During every conversation I have, I analyse everything about the other person. I’m looking at their eyes, watching body language and listening for different keywords. I’m reading between the lines with each social interaction and never taking anything at face value. It’s making life more difficult than it needs to be.
Writing for Lifehacker has taught me a lot about social interaction. I know how to watch for lies, read body language and spot fallacies. These are useful tricks to have, but when I do it in every conversation, I overthink it.
I got here because I’ve read (and written) so many articles about communication that I’ve over-hacked communication. Every problem has a scientifically proven formula for a desired outcome, right? Communication doesn’t always work that way, though. I approach conversations like a mystery that needs to get solved because I’ve come to fancy myself as a kind of Sherlock Holmes grade armchair psychologist. If this sounds like you, I’m here to help you learn from my mistakes. I’ve come up with a set of guidelines for myself to keep this from happening.
Pay More Attention to the Moment
This might sound counterintuitive, but bear with me. I tend to spend the bulk of a conversation analysing instead of paying attention to what a person is actually saying. I watch for cues that reveal what’s really going on, but fail to listen. I then walk away from a conversation with a drastically different view of what happened than the person I was talking to.
I’m not focusing on the words, I’m focusing on what I think is behind the words. A commonly recommended solution to deal with this is to repeat what the speaker was saying. The Wall Street Journal points to a technique called RASA:
During a conversation, Mr. Treasure recommends keeping in mind an acronym, RASA — for receive, by paying attention to the person; appreciate, by making little noises such as “hmmm” or “oh”; summarizing what the other person said, and asking questions afterward.
For me, it’s about paying more attention to the conversation as a whole and repeating anything I might not be clear about. If I repeat and I’m completely off base, I was probably reading too far into something that didn’t warrant it.
Stop Thinking About Your Next Move
I tend to think of conversations like a game of chess. I will or won’t say something at a particular time because I’m concerned about the fallout of whatever I say. I’m constantly planning three moves ahead and plotting what I need to say to get there. This sounds like an intelligent approach on paper, but I end up planning everything so much that I can’t actually respond properly to criticism.
Instead of reacting on the fly to a conversation, I’ll just move through a checklist of topics until I’m satisfied I covered everything I want to. I’m basically pre-over-analysing a conversation, and subsequently, I don’t get anything productive out of it.
The solution here, if there is one, is to keep my mind focused and stop thinking about what I want to say next. There’s no point in solving a problem that doesn’t exist yet, so focusing attention on doing so is only harming the actual conversation that’s happening.
Accept That Sometimes People Actually Say What They Mean
Maybe it’s the fact that I went to a liberal arts college, maybe it’s the fact I’m a writer, but when I’m talking, I tend to mask what I’m saying behind flowery language. I assume everyone else does that as well. It turns out, that’s not the case. Sometimes, people just mean what they say and say what they mean.
I’ll spend a lot of time going back through my conversations of the day to find some type of hidden meaning in them. Even if someone was very direct, I assume they meant something else. Jess Lambert sums this up nicely over on Medium:
I replay conversations in my head, and second-guess the tone or dialogue of the conversation. Did I come across poorly? Did you see the expression on their face? Oh god, they must think I’m an idiot! Being the introvert that I am, who already feels somewhat socially awkward, I’m only making life harder and less enjoyable for myself.
The only thing I can do about this is to stop, move on and simply accept that people often say what they mean. If I’m paying better attention, I’ll have a better grasp on how people are communicating with me and be able to participate in the conversation better without over analysing it.
Find a Balance
I’ve clearly taken things too far, but that doesn’t mean that reading between the lines is a horrible idea. There’s value in reading body language and paying attention to verbal language. But you have to know when to use those tricks and when to just listen during a conversation.
If you’re just having a normal conversation, you can pretty much ignore most of the body language reading. Chances are, if someone isn’t telling you the truth during a casual conversation, it doesn’t really matter. If you’re in the midst of a debate, watching for fallacies and paying attention to language use is helpful, but it’s just as important to pay close attention to conversation as a whole. Of course, people lie, so looking for for signs is great, just don’t let it rule the conversation. Try and balance active listening with everything else when you can. If it’s a truly heated argument, I’ve found that most tips can be thrown out the window entirely, because everyone reacts to big disagreement differently.
The key is to apply the knowledge when it’s useful and ignore it otherwise. If you’re not going to get anything out of uncovering these underlying truths, ignore them and just enjoy the conversation.