We’ve all been there, right? The awkwardness of walking into a room full of people we barely know – people who intimidate us, make us feel inferior, or maybe who we just really want to impress. It’s hard to know how to make a good impression (let alone pull off that intelligent-but-unassuming look). Luckily for us, though, psychology has some advice on how to do just that.
It comes from renowned economist, leadership coach, and author (How to Have a Good Day) Caroline Webb, who uses behavioral economics, psychology, and neuroscience to teach people how to be more effective at life. And I mean, who couldn’t use that kind of advice every once in while?
In order to get started, it’s important to understand what she calls the “two-system brain.” Basically that our minds operate on both deliberate and automatic levels all at once, and while the latter affects the way we subconsciously engage in conversation, it’s the deliberate system that can change our social interactions…if we can figure out how to tap into it.
“Our deliberate systems are fabulously intelligent, but there are limitations on what they can do. They can only process a certain amount of information at any given time. We’re constantly subconsciously filtering out an enormous amount of what’s around us to focus our little bit of conscious attention on just a few things. That means we’re constantly missing a ton of signals, a ton of stuff that’s going on around us. We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Her advice is to first do your best to avoid indulging in negative stereotypes and judgments when entering into a conversation. Otherwise, you’ll only notice cues that confirm what you already believe to be true. Following that, she has three main tips:
1. Be interested in the other person
If you work hard enough, you will be able to find something interesting about the other person, but to do so, you’ll have to prime your own genuine curiosity. There is more than one study that suggests curious people have better relationships, connect more fully, and generally enjoy socializing more – not to mention the fact that others find curious folks more attractive, as well.
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As George Mason psychologist Todd Kashdan says in his book, “Being interested is more important in cultivating a relationship and maintaining a relationship than being interesting; that’s what gets the dialogue going. It’s the secret juice of relationships.”
Which is kind of a gross way to put it, but we get the point.
2. Focus on the rewards, not the threats
Webb claims that our brains are constantly scanning our surroundings for both rewards and potential threats. But if you’re too focused on defending against threats, your mind is dealing with negative stress, which she says makes you dumber:
Being nervous about someone that you’re meeting is potentially going to make you less intelligent and less interesting.
But if you focus on the potential rewards of such a conversation, you brain will be more focused and confident. So maybe it all really is in your head.
3. Ask genuine questions
It’s no great secret that people love to talk about themselves, but you might not realize that by asking them questions that allow them to do just that, you become the more interesting person instead of the other way around. According to Webb:
What’s interesting now is that science is coming in and explaining, ‘Why is it that someone thinks you’re so amazing when you ask them a question about their views on a topic? Why do people love that so much?’ It’s inherently rewarding for their brains. That is a great associate for them to have [about you], that you’re a curious and open-minded person.
None of this means that you can phone in your questions and tune out, though. People can tell the difference between quality questions and lazy ones, ones that get at the heart of who they are as opposed to the veneer they present to the public.
So the next time you’re socializing, make sure to tune in, listen actively, and ask great follow-up questions. Before you know it, everyone will be standing around waiting to talk to you.
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