When you’re in a conversation with another person or other people, do you do most of the talking? Do you wait through their stories until you can tell another–better–story of your own? Unfortunately, if this describes you, you’re like most people. But there’s a better way, and you can learn it from Bill Gates.
That advice comes from writer and cartoonist John P. Weiss. In a recent Medium post, he detailed the mistakes that most of us make when we’re having conversations and used Gates as an example of how to do it right. But first, here’s how to do it wrong.
Weiss describes sitting in a coffee shop with his sketchbook, listening to a loud conversation between two women that he couldn’t help overhearing. The first woman, whom he calls “Carole,” began by asking after her friend’s daughter. The other woman responded that the daughter was doing fine, getting tutored in math and trying out for the girls’ basketball team.
This is likely the opening Carole was hoping for when she posed her question, because she had an answer all ready:
“Our Joseph is still on the varsity football team. We went to his game last Friday night. It was terrific. Look, let me show you [pulling out her phone and scrolling through pictures of the game]. See, here he is making a touchdown. Oh, and he’s still eyeing Stanford University.”
After Carole went on a bit more about Joseph and his bright prospects, the second woman changed the subject, mentioning that she and her husband were thinking about a trip to Hawaii. Again, Carole jumped right in, this time interrupting her friend mid-sentence.
“Oh, George and I went to Hawaii last year! Remember, I showed you pictures. We rented this amazing guest house right on the beach. Now that George got a promotion at work, we’re talking about going to Italy this summer. Don’t get me wrong, Hawaii was fun, but there’s just something about Europe that’s exciting. We were going to do one of those tour groups but decided to explore on our own. Like we did when we went to Scotland last year. Did I ever tell you what happened when we visited Edinburgh?”
And on the conversation went, with Carole monopolizing the talk time and repeatedly steamrolling over her friend. The longer it went on, the more annoying Carole seemed to Weiss.
He calls it “competition disguised as conversation.” And we’ve all had those conversations and probably all made the mistake of spending our non-talking time planning out our next brilliant point rather than listening to what the other person has to say. You might stroke your own ego if you manage to make your that point or tell that story that demonstrates your own brilliance. But in general, these conversations are highly unsatisfying to everyone involved.
There’s a better way, Weiss says, and he uses Gates’ conversation with Tara Westover, author of Educated, as an example of how to do it right. In this case Gates, who’s accustomed to being interviewed, is the one interviewing Westover. He lets the conversation flow naturally, putting the focus on her. He doesn’t just sit there and ask questions, though, he makes comments about Westover’s life and book that make it clear he’s absorbed the most important points.
It’s easy to forget that earlier in his life, when he was actively running Microsoft, Gates was known for being a very different sort of conversationalist. He would regularly berate other Microsoft execs if he found flaws in their work or what they had to say. He was known to interrupt people mid-presentation with comments such as, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” If he can learn to make people feel that their ideas and stories are worth listening to, then anyone can.
Here’s some of Weiss’s advice for better conversations. (You can find the rest in his post, along with some great cartoons.)
1. Stop worrying about who’s right.
“What is it with our need to be right all the time?” Weiss asks, and it’s an excellent question. After all, in most situations, it doesn’t matter whether you convince the person you’re talking with that you’re right and he or she is wrong. And by the way, if you do want to convince someone of something, the best way to do it is to begin by asking lots of questions and giving the other person time to explain his or her point of view while you listen carefully to what that person has to say.
Doing that can only help you, as Weiss points out. “Even if you disagree, you might gain valuable insights.”
2. Be careful not to dominate the conversation.
Are you taking up too much air time with your stories and opinions? Try an exercise Weiss says he learned from his Type-A father, who learned it while trying to relax and curb his own domineering tendencies after a heart attack.
It goes like this: At some point in the evening, while you’re in the middle of a story, excuse yourself for a brief interruption. Pretend you’re getting a call and step away, go to the rest room, or flag down a waiter. After the interruption is over, wait to see if anyone asks you to continue the story. “Don’t be upset if they don’t,” Weiss’s Dad advised. “Our everyday, personal stories are not always fascinating to others.”
3. Practice give and take.
Sometimes you just have to tell a story, vent some pent-up feelings, or get something important off your chest. That’s fine. But inevitably, when you do that, you will monopolize the conversation for a time. So once you’ve had the satisfaction of telling that story or describing your rotten day or whatever it is, make a deliberate move to hand the conversation over to someone else.
Weiss suggests this simple transition: “Enough about me, what’s new with you?” That’s fine–or you can score extra points by asking someone else a question that shows you’ve been paying attention to that person’s life as well. “How does your wife like her new job?” for example.
Do that, and other people will feel noticed, appreciated, and most importantly, heard. And if you take the time to really listen to what they have to say, and ask more questions that show you are paying attention and actually care, they may eventually reciprocate and ask to hear more about you. Even better, you’ll get to learn more about them, sharing more of your lives and thoughts, and deepening your bond. Which is what good conversation is all about.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.