The Sci­ence of Awk­ward Mo­ments

Reader's Digest (India) - - Contents - MARY LOF­TUS

Strate­gies to help you nav­i­gate life’s sticky sit­u­a­tions.

The key to han­dling in­ter­ac­tions with grace: an­tic­i­pat­ing the other per­son’s point of view (of­ten be­fore he knows it him­self)

used iPod. An ex­am­ple of a gen­eral ques­tion is “What can you tell me about it?” A pos­i­tive-as­sump­tion ques­tion is “There aren’t any prob­lems with it, right?” But a neg­a­tive-as­sump­tion ques­tion such as “What prob­lems have you had with it?” will get the most hon­est re­sponse, found Min­son and col­leagues.

In a study that set up a fake sales in­ter­ac­tion, 87 per­cent of the sell­ers alerted the buyer to prob­lems when asked a neg­a­tive-as­sump­tion ques­tion ver­sus 59 per­cent of those re­spond­ing to a pos­i­tive-as­sump­tion query and 10 per­cent of those res- pond­ing to a gen­eral one.

When you want the un­var­nished truth, you have to ask for it: What me­chan­i­cal prob­lems does this car have? What are the worst parts of this job? How many peo­ple with my kind of ill­ness have been suc­cess­fully treated? What are their re­lapse rates? Your ques­tions should com­mu­ni­cate that you as­sume there will be dif­fi­cul­ties and draw­backs and that you want to know about them.

How to: Frame Crit­i­cism

No one likes be­ing told he is do­ing some­thing wrong, which means that even “con­struc­tive crit­i­cism” is usu­ally re­ceived with de­fen­sive­ness. That’s why Den­ver psy­chol­o­gist Su­san Heitler—a founder of poweroft­womar­, a web­site fo­cused on build­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills—rec­om­mends feed­back that “skips the com­plain­ing and goes straight to the ex­plain­ing.”

For in­stance, while cook­ing, don’t say to your hus­band, “That’s not the way to sauté. It will dry out the pota­toes.” In­stead, of­fer help­ful ad­vice such as “My grandma taught me three tips for keep­ing sautéed pota­toes soft and yummy: Start with

your pota­toes and onions in a hot skil­let, keep adding small amounts of but­ter, and keep stir­ring un­til the onions are translu­cent.”

For par­ents, the same ap­proach ap­plies to home­work and chores. Choose en­cour­ag­ing state­ments over stern com­mands, and say what you’d pre­fer your child do rather than what she has not done or has done in­cor­rectly. Say “I’d love to see your play­room cleaned up by this weekend so you and your friends can have fun there” in­stead of “This place is a mess! What have you been do­ing? You haven’t picked up one thing. No one is com­ing over this weekend un­til this room is spot­less.”

How to: Thrive at a Party

It’s hard to be­lieve, but even the world’s most brazen co­me­di­ans (Chris Rock) and pow­er­ful lead­ers (for­mer Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Gor­don Brown) ad­mit to be­ing shy when they’re not per­form­ing or giv­ing speeches. (“At a din­ner party, you want to sit next to me,” Rock’s wife, Malaak Comp­ton-Rock, once said.) They’re in good com­pany: Forty per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion falls into that cat­e­gory, says Bernardo Car­ducci, di­rec­tor of the Shy­ness Re­search In­sti­tute at Indiana Univer­sity South­east.

Car­ducci con­sid­ers small talk the “cor­ner­stone of ci­vil­ity” be­cause it paves the way for big­ger con­ver­sa­tions. His pocket guide to so­cial dis­course, How to Talk to Any­one Any­time Any­where About Any­thing, sug­gests you seek out a prop (like a wine­glass) or act as a host by in­tro­duc­ing peo­ple Here are his four car­di­nal rules for eas­ier con­ver­sa­tion: 1) Be nice but not nec­es­sar­ily bril­liant; 2) keep your open­ing lines sim­ple, and think about your in­tro­duc­tion be­fore­hand (your name and a lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about your­self

that might serve as con­ver­sa­tion kin­dling later); 3) join con­ver­sa­tions that are al­ready in progress by elab­o­rat­ing on the topic of dis­cus­sion or in­tro­duc­ing new topics, per­haps from cur­rent events; and 4) end by say­ing, “There’s some­one I have to speak with, but it was re­ally nice meet­ing you.”

Don’t make the mis­take of stay­ing on one sub­ject for too long. It’s called small talk for a rea­son. Think con­ver­sa­tional hors d’oeu­vres, with each topic sam­pled and savoured.

How to: Ac­ceptp a Com­pli­ment

When asked, nearly ev­ery­one says the proper re­sponse to a com­pli­ment is “Thank you.” But when ac­tu­ally given a com­pli­ment, only a third of peo­ple ac­cept it so sim­ply and smoothly, found lin­guist Robert Herbert of Bing­ham­ton Univer­sity in Bing­ham­ton, New York.

The dif­fi­culty lies in the fact that a com­pli­ment (“What a nice sweater!”) has two lev­els: a gift com­po­nent (ac­cept or re­ject) and a con­tent com­po­nent (agree or dis­agree). The re­cip­i­ent is con­fronted with a dilemma—how to re­spond si­mul­ta­ne­ously to both: “I must agree with the speaker and thank him for the gift of a com­pli­ment while avoid­ing self-praise.”

Con­trary to con­ven­tional wis­dom, women aren’t worse than men at ac­cept­ing com­pli­ments. It is the gen­der of the com­pli­ment giver that most influences the re­sponse. Women and men are both more likely to ac­cept a com­pli­ment com­ing from a man woman. When a man says, “Nice scarf,” a woman is more likely to re­spond af­fir­ma­tively: “Thanks. My sis­ter knit­ted it for me.”

But when one woman tells another, “That’s a beau­ti­ful sweater,” the re­cip­i­ent is likely to de­mur or de­flect: “It was on sale at Wal­mart, and they didn’t even have the colour I wanted.” Such a re­sponse, in­tended to make the com­pli­menter feel that the re­cip­i­ent isn’t overly proud, only makes her feel awk­ward or in­val­i­dated in­stead. Bet­ter to make a rel­e­vant, re­lated com­ment (“Thanks. It’s my favourite too”).

And noth­ing tops smil­ing, look­ing

the com­pli­menter in the eye, and sim­ply say­ing, “Thank you.”

How to: Apol­o­gize

Sorry, my mis­take. It won’t hap­pen again. Please for­give me. If such words come eas­ily to you, you’re lucky. Most of us have to steel our­selves to apol­o­gize, some­times be­cause it feels as if we were fully jus­ti­fied in our of­fend­ing be­hav­iour, other times be­cause it is so hu­mil­i­at­ing to ad­mit that we weren’t.

It turns out that the words you ut­ter when apol­o­giz­ing are less im­por­tant than the act of apol­o­giz­ing it­self. So­cial psy­chol­o­gist Steven Scher of East­ern Illi­nois Univer­sity has iden­ti­fied five main el­e­ments of apolo­gies: 1) a sim­ple ex­pres­sion of re­gret (“I’m sorry,” “I apol­o­gize,” or “Ex­cuse me”); 2) an ex­pla­na­tion or ac­count of the cause that brought about the vi­o­la­tion (“I for­got to call you the other day with the in­for­ma­tion”); 3) an ex­pres­sion of the speaker’s re­spon­si­bil­ity for the of­fense (“What I did was wrong”); 4) a prom­ise of for­bear­ance (“I prom­ise noth­ing like this will hap­pen again”); and 5) an of­fer of re­pair (“What can I do to make it up to you?”). Em­ploy­ing any of th­ese strate­gies is bet­ter than us­ing has found, and the ef­fects can be ad­di­tive—the more

com­po­nents you in­clude in the apol­ogy, the bet­ter. Per­haps most im­por­tant, make it gen­uine: In­sin­cere apolo­gies can be worse than none at all, found psy­chol­o­gist Jeanne Zech­meis­ter and col­leagues at Chicago’s Loy­ola Univer­sity.

How to: Dole Out Praise

Kind words can be pow­er­ful mo­ti­va­tors—but only if you praise the right things. Prais­ing some­one’s abil­ity to work hard is more ef­fec­tive than gush­ing about how bril­liant she is. Re­search shows that kids who are praised for their in­tel­li­gence do not try as hard on fu­ture tasks. “Be­ing praised for ef­fort or other as­pects of per­for­mance di­rectly un­der your con­trol leads to re­silience, while be­ing praised for be­ing smart or for other in­nate abil­i­ties can lead to feel­ings of help­less­ness or self­doubt when a set­back oc­curs,” says psy­chol­o­gist Heidi Grant Halvor­son, as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor of the Mo­ti­va­tion Sci­ence Center at Columbia Univer­sity.

How praise is de­liv­ered counts as much as what gets praised. Praise should be spe­cific and sin­cere—and given gen­er­ously, es­pe­cially at the of­fice. Work­ers asked to learn a task per­formed bet­ter the next day if they had been praised at the end of the pre­vi­ous day, say Ja­panese re­searchers. To the brain, re­ceiv­ing a com­pli­ment is as much a so­cial re­ward as be­ing given money.

How to: Per­suade Oth­ers

Our po­lar­ized po­lit­i­cal cli­mate might sug­gest that no one can be per­suaded to any­thing; ev­ery­one has

al­ready made up his or her mind. But if that were true, there would be no sales­men, lawyers, or ther­a­pists. In fact, each day, many of us have to per­suade peo­ple to buy into some­thing they might not oth­er­wise con­sider.

When you want to change some­one’s mood, mind, or will­ing­ness to act, don’t ask your­self, “How can I win this ar­gu­ment?” In­stead, ask, “How can I win agree­ment with­out anger?” ad­vises rhetoric ex­pert Jay Hein­richs, au­thor of Thank You for Ar­gu­ing: What Aris­to­tle, Lin­coln, and Homer Simp­son Can Teach Us About the Art of Per­sua­sion. Fig­ure out what you want, and then go about get­ting it.

“Never de­bate the un­de­bat­able,” he says. “In­stead, fo­cus on goals.” Con­trol the mood with vol­ume, tone, sto­ries. Watch for persuadable mo­ments. And most im­por­tant, be agree­able—ex­press sim­i­lar­i­ties and shared val­ues; show peo­ple that you have their best in­ter­ests, as well as your own, at heart. (You’d say, “You may not agree with _____, but do you re­ally want Big Brother de­cid­ing what we can and can’t do in our pri­vate lives?”)

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