Let's say you're in a meeting with someone and you're discussing a new project. There's an easy way to see if the person is paying attention, interested in the topic, and supportive of you and your role at a company. It's based on some brain science related to sustained attention span (which runs eight seconds, per a recent study, and is going down).
Now, before I explain the trick to telling if someone is a jerk, here's my theory about how this all works. Jerks don't pay attention. The guy in the office who wants to get ahead won't care what you say about the new Web designs; he is only interested in a promotion. The accounting rep who has anger management issues is not going to listen to any of your management ideas.
Jerks are self-focused. They reveal their own inner thoughts without even realizing it. You can sense they don't want to partake in a conversation, brainstorm about ideas, or do anything but advance their own cause.
Every conversation is one way. Their way.
With someone you've just met, it can be hard to judge whether those inner motivations for self-advancement are present. Maybe the person who just took over your department is perfectly nice but a little distracted or missed the free office lunch.
Yet my trick works because many people, even when they are having a bad day, still have the basic building blocks of empathy and concern.
Jerks are always jerks... at least until they figure out how to change. People who are kind almost always pass this simple test.
The trick is to pause for five solid seconds during any conversation. Honestly, as someone who has tried this many times, it's an eternity. You could solve world peace in those few awkward moments of silence. Over and over, when I pause like this, the people who are kind and supportive, paying attention, interested in what I have to say, will interject something into the chat to make sure we're still connecting.
Kind people in the office won't let that eternity of silence pass unnoticed. The test works because the jerks in the office--the ones who don't really care what you have to say--will pull out their phone and check email, stare off into space, look at you funny, or just let the seconds pass. Most of the time, they will signal to you that the conversation is over, even though you've signaled to them that you are simply waiting for more feedback.
We pay attention to what we're interested in, and if you find that someone is not tracking with a conversation again and again, they won't respond to that awkward pause.
It's absolutely amazing to me. The five-second rule works for jerks. And food.
Will you try it? Insert a pause to see how people respond. I've love to find out how it all goes for you, and if you notice who is showing empathy and who is a crusty jerk.