This is a story about communication, emotional intelligence, and how to get what you want in business and in life. If you find it valuable, I hope you’ll also download my free ebook, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021, which you can find here.
It’s about seven key rules that make for better conversations, based on some compelling research and advice, and the ways that people with high emotional intelligence learn to use them in conversations that matter most.
These are compiled in such a way that you can use a mnemonic device — “GARDENS” — to remember it all, which stands for: goals, attention, responses, design, emotions, nonverbal communication, and summations.
But let’s not get too hung up on these individual words yet; instead, we’ll go through all the rules below.
Rule 1. (Goals): Think ahead of time about your ideal outcome.
Whether they admit it to themselves or not, everybody has a goal for the outcome of every conversation in which they engage.
- It might be an important, strategic goal: “My goal is to convince this employee that taking on the new challenge I want her to tackle will be as good for her as it is for the company.”
- It might be an emotional goal: “I want this prospective hire to walk away with a good feeling about us, even if he doesn’t match the requirements for the specific job we have open right now.” (You never know what the future brings!)
- Or, it might be a purely defensive goal: “No matter what else happens in this conversation, I do not want to commit to any new obligations for this client.”
Of course, there might be multiple goals.
Let’s use a personal example: “I really want to go out to dinner tonight, but I also don’t want my partner to feel as if she has to say yes, if she would rather do so another night.”
Emotionally intelligent people understand how valuable it is to take a moment before almost any conversation and think through what your goals are, so that the conversational decisions you make don’t lead you away from them unintentionally.
Sometimes it’s helpful even to put things on the table, and communicate them explicitly: “Here’s what I’d like us to decide or do.“
Imagine if everyone in your life were that straightforward.
Rule 2. (Attention): Stay focused, and also look like you’re focused.
We live in an addled time, a society of short attention spans.
Add to that the fact that we’ve just endured nearly two full years of constant distraction and danger, from the pandemic to the political climate, and I’m confident that entire academic careers will be made studying what we’ve all seen and done.
As Jeni Stolow, an assistant professor at Temple University’s College of Public Health put it: “It’s this cognitive impairment that the whole world has been going through.”
Thus, people with high emotional intelligence recognize two things when they begin conversations:
- First, like everyone else on the planet, they need to make an extra effort to focus and pay attention now.
- Second, also like everyone else on the planet, the people they are talking with likely need added reinforcement suggesting that others are actually paying attention to them.
In practical terms, what does this mean? It means blocking out short bits of time for only the conversation you’re having. It means, physically removing other distractions — putting your phone face down on a desk, or shutting your laptop, for example.
It means, not multi-tasking–and during video calls, making your environment appear conducive to one-on-one conversations.
Strive to be focused, but don’t make it look easy; make it obvious to the other people in your important conversations that they, and your discussion, are the only things you are paying attention to.
Rule No. 3. (Responses): Think hard about how you look and sound to the other side.
In any exchange during any conversation, there are really only three classes of things you can say: the right thing, the wrong thing, or nothing.
Saying nothing is often awkward, and while sometimes you can use awkwardness to your tactical advantage, emotionally intelligent people understand the power of another option: mirroring back to the other person the things they’ve said to you.
Basically, any statement where you begin with something like, “So, it sounds as if you are saying…” or “Let me just clarify what I’ve heard, please…” or the like, will probably lead you to mirroring.
Mirroring also has to do with body language. In study after study, researchers have found that salespeople who mimic their customers’ speech and posture sell more products, and that people in negotiations who mirror the other side reach agreements five times as often.
However, an important caveat is to mirror without looking like you’re doing so intentionally, which makes you look fake, and undermines the whole thing. That can be hard, so perhaps the emphasis is to be both authentic and subtle.
“We tend to like people who imitate us, as long as we don’t notice that they’re doing it,” Chris Frith, an emeritus professor of neuropsychology at University College London, told The Wall Street Journal in a report on the phenomenon.
Rule No. 4. (Design): Pay attention to structure, timing, pacing, and length of discussion.
Here’s a question that almost no two people will answer the same way: How long do you want this conversation to last?
Earlier this year, researchers published the results of a study of 932 one-on-one conversations, after which participants were asked if they thought the conversations had gone on too long, had not been long enough, or had been just right.
Result: Only about 2 percent of conversations ended around the time when both participants wanted them to.
Another study: Across all cultures, according to researchers, the average socially acceptable time for one person to talk in a conversation is roughly 2 seconds, while the average time between two participants speaking is just 200 milliseconds.
The practical result that emotionally intelligent people take from all of this is to talk a bit less, and to err on the side of brevity. Far better for others to leave most conversations with you feeling as if they’ve had the chance to have their say — and even wishing they’d had even more time to hear you out.
That’s accomplished by paying close attention to the structure and design of your conversations, almost as much as the substance.
Rule No. 5. (Emotions): Be aware of and leverage emotions on both sides.
Emotional intelligence for our purposes is the practiced awareness of how emotions affect your communications and efforts, coupled with strategies that you develop to leverage your emotions and other people’s emotions in order to help you achieve goals.
We should juxtapose this with what emotional intelligence does not mean.
For example, it does not mean stripping all emotion out of a situation, and it also doesn’t always mean striving for empathy and kindness. Those can be positive by-products, but they are not the key goals.
So, how about some examples? Let’s consider an emotion like excitement.
- You might be able to leverage your excitement to convey to another person that they should also be excited about whatever it is that has you so eager.
- Or, you might find that your excitement clouds your thinking and that you should be aware of it and tone it back.
- Likewise, you might realize that excitement on the part of another person in a conversation leads you to reach an agreement more quickly, or simply to get along better.
Step one in these situations is to be aware of the emotion. Step two is to seek control over them. And step three is to think about how you can use them to help reach your ultimate conversational goal.
Rule No. 6. (Nonverbal communications): Be aware of and leverage communication in several dimensions.
Here’s an exercise. Next time you’re in a serious conversation and you have an important goal, imagine afterward that you had to write a screenplay about the discussion.
This seems daunting, so let me make it easier by letting you skip all the dialogue. Instead, imagine a script that only contains stage directions and descriptions. Example:
INT. CONFERENCE ROOM — DAY
JANE and JIM sit across from each other at a big table, which is cluttered with papers and leftover coffee cups from the last meeting. Jane rolls her eyes at Jim–she can’t believe they have to be here. Jim suddenly looks worried.
Jim softly begins to speak, but as he does, Jane’s cell phone buzzes. She seems to forget about him as she picks up the phone to see who has called…
OK, it’s been a long time since I was a screenwriter, but I hope you’ll see the point: A huge percentage of what we communicate comes from things other than the words we use. (One controversial study famously said that only 7 percent of communication is actually verbal.)
The facial expressions, the fact that Jane and Jim are holding this meeting in a cluttered room, the ease with which Jane is distracted from the conversation — all these things send messages that might or not be consistent with the verbal messages and goals each person wishes to communicate.
Emotionally intelligent people are highly aware of all of this, and they react and adjust accordingly.
Rule No. 7. (Summations): Think hard about what you want the other side to remember.
I think there are two nearly universal things we can say about how good conversations end.
First, they involve some sort of summation and next step, or a promise for the future.
- “We’re all set! We’ll start the project on Monday.”
- “I don’t think we’ve found agreement here, but I’m happy to talk more tomorrow.”
- “I had a really nice time. I hope I can call you again.”
Second, they involve a positive articulation of emotion — and most universally, an expression of gratitude.
In fact, an easy trick that the most emotionally intelligent people try to use is to find something to say thank you for toward the end of every conversation, so that the person you’re talking with remembers your gratitude.
Bonus tip on that one: Express gratefulness for something incontrovertible, rather than debatable.
- In other words, say, “Thank you for meeting with me today,” or, “Thank you for taking the time to talk.”
- But avoid things like, “Thank you for understanding,” or “Thank you for coming around to my way of thinking.”
The first examples are gratitude for facts; the second examples are things that the other side might or might not agree with; thus they can end the conversation with the other person thinking about the disagreement rather than the gratitude.
Don’t forget to break the rules
Pablo Picasso once said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
That applies here as well. Even though we’ve organized these conversational rules to be memorable (remember: “GARDENS”), and even though it’s worth reflecting on them, it would be the very rare person with sufficient emotional intelligence to apply them all, all the time.
But, if you’re able remember at least some of them, you’ll likely be amazed at how your subconscious mind works to keep your conversations on track, and more likely to lead to the results you seek.