Back when I was a cub journalist, I would devour a body language book every week.
I was a shy kid, tasked with getting celebrities to open up about their personal stories, or trying to dig scoop-worthy production details out of film directors. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
The body language books I read had neon-coloured dust covers, emblazoned with words like ’empower’, ‘command’ and ‘success’; the knowledge within ranged from the situationally useful (“don’t fold your arms”) to the vaguely esoteric (“own the room!”). I know; Unless you’re a Columbian drug lord, that last bit of advice may be hard to follow.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from body language books, it’s that you can’t teach the nuances of non-verbal communication using words.
Here’s the thing though: If you’re looking to get people to open up to you, your mindset is infinitely more important than the angle at which you tilt your head while nodding. Here are 5 mind tricks that have made people want to share their stories with me, both as a journalist and as a traveller.
MIND TRICK 1: BE GENUINELY INTERESTED.
How to practice: Imagine smiling while making eye contact.
I could go on about Duchenne versus Botox smiles, and where you should place your hands to convey trust. But honestly, there’s no magical guide that’ll give you complete mastery of your body language. The more you think about your body language, the more focused you’re going to be on yourself, and not what the other person is saying.
What’s interesting though is that humans are naturally social animals. On a subconscious level, we instinctively react based on how other individuals feel.
Here’s a trick: the next time you’re making contact with and listening to someone talk about themselves, try to imagine smiling at the person without actually smiling.
All teasing aside, I believe your eyes can convey more than any other part of your body. I don’t have scientific references to back this up, but virtually all my interviewees have complimented on making them feel at ease when I use this trick.
MIND TRICK 2: SPEAK LIKE YOU’VE KNOWN THEM FOREVER.
How to practice: Make emotive statements.
The next time you’re talking to your best friend, be aware of how you talk to each other. You’ll realise that in interactions with people you’re comfortable with, you’ll tend to make statements, rather than ask questions.
Questions tend to come with a level of pressure. Overly direct questions are the specialty of police interrogators, creepy blokes on Tinder and tabloid journalists. For example:
“Where’s the corpse?”
“How much do you really weigh?”
“What are you going to say to your son when he gets out of jail?”
The only response one could have to those kind of questions is a big, fat ‘fuck you’.
On the other hand, statements presume a level of closeness, without putting pressure on your conversation partner to respond.
Emotive statements are the building blocks of stories. You’re sharing humanity, not demanding facts.
Y’know, my first pack of cigarettes was a pack of Winston Reds. ‘Uncle’ cigarettes, my bros used to say. I was 22, and there was this girl I was infatuated with. She had a laugh like silver bells, and a pixie hair cut, and she picked out my first pack at random from a tobacco display in a convenience store. I remember sitting with her on the stone steps outside the shopping mall, skaters whizzing past us, trying not to cough my lungs out.
So, tell me about a first experience you’ve had.
MIND TRICK 3: GIVE WITHOUT EXPECTATIONS.
How to practice: Buy a pack of cigarettes. Offer to everyone except animals and small children. You know what? Maybe try mints.
This is going to sound a little New-Agey, but bear with me.
As an ex-smoker, I used to notice that my best stories always came from people I either broke bread or shared nicotine with. Whether an army veteran in Beverly Hills or an art student in Athens, there was always someone willing to exchange a story for a cigarette.
It’s not the nicotine that matters; it’s the sentiment of giving freely.
The best way to get someone to open up to you is to share without expecting anything in return, whether it’s from a pack of Lucky Strikes or a pack of mints.
This works with words as well. Sometimes, the best way to get someone to open up is to tell them about yourself first. Shared connection is what builds empathy.
MIND TRICK 4: UNDERSTAND THEIR REALITY.
How to practice: Inhabit the mind of the person you’re talking to.
Have you ever woken up in the morning and felt like you were starring in your own movie?
Then you know what I mean when I say that everybody has their own secret story playing in their heads: The one you’re often too shy to tell a complete stranger about, but you’re cool sharing with your friends over a pint.
To make a meaningful connection with someone, you have to be interested in that story. The secret highlight reel of their imagination. Of course, the person tells his or herself may not be objectively true. Maybe she’s older than 27. Maybe he didn’t take grenade shrapnel in his arm during his second tour of duty.
But it’s important to empathise, to remember that the stories we tell ourselves are how we make sense of the world.
It’s funny: Acceptance of reality sounds like the opposite of what good journalists do. After all, journalists are supposed to ask the tough, probing questions.
What I’ve observed, however, is that the best interviewers – your Terry Grosses and James Liptons of the world – figure out and accept their respondents’ realities. You can only do the latter when you’ve figured out the former.
Don’t talk to the persona; talk to the person beneath it. See the self-portrait that everyone paints, in his or her own head.