Caroline Webb, the renowned economist, leadership coach, and author of How to Have a Good Day, has helped hundreds of organizations be more effective through behavioral economics, psychology, and neuroscience.
In a recent interview with award-winning podcaster David Burkus, she gave some keen scientific insights behind what makes people better at connecting with others in new social situations. More on that below.
First, it's important to know what's going on in our brains. Webb says we have a "two-system brain" -- the "deliberate system" and the "automatic system." The latter is largely subconscious and what we normally use in conversation. It's the deliberate system that's a game changer if we know how to tap into it.
Here's what we need to know to master the deliberate system, as explained by Webb:
[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.
To get the full benefit of the functioning of our deliberate system, your first order of priority is to steer clear of the negative stereotypes and judgments so many of us go into at first glance. "If you go into a conversation and you're thinking, 'Oh, this person looks like a jerk,'" states Webb, "then what your brain is going to make sure you notice is everything that confirms that they are, indeed, a jerk. That's confirmation bias."
3 Keys to Being Super Interesting in Conversation
First of all, there's one prerequisite to kick-start your deliberate system on the way to a great conversation: "It really helps to think, 'What are my intentions as I go into this conversation?' Whatever is top-of-mind for you will shape what your brain decides to notice," says Webb.
"If you do that, you're less likely to notice the things that are annoying, or the awkwardness that you feel. And you're much more likely to notice the nugget of super-interestingness that is in that person. That is a fantastic foundation for rapport," states Webb.
That brings us to our first item.
1. Be interested in the other person
Webb says we need to be determined to find something interesting about the other person, something that you may have heard in the conversation that may be a fascinating fact or idea that you can follow up on with interesting questions of your own.
This means activating the genuine curiosity within you.
Several studies suggest that curious people have better relationships, connect better, and enjoy socializing more. In fact, other people are more easily attracted and feel socially closer to individuals that display curiosity.
George Mason University psychologist Todd Kashdan, author of Curious?, states in Greater Good that "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."
2. Focus on the rewards, not the threats
Webb says one limitation in our brain is that it's constantly scanning the immediate surroundings for "rewards to discover and possible threats to defend against."
If your brain is only focused on the threats (a defensive mechanism), you're taking on negative stress in the moment, which makes you dumber. Webb says, "Being nervous about someone that you're meeting is potentially going to make you less intelligent and less interesting."
On the flip side, the brain finds self-worth and social standing the most rewarding. Even if you're nervous, Webb says being determined to find something interesting or fascinating in the conversation "gets your brain more focused on rewards than threats."
3. Ask genuine questions
It's not a secret: People love to talk about themselves. So let them. By drawing attention to them and their story, you ultimately become the interesting one (with some serious active listening skills involved, of course). Here's Webb:
What's interesting now is that the 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 association for them to have [about you,] that you're a curious and open-minded person.
When asking questions, quality counts. If you're starting with the quintessential (and boring) conversational starters "What do you do?" and "Where are you from?" (which Webb says don't get to people's motivations or emotions), make sure to follow up with much more compelling questions and real attention-grabbers: "Oh, what made you choose to live there?" and "What is it that you most like about the job that you do?"
Bringing it home
By taking the initiative and making the conversation about the other person, you train the deliberate system in your brain to be activated in new social situations. This selfless act of shining the spotlight on someone else first gives you the edge -- making you the more interesting person in the room.