When I was first dating my future wife, we went to an event that required us to go through a metal detector. The guard stopped me and our exchange went like this:
Guard: "Hey. You and her--are you together?"
Me: "Together? I mean, things are going well, but I don't want to put a label on it."
Future wife (laughing): "OMG. He wants to know if he can put our jackets in the same bin."
I admit it: I'm an over-thinker. Are you? If you had been there, would you have laughed? Or would you have thought: "Gosh, that could totally have been me?"
I'd like to know your answer, but I'd also like to explain the reasoning behind the "You and her together?" story, which I've told more times and to more people than I can remember.
The story is arranged around a series of tricks that emotionally intelligent people use to spark good, comfortable conversations with almost anyone.
It's like a series of anti-awkwardness techniques. If we deconstruct the story, it has five key attributes.
1. It makes the audience a character in the story, by asking permission and setting expectations. ("Can I tell you a story? You might like it.")
2. It gets straight to the point. In fact, the story as I tell it now is probably half as long as it used to be.
3. It displays mild self-deprecation. The theme is about my doing something silly, and showing a flaw. But it's mild; not something controversial.
4. It makes people laugh. I mean, most people do. It's kind of funny.
5. It ends with an invitation. Those questions ("Are you?" If you had been there ...?") are designed to leverage emotions and to provoke a reply--in other words, to keep the conversation going.
I know this seems calculated. But it's all about using emotional intelligence to flip the switch, and turn the nervousness, self-consciousness, and fear that many people feel during awkward conversations into amusement, contentment, and even pride.
Now, emotionally intelligent people don't just go around telling the same stories over and over. But they do have other go-to tricks and even memorized phrases that are designed to do similar things.
Here are some of the others that I've compiled, both from my own experience and from discussing these techniques with others. We'll pick up where we left off:
6. Create interest, by asking for help.
Example: "I wonder if you can give me some advice ..."
Ben Franklin wrote about it more than 200 years ago: People are hard-wired to want to be helpful. Emotionally intelligent people realize that suggesting that someone can help means you think they either have or know something you don't. That creates interest, and even an ego-boost.
7. Stimulate memory, by asking for descriptions.
Example: "Tell me, how did you get your ...?"
How did you get your job? How did you get your house? How did you get that tattoo on your shoulder? Fill in the blank with whatever works for you in the situation. As long as the other person is willing to play along, there's almost always a story.
8. Inspire passion, by asking for experience.
Example: "Can you tell me more about ..."
Why you believe in X? How you met your spouse? Why you decided to buy a Tesla (or not)? Actually, maybe skip the Tesla question; that's become too political. The point is to get the other person thinking and talking about something he or she experienced deeply.
9. Create familiarity, by making positive comparisons.
Example: "You know, you remind me of ..."
I like to pause with this one, and let the person's imagination run wild for a moment. Who do I remind him of? A movie star? An athlete? The all-purpose positive way to complete this sentence is something like, "... one of my good friends from high school; you both have the same great sense of humor."
10. Create comity, by admitting mild flaws.
Example: "I make this mistake all the time ..."
The "You and her together" story leverages this, but it can also be created more simply without the story. Your hope is that the other person will feel a mild sense of relief, because they do the same thing, too. Strength in numbers, and you're leveraging positive emotions.
11. Inspire pride, by asking for details.
Example: "I heard that you have a great story about ..."
Or else, "I've heard that you're good at ..." Not everyone likes talking about themselves, but here you've created a conversation starter that doubles as a compliment. It works.
12. Spark connection and interest, by making introductions in a specific way.
Example: "Let me introduce you to Sally; she's really good at ..."
Now, of course you have to actually have another person at the ready for this to work. But, I love this kind of phrase: You're making connections, you're paying at least one compliment, and you're suggesting a topic of conversation.
13. Inspire positive emotional memories and opinions.
Example: "What's your favorite thing about ...?"
This school that our kids go to? Summers in New England? That TV show everyone is talking about? The fact that you use a word like "favorite" suggests positive emotions, and the way you're asking this question should likely be interpreted as an open-ended invitation for a real response. Highly emotionally intelligent.
14. Spark curiosity and bemusement.
Example: "I'm 67.4 percent confident that ..."
I find that suggesting an unlikely precise degree of confidence in anything prompts further conversation, even if it's clear that the super-precise number is just intended to make a point, people respond. The phrase inspires either a bit of incredulity or playfulness.
15. Inspire pride of accomplishment.
Example: "I took your suggestion ..."
This one also assumes a previous interaction. But, if you can ask someone's opinion and later show that the person's advice affected your life positively, you're stringing together two of the most gratifying experiences of the humanity.
16. Spark the search for superlatives.
Example: "What was the most interesting thing that happened?"
What was the most fun thing at school? What was the most surprising thing you learned at lunch? No matter what you ask here, you inspire the other person's emotions, as he or she about what impressed them, and also considers how to tell the story.
17. Spark the use of multiple senses.
Example: "What would it look like if it had been a movie?"
No matter what you're asking about -- how did a meeting go? How was the drive on the way in? What was the party like? -- the great thing about phrasing a question like this is that it encourages thinking in multiple senses: sight, hearing, maybe taste, touch, or smell. If you're thinking about the color of the table or the smell of the food, you're thinking a little less about being nervous and having an awkward conversation.
If you've read this far, you probably find the whole subject as interesting as I do.
As I describe in my free e-book 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence, emotional intelligence isn't just about developing empathy or being nice to people.
Instead, it's about leveraging how emotions affect your communications to help you achieve your goals. And having fewer awkward conversations seems like a worthy goal to me.