Getting Through to People

When meeting someone for the first time, I think people often find themselves with two conflicting feelings: one, the fear of opening up and sharing, and two, the desire to open up and share. People put up walls in order to protect themselves as an act of self preservation. But on the other hand, when given the chance, people love talking about themselves. It’s a strange duality that most people have.

But like yin and yang, although the fear and desire to share are contradictory forces, they are in-fact, interconnected. Both feelings stem from the desire to be accepted and not judged.

If you can help the others feel safe, it will be much easier to build a connection.

One of the ways to make others feel safe is by letting them know you’re not a threat. There are many ways of accomplishing this, but one of the most effective methods is by using humor.

I think Conan O’Brien is a master at connecting with people. If you watch any of his outtakes, you’ll quickly see that he can make anyone genuinely laugh and open up. The most fascinating thing about Conan is that he can do it organically and consistently.

Conan, by acting silly, shows others that he’s put down his walls and more importantly, it signals to them that it’s okay for them to let down theirs (neurologically, it’s probably because it fires off mirror neurons in the other party.)

“When you can be a representative of a country and the poorest of them get to laugh at you, because you’re ridiculous, you’re 6”4, your hair looks like a pastry, you have no color in your skin, you have no lips, don’t seem to have any testosterone, your legs are way too long, torso way too short… this is sad… but when all this comes out and they can laugh at you, it’s actually a beautiful thing.” - Conan O’Brien

Unfortunately, most of us can’t be nearly as funny as Conan. But what we can take away from him is his playbook, put your guard down and others will too.

A common piece of advice that I see people give when it comes to getting others to like them / open up to them is to ask questions. Asking questions gets the counter party to talk about themselves and signals to them that you are interested in what they have to say. Asking questions alleviates the fear of sharing due to enthusiasm not being reciprocated—which is a common fear that people have.

And although I do think asking questions works in many situations, there’s a weird meta game that develops around people who have heard that advice before (which nowadays, is many people.) These people are aware that others are trying to get them to open up and for whatever reason, try to resist. When I’m in conversation with these sort of people, I flip the strategy - instead of just asking questions, I talk about myself. It might be counterintuitive to the “don’t talk about yourself” advice, but again, it signals to the other person that it’s okay to talk about themselves. In some situations, when you talk about yourself, you impose on them a sort of “debt,” they feel that they have to share something because you did.

Getting through to people is like a boxing match. You’re jabbing to figure out their defense by asking a question, seeing how they react, talking about yourself, see how they react, so on and so forth until you figure out their defense and get through.

Sometimes you can’t get through or that person doesn’t want to open up for whatever reason, and that’s fine.