I’ve often been told that I have a gift : An uncommon knack of getting people to open up to me. And while it’s certainly true that in many one-on-one encounters I’ve managed to gently extract some really personal stuff from practical strangers (in a relatively short space of time), I don’t think these intimate exchanges can be attributed to something as esoteric as me having been blessed with some mysterious “gift”. I have no special persuasive powers. My approach or ‘method’ is simply based on common sense – mixed with a little bit of psychology.
Here’s what I know: Everybody has a story.
And it’s my opinion that we would all welcome (even if subconsciously) the opportunity to tell our story.
And without judgement or censure.
So we need to feel like we’re in a safe place first. We need to feel somewhat assured that we’ll be heard and hopefully even understood.
I think in many ways I represent that ‘safe place’ for a lot of the people I meet (well, the ones who don’t know what I do for a living that is).
I’ve often meditated on why this is and have come up with the following:
Firstly, I don’t cut a physically intimidating figure (although I humbly acknowledge that I’m intimidating to some people owing to other factors). Secondly, I exude a very permissive and benign vibe – which a lot of people find both surprising and disarming. Nothing really shocks me anymore, so I’m unfazed when someone unearths their ‘dark’ stuff. And because I know what it’s like to be treated like a freak and an outcast, I’m particularly empathetic towards misfits and mavericks.
Though, admittedly, most of the people I’ve enjoyed these exchanges with have been what we tend to refer to as ‘run-of-the-mill’ types. They’re the most interesting ones to ‘delve’ into, so to speak. Still waters and all that.
Then, I ask thoughtful and insightful questions (informed by my own not so run-of-the-mill experiences) that cut to the core of things. I phrase them in a way that’s direct without being too forward or presumptuous.
And finally – perhaps most importantly – I actually listen to the answers.
I’m of the opinion that there’s actually an acquired skill – dare I say an art – to listening. This might explain why so few people are good at it.
You’ve got to relinquish the floor to the other person. Hand over the mic, so to speak. Hear them out, without interrupting with your own experiences or unsolicited advice. If you do, they’ll quietly withdraw from you and start to ‘close up’ again.
Then there’s your body language to consider…
It’s amazing how something so subtle can have such a big impact on the direction a conversation can take. I make it a point to always face the person I’m talking to when possible and try to look them directly in the eyes – but avert my gaze when I sense that my eye contact borders on the confrontational. Again, the idea is to make the other person feel as safe and comfortable as possible – and there’s a fine line between a rapt expression and a stare. I also make a conscious effort never to fold my arms or raise an eyebrow when someone is sharing something particularly delicate or uncomfortable. Finally, I make it a point to only chime in when I sense that the other person is drifting or floundering – and then too, it takes the form of an observation, a word of encouragement or a further question aimed at ushering them gently towards what I think they’re trying to express.
People instantly warm to that kind of sensitivity. They can tell when you’re genuinely interested in them – and I am genuinely interested. Why? Because people fascinate me. I enjoy learning about what informs their behaviour – and I like to think that all behaviour, however insignificant, means something or comes from someplace. And if you can help someone to join the dots between the two, it can be quite exhilarating!
But I’m mostly interested because I think that creating a safe, neutral space for the sharing of feelings is one of the nicest, most generous things you can do for anybody – particularly people you care about.
Now that’s what I would call a real “gift”, wouldn’t you?