On the spectrum of conversationalists, there are two painfully awkward extremes.
There’s the person who’s so passive and reticent that trying to make small talk with them is exhausting. And there’s the person who’s so domineering and self-absorbed that you could vanish into thin air while they were talking and they’d hardly notice.
A chapter in “Pitch Perfect: How to Say it Right the First Time, Every Time,” by Bill McGowan and Alisa Bowman, addresses that second awkward extreme, which they label “egg-timer narcissists.”
Here’s how they describe an ETN:
“In less time than it takes to soft-boil an egg, these self-centered bores plot and execute a master plan that flips the conversation from whatever you might be saying back to their favorite topic: them.”
These observations are based on McGowan’s years of experience, first as an Emmy Award-winning journalist and then as a communications coach to clients including Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Welch.
McGowan’s learned that everyone acts like an ETN at least some of the time — talking about yourself can be inherently satisfying. The key is tempering that impulse so that, most of the time, you’re acting like someone with a normal-sized ego.
The authors outline some hallmark behaviors of ETNs in everyday conversation.
- They start off the conversation with a pitch or a story without first getting to know the people they’re talking to.
- They make the whole conversation about them, without ever prompting input from their conversation partner.
- They leave the conversation (and the other person hanging) as soon as they see someone they’d rather be talking to.
Doesn’t sound like someone you want to be, right? The authors also offer some tips for combatting those ETN tendencies.
- Before you go into a conversation, learn as much as you can about the other person. That way, you can start off by asking them about their hobbies or their family, for example.
- Make the conversation a give-and-take; try to listen and ask questions for at least half the conversation.
- Prepare some polite excuses for when you’re ready to end the conversation. Examples include: “I brought a dish that needs to be heated up, so I’m going to hit the kitchen to take care of that. Maybe we can resume our chat a little later” and “My daughter has a big test tomorrow, and I just want to call her and see how the studying is coming along. It’s been really great speaking with you.”
- Ask specific follow-up questions that show how well you’ve been listening and prompt the other person to share a story.
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Interestingly, the authors also recommend that you pay attention to your facial expression and body language during a conversation. They can quickly convey disinterest, suggesting that you couldn’t care less what the other person has to say.
So lean in slightly while others are speaking; make eye contact; and try to appear curious.
McGowan is hardly the first person to recognize the power of listening, as opposed to steamrolling your conversation partner. Back in 1936, Dale Carnegie published his bestselling “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” in which he argued that the best way to make people like you is simply to let them talk about themselves.
Ultimately, the authors of “Pitch Perfect” write that listening to your conversation partner can help you:
“It’s only by listening that you’ll gain important pieces of information about people that you can use to tailor your pitch. So instead of turning to your boss with something bland like, ‘How was your weekend?’ you’ll be able to trigger a more in-depth conversation by asking, ‘By the way, how’s your daughter’s semester abroad going?’”
It’s a win-win situation.