@eloquentenglish.com

See my website: www.eloquentenglish.com

 

“Be Prepared to be Amazed”: 10 Tips on Having a Great Conversation

Celeste Headlee, radio host in the USA, gave a great talk on Ted.com on how to have a better conversation:

http://www.ted.com/…/celeste_headlee_10_ways_to_have_a_bett…

If you can have an open mind and be prepared to believe that every person has a fascinating story to tell, she states, you can make almost every interaction one full of meaning and significance. She gives 10 rules to have a great conversation; here they are, paraphrased.

Think about using these tips during job interviews; during chats with your colleagues; even when you’re having fun with your friends. You never know what you’ll discover about others—and about yourself.

1) Don’t multitask. Of course you shouldn’t be texting or using your phone while having this conversation. But even more than that—BE PRESENT. BE IN THE MOMENT. Don’t be thinking about anything else.

2) Don’t pontificate—don’t talk “at” that person. If you want to just express your opinion without worrying about reciprocity—write a blog. Enter every conversation with an assumption that you want to LEARN. Really open up your mind to the other person. I come into every conversation believing that “everybody is an expert in something,” she states, “and I’ve never been disappointed.”

3) Use open-ended questions: Who, what, where, when, why, how? Ask people questions that they really have to think about. Keep the questions simple so people will give interesting, extended answers.

4) “Go with the flow.” Let your thoughts come in and then go out of your mind. Keep being present.

5) If you don’t know, SAY that you don’t know. Err on the side of caution.

6) Don’t equate your experience with theirs. For example: If a person talks about some bad situation, don’t give them YOUR bad situation. All experiences are individual. This conversation isn’t necessarily about YOU. Conversations are not meant to be your opportunity for self-promotion.

7) Do not repeat yourself; it’s condescending.

8) Ignore extraneous details—don’t worry about little details such as dates, names of others, etc. People care about YOU—the big picture you’re telling.

9) THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT—ACTIVE LISTENING. It’s the most important skill you can have. She paraphrased Buddha: If your mouth is open, you’re not listening. When you’re talking, you feel like you’re in control . . . so you continue to speak. We talk 250 words per minute, but we can listen up to 500 words per minute, so our minds are filling in those extra 275 words. It takes ENERGY to PAY ATTENTION to someone. Most of us don’t listen to the intent to UNDERSTAND. We listen with the intent to REPLY.

10) Be interested in other people. Keep your mouth shut, your mind open, and always be prepared to be amazed.

 

Feel free to email me with comments or questions: arashap@eloquentenglish.com.

My website is www.eloquentenglish.com

 

The best candidate doesn’t always win the job offer… The candidate who interviews the best does (1)

This observation is SO TRUE. I remember once, as marketing and sales director, interviewing a young lady for the position of marketing specialist. I liked her: she was dressed beautifully, obviously intelligent, asked great questions and knew how to succinctly answer questions by giving specific examples of her work career and not just spouting clichés. I was basically hooked. After the interview she said, “I have a favour to ask you. I’d like to come in tomorrow and just observe this company . . . see how it does things. I won’t get in the way, I’ll just come in for awhile and then leave.”

 

You know what? She got the job; she beat all the candidates hands down. She came to the company the next day, dressed just casually enough, and glided her way through the various departments. By the end of her hour-long stay, other departmental directors were urging me to hire her. Which I did. And which was one of the best choices I had ever made during my stint of marketing and sales director.

 

What did she do that was so great? She showed me that she wanted to observe the company—its culture, its employees, how supervisors interacted with their staff. She asked me specific questions and didn’t just consider the interview to be a platform upon which she could give an “It’s-All-About-Me!” speech.

 

In the last blog, I discussed how observing and listening are crucial skills for anyone aspiring to become a leader. These skills are just as important for your acing a job interview.  Here are some tips involving your listening and observational skills. If you do these in an interview, you WILL stand out.

 

  1. DON’T JUST GIVE CANNED, PRE-FABRICATED ANSWERS. Really listen CAREFULLY to a question. Certainly, prepare what you want to highlight about yourself days before the interview; know the points you wish to emphasize. But don’t be so eager to talk about your accomplishments that you end up giving the interviewer lots of verbiage that doesn’t even answer the question.
  2. PAY ATTENTION TO BODY LANGUAGE. Note what the interviewer is doing. Is she leaning towards you? This is a good sign. Does she have her arms crossed? Not so good. Recent psychological research has shown that mirroring someone’s body language and / or facial expressions is a way to bond with another individual, to let them know, “I am like you, and I also LIKE you.”2 Just as storytelling can actual bind the neurons of the storyteller’s brains with those of the listeners, this body-language mirroring also results in almost subconscious empathy. Of course, during a job interview, you are in a subordinate position, so don’t necessarily put your feet up on the desk if the interviewer does that! (I don’t see this as ever happening . . . but you get what I mean.)
  3. RESEARCH THE COMPANY BEFORE THE INTERVIEW. Yes, yes, doubtless you’ve heard this before, but this is crucial to your interview success. Don’t just find out the basics: what the company does, who is its CEO, CFO, etc., where its branches are located. Find out about its strengths. Weaknesses. The more you can find out about where a company is headed, the more you can persuaded the interviewer that you share the company’s goals and can contribute to its vision.
  4. ASK KICK-ASS QUESTIONS. Here’s where your research can pay off. Let’s say you’re interviewing for a position within a publishing company and you’ve read that digitization of books is impacting hard-copy books worldwide. Ask about that during the interview! For example, an observation followed with a question as the following will make the interviewer sit up and take notice:“I understand that digitization is negatively impacting sales on books in this country. Is this a concern for you; and, if so, how will you be integrating digitization within your one-year and five-year plans?”Ka-POW. You have just demonstrated your knowledge of a challenge facing this company, and you have shown a real interest in hearing how it plans to deal with it. Also, you have couched the question in a non-threatening manner. You have made the statement theoretical and general; you’re not assuming that this company’s sales have faltered (though they probably have). How could an employer not be interested in you? It’d be even better if you have read about some interesting measures that other companies have taken, and manage to bring that up in the interview.

I have met many incredibly gifted young people here in Melbourne who are struggling to find a job. Firstly, many people want to move there, as Melbourne is often voted the #1 most liveable city in the world. The result? SCADS of candidates are lining up for each job being offered. You may not like it, but just having the needed skills for a position isn’t enough to get you hired. You have to make the interviewers notice you. And how do you do this?

By showing the interviewer that YOU are noticing THEM.

 

Feel free to email me at arashap@eloquentenglish.com with questions or comments.

My website is http://www.eloquentenglish.com