People sometimes observe that I form emotional connections quickly with the people I meet, and that I tend to make friends and build relationships with people after just a brief conversation. Occasionally, people ask how I do this. They wonder if it’s the specific words I use, my tone of voice, or the way I move my body. It’s actually none of those things.
I connect with people by refusing to make assumptions about the way they experience the world. Instead, I ask them about their experience of life—their emotions, aspirations, defining moments, and so forth. I understand that their experience of the world is probably different from my own, and I take pleasure in learning the unique ways in which they see and respond to the world.
To understand what I’m talking about, it’s important to see that a person’s experience of the world is different from the facts about his or her life. For instance, the facts about my life include where I work; my income, age and marital status; what I ate yesterday; and so on. By my “experience of the world,” I mean the way in which I experience the facts about my life. My feelings of excitement and passion about what I do, my enjoyment of what I ate yesterday, my irritation about having to stand in line at the post office, and so on are all aspects of my experience of the world.
Often, our conversations revolve around the facts about our lives rather than our experience of them. The questions we ask in conversations are usually geared toward learning about facts rather than experiences. We ask things like: “So where did you go to school?” “What’s your degree in?” “Where do you live?” “How long have you been in your job?” “What was your golf score yesterday?” And so on. Unfortunately, this approach makes for dull conversation and doesn’t create emotional connection. Somehow, asking for and reciting facts about our lives just doesn’t make interacting interesting.
The reason for this is that the facts of our lives are not nearly as important to us as the way we experience those facts. Suppose, for instance, that my significant other and I break up. From my perspective, the mere fact that we broke up isn’t the important part of this event—the important part for me is how I feel about it. I may feel devastated because the relationship was very important to me. I may feel liberated because the relationship was becoming smothering. Or, I may have mixed feelings about it. Whatever my emotional response to the event is, it will be the most important aspect of the event to me.
Most of us, I believe, understand that our experience of the world is more important to us than the mere facts of our lives. However, even though we know this, we often hesitate to inquire about the way others experience the world in our conversations. Instead, we make assumptions about their experience of the world based on the facts they give us.
For example, if I told someone that my significant other and I broke up, they would probably assume that I felt bad about it. Thus, they wouldn’t ask how I felt about the situation. Instead, they would likely say something to console me, ask for more facts about the breakup (“how long had you been together?” and so forth), or become uncomfortable and move onto another topic.
I used to make these sorts of assumptions about others’ experience of the world, and I made them out of fear. I was afraid to inquire into others’ experience for two reasons. First, I feared that people would think I was asking stupid questions. For instance, if I asked someone how he felt about breaking up with his girlfriend, I figured he would get angry or disdainful, and say something like “obviously I felt bad about it. How else could I feel?”
Second, I believed that people would think I was being rude and intrusive. “It’s none of your business how I felt,” I thought they’d say. To avoid negative responses like these, I would stick to “polite” questions about the facts of others’ lives. “Personal questions” about others’ emotional experience were reserved for people I already knew well and felt comfortable with.
Eventually, I became frustrated with the interactions I was having. Many other people I knew seemed to find social interactions meaningful and fun, but I usually either dreaded them or found them dull or both. I wanted more friendships and intimate relationships, but I didn’t know how to get them into my life. Ultimately, I decided to do an experiment. I would try discarding the assumptions I’d been making about others’ emotional experience, and start expressing my natural curiosity about how life made them feel.
I was surprised at the results. I found that people were far more willing to open up to me than I’d expected. More importantly, people I’d just met started telling me that talking to me felt good, and that they felt connected to me—things I’d rarely heard before. And people I’d known for a long time started wanting to be around me and introduce me to others in their lives. For the first time, I started developing an enriching and enjoyable social life.
Many of us go through interactions with others believing that we shouldn’t ask them how they feel until we really get to know them. The flaw in this approach is that, unless we inquire into their experience of the world, we can’t “get to know” them at all. We can’t create an emotional connection with someone without talking about their emotions. If we want uplifting, exciting and deep relationships with others, we have to take the risk of asking them how they feel about the events of their lives. If we don’t, those relationships won’t develop.
And is there really any “risk” at all? I don’t remember anyone ever shunning or lashing out at me for asking how they experience life. Yes, those questions are “personal,” because they go to the heart of who someone is as a person. But we can only connect with each other and form meaningful relationships if we learn about each other as people. When we give up our assumptions about how others see and react to the world, and actually start asking people about their experiences, we can interact with them on a deeper level than we may have explored before.
(This article appeared on the Avenue of Authenticity blog, located at http://coachgirl.typepad.com/.)