Not everyone can be interesting. It’s a lot of work. It’s harder work still when the audience is intolerant or wickedly intelligent. There have been times in my life, and surely yours, when I’ve been in the presence of one of those people with superhuman minds who appeared to find me slow-witted. My wits actually feel like they are shriveling as it’s happening.
But we can all be interested. And the fruits of that one skill are immense.
Being interested in others is like social fertilizer. We are social beings, and the more connected we are with others, the healthier our existence. The opposite is also true. Loneliness and social isolation are the equivalent of a disease condition. And they are sad conditions, both to experience and to behold. The older we get, the greater the risk. We lose friends for various reasons, including death. It’s also harder to make friends because that requires energy and time. We run low.
Then there’s benevolent reciprocity. Being interested in others is a gift you give someone which normally comes back to you multifold. Some people know this, either instinctively or because they’ve made it a personal practice. Those are the people who have bountiful social lives. Also the great salespeople. They know it. It can make them rich. Dale Carnegie knew it too. One of the most famous books ever written is his 1936 durable classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. He wrote, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
If memory serves me, Carnegie told a story in his book of merely listening to a new acquaintance for a long period, and asking an occasional question but mostly just showing silent interest by listening. Afterward, the new acquaintance raved about Carnegie being a fascinating person.
This quote, by someone I’d never heard of before, is another variation:
“The true spirit of conversation consists more in bringing out the cleverness of others than in showing a great deal of it yourself; he who goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased with you.”
— Jean de La Bruyère, “Of Society and Conversation”, The “Characters” of Jean de La Bruyère
In my line of work (writing) interviewing is one of the primary skills. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people. Most of them, I think, enjoyed the process.
That’s because the enjoyment of being asked questions is rooted in traits we all have in common. We all want to feel valued and appreciated. We all want to have the opportunity to tell our story. And if another human shows patient interest in that story, the connection is powerful. Do it consistently, and the power grows.
It works at home too. Research done by The Gottman Institute (the gurus of couples therapy) shows, and I quote from a recent email they sent, “you can apply the same principles to build better relationships with your spouse, your siblings, your children, your boss — anyone who plays a significant role in your life.”
If showing interest is really just asking questions, why do so few of us do it?
The default position for millions and probably billions of people is to be self-focused and disinterested, or barely interested, in others. To not be curious. To not want to know or learn from others. To talk about oneself instead, no matter how devoid of insight and steeped in tiny details that talk might be. I don’t know about you, but I can’t shake the low-level sadness I feel when people I’ve known for years, family or not, fail endlessly to show genuine interest — to ask questions. It can be this simple: How are you feeling these days? What have you been thinking about? I remember you did [this] a while back. How did that turn out for you? What’s changing for you these days?
(I must reiterate that questions are just the first step; listening is the next. To toss out a question then not listen to the reply is a sort of smarmy bait-and-switch, like not honoring an implicit pact.)
Showing interest is easy and risk-free. We could almost do it as a form of social hygiene, like brushing our teeth. We could imagine those questions, or other short open-ended questions, as existing on mental cue cards that we pull out of our pockets automatically when seeing a friend or family member after having not seen them for a while. Personal inquiries really say, “I value you. I want to know about you. I want to know about you more than I want to talk about me.”
Asking questions and showing interest is also the path to better conversations. Conversing is another skill worthy of honing at any stage of life, and especially this one if we’ve been lax all our lives. (This will give you a head start.)
Can we fake interest? I think so, at least for a while, as we practise the skill of interest (should ours be flaccid).
But faking interest is a temporary measure that has to be done with the intent of actually being interested in other people. If not, you will eventually be exposed. Most of us are not skilled actors who can fake interest forever. And to be seen as feigning — eyes darting, attention promiscuous — is to be seen as a minor fraud. You can expect the opposite of friendship with the person experiencing your disingenuousness.
My wife, who roams the terrain of human psychology as a professional, tells me frequently that, with the exception of love, almost all of us seek one thing in life above all: meaningful engagement. From what I’ve been learning about this stage of life — the freedom-from-working-full-time-in-later-life stage — being meaningfully engaged, or not, is often what separates those who are having a good time and those who are not.
And if we want to be meaningfully engaged with people, few tools can help with the job as well as genuine interest fueled by questions, that lead to answers, that lead to more engagement.
Matthew, the apparent author of the section in the Bible that bears that name, is said to have said, “seek, and ye shall find.” Another ancient, Socrates, who knew the primacy of questions, might have said, “Ask and ye shall thrive.”