Ask: How to Relate to Anyone by Dan Solin
Ask begins in an unexpected place – looking at what makes us happy. Dan Solin cites a study showing that 40% of our happiness is within our control. He suggests focusing on what we can control and making an effort to do the things that make us happy. Further, he suggests variety and freshness over routine. Happiness takes effort, and we should focus on what works for us. Further, practice gratitude, disconnect from devices and get enough rest.
Solin criticizes popular success literature, noting that much of it is not based on scientific evidence. Dreaming of what you want does not lead to better outcomes. “Don’t dream it, be it.” Control what you can, and do what is necessary to become the person who has the results you want.
Most people find a conversation engaging if they are engaged in it, but this is backwards. We should seek for the other person to be engaged, which is only done when they are talking. We can process about 400 words per minute (wpm), but only speak at about 100 wpm, so 75% of our brain is disengaged while we listen. This means even though most dynamic speaker will not be able to keep an audience engaged for long with a monologue. A Microsoft study found “we start to lose our ability to concentrate after eight seconds”. That’s one second shorter than a goldfish! The solution is to ask good questions, and to listen attentively and actively. We show we are listening by asking follow-up questions, not by moving on to the next topic. Expert interviewer Terry Gross recommends starting a conversation with the question, “Tell me about yourself.”
It’s important to know how we best interact, and who we are talking to. There are a lot of differences between introverts and extroverts, which drive how they interact with others and which situations make them comfortable. It’s much more nuanced than people neatly falling into two groups, and many of us are “ambiverts” who can “tap into both side of our personality as needed. (I see myself as an ambivert, needing both some alone time and some time with people to feel energized.) Understanding ourselves and the people we are talking to can be helpful for effective listening.
Sincerity is at the heart of the “Ask” approach. Using questions and effective listening as a manipulative tool is likely to be discovered. You can’t fake sincerity, but you can develop curiosity.
Studies have found that talking about ourselves produces oxytocin and dopamine in our brain, while feeling like we aren’t being heard produces the stress hormone, cortisol. Solin argues that the common business advice of “telling your story” is backwards. That makes you feel good, not the other person. Instead, try to learn their story and ask thoughtful follow-up questions with genuine curiosity. He suggests imagining a light on the other person’s forehead that turns green when he is speaking and red when I am speaking. My goal should be to try to keep it green as much as possible. “Both oxytocin and dopamine make us feel good. They are critical components in the complex neurochemical balancing act within our brain… Ask focuses on showing you how to increase the levels of these molecules in others, so they’ll feel great about themselves… and you.”
Good listening is a skill, and it comes from having the right attitude and from deliberate effort. Solin suggests a few ways to improve. 1) Stop talking. Focus on the other person and let them talk. 2) Go second – start a conversation with asking questions and getting the other person to talk rather than showing what you know. 3) Don’t interrupt. 4) Pause after the other person finishes to let them think and continue if they want. Don’t immediately take control of the conversation back. 4) Demonstrate that you are listening with outward signs, such as body language, or relevant questions.
Empathy is a powerful part of good listening, as we try to feel what the other person is feeling. Three empathy hacks: radical listening (no judgement), increasing awareness by considering the humanity of people you come across, and expanding your reach by deliberately seeking to learn from and about others.
Solin observes that there is a question deficit. The way to develop close relationships is to ask open-ended questions, and to not expect to talk much. Let other people be heard. Asking good questions is an important skill. Rather than trying to get specific information, let the other person talk about what they want. Pivot questions from the other person back to them. Often there is information embedded in their question that can lead to a good question. Open-ended questions usually start with who, what, when, where and why. They are intended to open a conversation, not to narrow it down. Nicholas Epley, who studied the difference between perspective taking and perspective getting said, “The secret to understanding each other better seems to come not through an increased ability to read body language or improved perspective taking but rather through the hard relational work of putting people in a position where they can tell you their minds openly and honestly.”
Negativity bias is a problem that often comes up in relationships. Negative things capture our attention. Solin suggests we pay attention to this and deliberately cultivate positive feelings and express positive perceptions of others.
Inevitably, we will have conflict with someone else. Solin suggests we listen non-defensively, trying to understand the other person’s point of view. Ask questions. Apologize when appropriate. This is disarming. Solin hopefully concludes this chapter, “Conflict can be converted – like lemons into lemonade – to deepen and enhance your relationships.”
At the end of the book Solin lists the most important things we can do right now: “Don’t try to be the most interesting person in the room. Be the most interested. Get in the habit of starting sentences with, I’m curious… Use these five words more frequently: Tell me more about that. Retrain your brain to elicit information rather than convey it. Remember, there is no more compelling evidence of kindness than empowering people to talk about themselves.”