So one of our readers asked us this question the other day: What’s the biggest mistake that people often make in interactions with others? I would love to see some thoughts on our typical social habits and “how it works”.

We thought this question would be better answered in the advice section, so here it is.

01. One of the biggest mistakes people make is not understanding body language. Noticing if people want to be talked to, or want to be left alone. Noticing when groups are inviting, and when groups are not inviting. This can all be seen simply by looking at body language.

02. Bringing your insecurities to a completely new situation where nothing has really happened to warrant them. This usually turns the other person off or at the very least treat you like an insecure person for no reason other than the fact that you’re acting like one.

03. Zero humor. Sure, some things are serious and humor would be in bad taste, but in normal conversation, if a laugh can be shared, it’s a positive experience. If all you can think of in terms of humor is something mean, your best bet is avoid trying to be funny. Nobody wants to talk to someone they’re afraid is going to hurt their feelings for a laugh. My dad said something that stuck with me. “Never make fun of a person’s smile or laugh; they will never want to do either around you.”

04. Not realizing when another person is uncomfortable.

05. Only talking about themselves (the one everyone hates but never tells them), not having your own opinion on things and not listening. If you’re really listening to someone there are always things to ask/tell for a proper conversation. Whatever it might be about.

Office Talk

06. Many people do not consider the perspective of the other person. Not noticing body language, overestimating the importance of small mistakes, bringing in insecurities, only talking about yourself, etc are symptoms of that. All those can be solved by being more thoughtful about the interaction from the other person’s perspective (and less wrapped up in your own head about yours). How can you make the other person ‘feel good’ by interacting with you? Make that the goal and everything will make more sense.

07. This is typical in group situations. Answering questions asked of others. By this I mean, people often ask questions of someone for reasons other than simply learning the answer. For example, one may ask a question to bring someone into the conversation, or to allow that person to speak from a position of knowledge and authority and thus create a basis for a positive relationship, etc. People with poor social skills sometimes think that the purpose of all questions is to learn the answers to those questions, to exchange information. So, they may interject in order to provide the answer more quickly or (in their minds) more concisely or completely. If you do this, you come off looking like an a*s, not looking smart, as you may think.

08. Guiding the conversation. Ever had a conversation with someone where everything seemed to flow, where you jumped from one good topic to the next, barely noticing the transitions as they happened? Now contrast that with a bad conversation, one where you tried to make it work but the other person gave you nothing. The difference is massive. Many people think conversation is a natural skill that can’t be learned. That’s not true. It can be learned, practiced and honed. Empathy is key here; set the other person up to look good. How?

Think of conversations as a game, where Player A makes says one thing (e.g., “I’m going to NYC next weekend”) and Player B says the next thing. You’re Player B. You can respond in different ways (1) ask why they’re going to NYC, (2) share a story about the last time you’ve been there, (3) change the topic. Now, if your goal is to set up Player A to feel good about the interaction, what is the best response of those three? The key here is to think one or two steps ahead each time (if I say X, where does that lead the conversation), always trying to set up the other person to have a good response and be able to continue the conversation by avoiding paths that lead to dead ends.

09. Finding their passion. If you want to connect more deeply with someone, figure out what they’re passionate about and get them to open up about it. Most people have at least one topic that they can ‘geek out’ about. If you show a genuine interest in this and set them up to share their passion with you, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to make a meaningful connection with someone.

10. Misunderstanding the purpose of “small talk.” I have friends with poor social skills who say they ‘hate’ small talk, and find it pointless. I suspect some even consider themselves superior to people who engage in ‘pointless chatter’.

They misunderstand the point of small talk is not explicitly in what is discussed, but in the subtext. The subtext of nearly all small talk between strangers is essentially: “hey person who is externally different than me: we are fundamentally the same! We are both people that experience life in the same ways. You’re one way, I’m a different way; but there’s many ways in which we experience life that are similar.”

“Some weather we’re having.”
“Yeah, boy, it sure got cold quick.”

This is not an exchange of information about the weather; it is two humans drawing closer by emphasizing that both of their lives are impacted simultaneously by forces outside their control, and secondarily that they live in the same geographical area.

“Just got back from a few days in West Texas.”
“Oh, I drove through Lubbock a few years back. Real good brisket.”
“Yeah! It’s amazing, right?”

Oh, you and I have different clothes, hair, and religious beliefs; but we’ve had a similar experience to which we reacted a similar way.

“Did you catch the game this weekend?”
“Man, what a finish!”
We’ve never met before, but we both invest in sports as a way to safely express emotion in a public space by using the triumphs and heartbreaks of athletic competition as a proxy for our experience; and we both experienced those same feelings together yesterday, even though we hadn’t even met.

Advanced examples:
“Did you catch the game this weekend?”
“Oh, gotta tell you: I’m a Giants fan.”
“No! That’s criminal! How can you support those bastards!?”
“Well my grandpa was a fan, he passed it down to me”
OR
“well, growing up, I never followed sports. But one day I decided to follow baseball, and I fell in love with the game. Lived in San Fransisco at the time..”

You and I like different teams, but we both like teams and so are the same.

“Have you ever listened to the NPR show The Moth?”
“No, I never have. Should I check it out?”

Person two is saying: even though we can’t bond over this shared experience, even though we’ve only just met, I trust you with my time and attention. I’m interested in things you find important and take you seriously.

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Advice, Fact List,

Last Update: July 4, 2016

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