An Easy Way to Become a Good Conversationalist

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I was recently invited to a bridge party. Personally, I don’t play bridge—and there was a blonde there who didn’t play bridge either. She had discovered that I had once been Lowell Thomas’ manager before he went on the radio, that I had travelled in Europe a great deal while helping him prepare the illustrated travel talks he was then delivering. So she said: “Oh, Mr. Carnegie, I do want you to tell me about all the wonderful places you have visited and the sights you have seen.”

As we sat down on the sofa, she remarked that she and her husband had recently returned from a trip to Africa. “Africa!” I exclaimed. “How interesting! I always wanted to see Africa, but I never got there except for a twenty-four-hour stay once in Algiers. Tell me, did you visit the big-game country? Yes? How fortunate! I envy you! Do tell me about Africa.”

That was good for forty-five minutes. She never again asked me where I had been or what I had seen. She didn’t want to hear me talk about my travels. All she wanted was an interested listener, so she could expand her ego and tell about where she had been.

Was she unusual? No. Many people are like that.

For example, I recently met a distinguished botanist at a dinner party given by J. W. Greenberg, the New York book publisher. I had never talked to a botanist before, and I found him fascinating. I literally sat on the edge of my chair and listened while he spoke of hashish and Luther Burbank and indoor gardens and told me astonishing facts about the humble potato. I have a small indoor garden of my own — and he was good enough to tell me how to solve some of my problems.

As I said, we were at a dinner party, There must have been a dozen other guests there; but I violated all the canons of courtesy, ignored everyone else, and talked for hours to the botanist.

Midnight came. I said good night to everyone and departed. The botanist then turned to our host and paid me several flattering compliments. I was “most stimulating”. I was this and I was that; and he ended up by saying I was a “most interesting conversationalist”.

An interesting conversationalist? I? Why, I had said hardly anything at all. I couldn’t have said anything if I had wanted to without changing the subject, for I don’t know any more about botany than I know about the anatomy of a penguin. But I had done this: I had listened intently. I had listened because I was genuinely interested. And he felt it. Naturally that pleased him. That kind of listening is one of the highest compliments we can pay to anyone. “Few human beings,” wrote Jack Woodford in Strangers in Love, “few human beings are proof against the implied flattery of rapt attention.” I went even farther than giving him rapt attention. I was “hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise”.

I told him I had been immensely entertained and instructed—and I had. I told him I wished that I had his knowledge—and I do. I told him that I should love to wander the fields with him—and I should. I told him I must see him again-—and I must.

And so I had him thinking of me as a good conversationalist when, in reality, I had been merely a good listener and encouraged him to talk.

 

What is the secret, the mystery, of a successful business interview? Well, according to that genial scholar Charles W. Eliot, “there is no mystery about successful business intercourse. . . . Exclusive attention to the person who is speaking to you is very important. Nothing else is so flattering as that.”

Self-evident, isn’t it? You don’t have to study for four years in Harvard to discover that. Yet I know and you know merchants who will rent expensive space, buy their goods economically, dress their windows appealingly, spend hundreds of dollars in advertising, and then hire clerks who haven’t the sense to be good listeners—clerks who interrupt customers, contradict them, irritate them, and all but drive them from the store.

Take, for example, the experience of J. C. Wootton. He related this story in one of my classes: He bought a suit in a department store in the enterprising city of Newark, New Jersey, near the sea. The suit proved to be disappointing; the dye of the coat rubbed off and darkened the collar of his shirt.

Taking the suit back to the store, he found the salesman he had dealt with and told his story. Did I say he “told” his story? Sorry, that is an exaggeration. He attempted to tell his story. But he couldn’t. He was interrupted.

“We’ve sold thousands of those suits,” the salesman retorted, ‘and this is the first complaint we have ever had.”

That was what his words said; and his tones were even worse. His belligerent tones said: “You are lying. Think you are going to put something over on us, don’t you? Well, I’ll show you a thing or two.”

In the heat of this argument, a second salesman pitched in. “All dark suits rub a little at first,” he said. “That can’t be helped. Not in suits at that price. It’s in the dye.”

“By this time, I was fairly sizzling,’ Mr. Wootton remarked as he told his story. “The first salesman questioned my honesty. The second one intimated that I had purchased a second-rate article. I boiled. I was on the point of telling them to take their suit and go to hell, when suddenly the head of the department strolled by. He knew his business. He changed my attitude completely. He turned an angry man into a satisfied customer. How did he do it? By three things:

“First, he listened to my story from beginning to end without saying a word.

“Second, when I had finished and the salesmen again started to air their views, he argued with them from my point of view, Not only did he point out that my collar obviously was stained from the suit, but he also insisted that nothing should be sold from that store that did not give complete satisfaction.

“Third, he admitted he didn’t know the cause of the trouble and said to me very simply: ‘What would you like me to do with the suit? I’ll do anything you say.’

“Only a few minutes before I had been ready to tell them to keep their confounded suit. But now I answered: ‘I want only your advice. I want to know whether the condition is temporary, and if anything can be done about it”

“He suggested that I try the suit for another week. ‘If it isn’t satisfactory then,’ he promised, ‘bring it in and we’ll give you one that is. We are so sorry to have caused you this inconvenience.’

“I walked out of the store satisfied; the suit was all right at the end of the week; and my confidence in that department store was completely restored.”

Small wonder that manager was head of his department; and, as for his subordinates, they will remain—I was about to say they would remain clerks all their lives. No, they will probably be demoted to the wrapping department, where they never will come in contact with customers.

 

The chronic kicker, even the most violent critic, will frequently soften and be subdued in the presence of a patient, sympathetic listener—a listener who will be silent while the irate fault-finder dilates like a king cobra and spews the poison out of his system. To illustrate: The New York Telephone Company discovered a few years ago that it had to deal with one of the most vicious customers who ever cursed a “hello girl”. And he did curse. He raved. He threatened to tear the phone out by its roots. He refused to pay certain charges which he declared were false. He wrote letters to the newspapers. He filed innumerable complaints with the Public Service Commission, and he started several suits against the telephone company.

At last, one of the company’s most skilful “trouble shooters” was sent to interview this stormy petrel. This “trouble shooter” listened and let the cantankerous old boy enjoy himself by pouring out his tirade. The telephone man listened and said “yes” and sympathized with his grievance.

“He raved on and I listened for nearly three hours,” the “troubleshooter” said as he related his experiences before one of the author’s classes. “Then I went back and listened some more. I interviewed him four times, and before the fourth visit was over I had become a charter member of an organization he was starting. He called it the ‘Telephone Subscribers’ Protective Association’. I am still a member of this organization, and, so far as I know, I’m the only member in the world today besides Mr. ——.

“I listened and sympathized with him on every point that he made during these interviews. He had never had a telephone man talk to him that way before, and he became almost friendly. The point on which I went to see him was not even mentioned on the first visit, nor was it mentioned on the second or third, but upon the fourth interview I closed the case completely, had all bills paid in full, and for the first time in the history of his difficulties with the Telephone Company he withdrew his complaints to the Commission.”

Doubtless Mr. —— considered himself to be a holy crusader, defending the public rights against a callous exploitation. But in reality, what he wanted was a feeling of importance. He got this feeling of importance at first by kicking and complaining. But as soon as he got his feeling of importance from a representative of the company, his imagined grievances vanished into thin air.

 

One morning, years ago, an angry customer stormed into the office of Julian F. Detmer, founder of the Detmer Woollen Company, which later became the world’s largest distributors of woollens to the tailoring trade.

“This man owed us fifteen dollars,’ Mr. Detmer explained to me. “The customer denied it, but we knew he was wrong. So our credit department had insisted that he pay. After getting a number of letters from our credit men, he packed his grip, made a trip to Chicago, and hurried into my office to inform me not only that he was not going to pay that bill, but that he was never going to buy another dollar’s worth of goods from the Detmer Woollen Company.

“I listened patiently to all he had to say. I was tempted to interrupt, but I realized that would be bad policy. So I let him talk himself out. When he finally simmered down and got in a receptive mood, I said quietly: ‘I want to thank you for coming to Chicago to tell me about this. You have done me a great favour, for if our credit department has annoyed you, it may annoy other good customers, and that would be just too bad. Believe me, I am far more eager to hear this than you are to tell it.’

“That was the last thing in the world he expected me to say. I think he was a trifle disappointed, because he had come to Chicago to tell me a thing or two, but here I was thanking him instead of scrapping with him. I assured him we would wipe the fifteen-dollar charge off the books and forget it, because he was a very careful man with only one account to look after, while our clerks had to look after thousands. Therefore he was less likely to be wrong than we were.

“I told him that I understood exactly how he felt and that, if I were in his shoes, I should undoubtedly feel precisely as he did. Since he wasn’t going to buy from us any more, I recommended some other woollen houses.

“In the past, we had usually lunched together when he came to Chicago, so I invited him to have lunch with me this day. He accepted reluctantly, but when he came back to the office he placed a larger order than ever before. He returned home in a softened mood and, wanting to be just as fair with us as we had been with him, looked over his bills, found one that had been mislaid, and sent us a cheque for fifteen dollars, with his apologies.

“Later, when his wife presented him with a baby boy, he gave his son the middle name of Detmer and he remained a friend and customer of the house until his death twenty-two years afterwards.”

Years ago, a poor Dutch immigrant boy was washing the windows of a bakery shop after school for fifty cents a week, and his people were so poor that he used to go out in the street with a basket every day and collect stray bits of coal that had fallen in the gutter where the coal wagons had delivered fuel. That boy, Edward Bok, never got more than six years’ schooling in his life; yet eventually he made himself one of the most successful magazine editors in the history of American journalism. How did he do it? That is a long story, but how he got his start can be told briefly. He got his start by using the principles advocated in this chapter.

He left school when he was thirteen and became an office boy for the Western Union at six dollars and twenty-five cents a week; but he didn’t for one moment give up the idea of an education. Instead, he started to educate himself. He saved his car fares and went without lunch until he had enough money to buy an encyclopedia of American biography—and then he did an unheard-of thing. He read the lives of famous men and wrote them asking for additional information about their childhoods. He was a good listener. He encouraged famous people to talk about themselves. He wrote General James A. Garfield, who was then running for President, and asked if it was true that he was once a tow boy on a canal; and Garfield replied. He wrote General Grant asking about a certain battle; and Grant drew a map for him and invited this fourteen-year-old boy to dinner and spent the evening talking to him.

He wrote’ Emerson and encouraged Emerson to talk about himself. This Western Union messenger boy was soon corresponding with many of the most famous people in the nation: Emerson, Phillips Brooks, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longfellow, Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, Louisa May Alcott, General Sherman, and Jefferson Davis.

He not only corresponded with these distinguished people but as soon as he got a vacation he visited many of them as a welcome guest in their homes. This experience imbued him with a confidence that was invaluable. These men and women fired him with a vision and ambition that revolutionized his life. And, all this, let me repeat, was made possible solely by the application of the principles we are discussing here.

 

Isaac F. Marcosson, who is probably the world’s champion interviewer of celebrities, declared that many people fail to make a favourable impression because they don’t listen attentively. “They have been so much concerned with what they going to say next that they do not keep their ears open. . . . Big men have told me that they prefer good listeners to good talkers, but the ability to listen seems rarer than almost any other good trait.”

And not only big men crave a good listener, but ordinary folk do too. As the Reader’s Digest once said: “Many persons call a doctor when all they want is an audience.”

During the darkest hours of the Civil War. Lincoln wrote to an old friend out in Springfield, Illinois, asking him to come to Washington. Lincoln said he had some problems he wanted to discuss with him. The old neighbour called at the White House, and Lincoln talked to him for hours about the advisability of issuing a proclamation freeing the slaves. Lincoln went over all the arguments for and against such a move, and then read letters and newspaper articles, some denouncing him for not freeing the slaves and others denouncing him for fear he was going to free them. After talking for hours. Lincoln shook hands with his old neighbour, said good night, and sent him back to Illinois without even asking for his opinion. Lincoln had done all the talking himself. That seemed to clarify his mind. “He seemed to feel easier after the talk,” the old friend said. Lincoln hadn’t wanted advice. He had wanted merely a friendly, sympathetic listener to whom he could unburden himself. That’s what we all want when we are in trouble. That is frequently all the irritated customer wants, and the dissatisfied employee or the hurt friend.

 

If you want to know how to make people shun you and laugh at you behind your back and even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long. Talk incessantly about yourself. If you have an idea while the other fellow is talking, don’t wait for him to finish. He isn’t as smart as you. Why waste your time listening to his idle chatter? Bust right in and interrupt him in the middle of a sentence.

Do you know people like that? I do, unfortunately; and the astonishing part of it is that some of them have their names in the social register.

Bores, that is all they are—bores intoxicated with their own egos, drunk with a sense of their own importance.

The man who talks only of himself, thinks only of himself. And “the man who thinks only of himself”, says Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, “is hopelessly uneducated.” “He is not educated,” says Dr. Butler, “no matter how instructed he may be.”

So if you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. As Mr. Charles Northam Lee puts it: “To be interesting, be interested.” Ask questions that the other man will enjoy answering. Encourage him to talk about himself and his accomplishments.

Remember that the man you are talking to is a hundred times more interested in himself and his wants and his problems than he is in you and your problems. His toothache means more to him than a famine in China that kills a million people. A boil on his neck interests him more than forty earthquakes in Africa. Think of that next time you start a conversation.

 

So if you want people to like you, Rule 4 is:

BE A GOOD LISTENER. ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO TALK ABOUT THEMSELVES.