Career & Success

Listen Up: Why It’s Better to Be Interested than Interesting

In this episode, Alison Wood Brooks reveals the secret to having better conversations.

December 06, 2022

As a communication expert, Alison Wood Brooks spends a lot of time talking about talking. But, as she says, listening is just as important.

“My course is called TALK,” says Brooks, who is the O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration and Hellman Faculty Fellow at Harvard Business School. “The great irony is that it should really be called LISTEN. It’s hard to be a good listener yet so very important.”

In the latest episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Brooks covers conversation strategies for active listening, turning anxiety into excitement, and knowing when it’s time to change the subject.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: At the end of the day, communication is all about connection, connecting our ideas, connecting to other people, connecting to a higher purpose, like an organization’s mission or vision, but how do we do this connecting? Mostly it’s through conversation. Join me today as I have a conversation about conversations. My name is Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.

I am super excited today to speak with Alison Wood Brooks. Alison is the O’Brien associate professor of business administration and Hellman faculty fellow at Harvard Business School. Alison’s research focuses on the science of conversation and interaction, and she teaches an award-winning course called TALK.

Welcome, Alison. I am so excited that we’re actually getting to do this.

Alison Wood Brooks: Hi, Matt. Thank you so much for reaching out to an East Coast friend. I’m so happy to be here.

Matt Abrahams: It is awesome, and I can’t wait to get into our conversation, so let’s go ahead and get started. I first came to know you and your work when I was writing my book, Speaking Up Without Freaking Out. I came across your research on reframing anxiety. I know it’s from a long while back, but I’d love to have you share this really helpful speaking anxiety management technique. You mind sharing?

Alison Wood Brooks: Of course. I would love to. When I was in grad school, my dissertation was about anxiety, but what was new about my dissertation as a behavioral scientist was that everybody feels anxious, and not everybody needs therapy or medication or that level of treatment. What you really need are just sort of these smaller-scale coping strategies to help us deal with the very normal feelings of anxiety that we all feel a lot of the time. Matt, what makes you feel nervous? Does anything make you feel nervous?

Matt Abrahams: No, I still get nervous. You know, Alison, it’s funny. I get most nervous when I speak in front of folks like you, people who study communication, people who know what I know, know a lot more than I know. That’s when I get nervous. Other times I’ve learned to manage anxiety through techniques like you’re going to introduce and others, but I still get nervous. How about you? Do you get nervous, too?

Alison Wood Brooks: Oh my gosh. Totally. Yeah. I think we need to, actually. You put a compliment in there, so thank you. That was very nice. I think we’re right to feel anxious, not only when we talk to people that we admire and we don’t want to mess it up, but also anytime there’s uncertainty and any sort of lack of control, which conversation is — that’s sort of how it’s built, right?

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Alison Wood Brooks: We’re co-constructing this interaction right now. I don’t know what you’re going to say. I don’t know what you’re thinking, and I can’t possibly know, so that uncertainty is always there, and lack of control is there, because I can’t control how you react to me or what you think of me. So, really, conversation is a very understandable place where you would feel anxious. There are lots of other tasks that make us feel anxious as well.

We tried a very simple coping strategy, a very simple intervention, and the question was “Can people reframe their anxious feelings as excitement?”

It’s a really simple idea, but the reason that it works is because, when we feel anxious, we have this crazy instinct that we should try and calm down, like really powerful. Everybody feels like they should calm down when they’re anxious, and that’s hard. That would require that we mitigate the physiological signs of anxiety, so your racing heart, sweaty palms, spiked cortisol in your body. You’re trying to push those down, as well as move from the negative valence, like a negative emotion like anxiety, and move into the positive zone of calmness. That two-step move, reducing the physiological signals and moving from negative to positive — it’s pretty much impossible. It’s very, very hard, especially the physiological component of it. Instead, what reframing as excitement does is it allows you to stay in that high-arousal zone. You’re not trying to combat your automatic physiological processes, but instead, you’re just doing this mental reframe from negative to positive.

Matt Abrahams: I love that it’s so simple, and in fact, it really is. You just say, “Hey, these feelings I’m having could represent excitement.”

Then you can begin thinking about what is exciting in this opportunity. I’m excited to share my information. I’m excited to contribute to this conversation. That allows you to move away from fighting yourself to calm down, to not be nervous, and I have felt this very helpful for myself and in the students I teach and the people I coach. So I really appreciate not only you explaining it now, but for just doing the work originally.

Alison Wood Brooks: Aw, thank you, Matt. I’m excited to keep talking about it. Let’s go.

Matt Abrahams: No, it’s great. Well, talking about TALK — you teach one of the most popular electives at Harvard’s Business School, and it’s called TALK. Can you tell us what the premise of your class is and highlight maybe one or two key takeaways.

Alison Wood Brooks: Yeah. I love teaching this course. TALK is an acronym. It’s T-A-L-K, and it stands for Topics, Asking, Levity, and Kindness. What the course aspires to do is help people talk just a little bit better. I started out in the business school at Harvard teaching negotiation. I started to get a little frustrated. We have such a focus, both as scientists and in public discourse, on difficult conversations or so-called difficult conversations, and this conjures conversations like negotiations or delivering constructive feedback or giving hard advice or these things that we come to think of as difficult. What I’ve realized through my life and teaching and through my research is that even easy conversations are difficult. We don’t just suck at the hard ones. We suck at the easy ones, too.

Matt Abrahams: They can be so stressful.

Alison Wood Brooks: Yes. Yes. Once you delve into the complexity and the nuance that lives and breathes within each conversation, you start to see why it’s hard, even when our goals align, even when our only goal is to have fun. Even that can be sort of hard, right?

We might say the wrong thing. We don’t know how other people are feeling, what they’re thinking about. That’s sort of the humble and extremely ambitious promise of the course. Let’s make each conversation just a little bit better, but in accumulation over all the conversations of your life, that could make a massive difference for you and your career and for the people you love.

Matt Abrahams: As you well know, I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about the spontaneous moments of communication, because a lot of what’s taught in your institution, at my institution, is how to do formal, planned communicating, and this notion of most of what we do in business and our personal lives happens in the moment and happens in conversation, and I love that you are studying it. Anyone who’s listened to this podcast knows that I’m a huge fan of structure in communication. I think it can really help us in many ways. I know you think a lot about structure as well. Can you share your thoughts and research into structure of conversations and how we can better leverage this knowledge to improve those conversations?

Alison Wood Brooks: Yeah, of course. I would love to. When I heard the word structure, it triggers so very many ideas and thoughts for me that I actually wanted to turn this one around on you, Matt, and ask you, when you think of the word structure, especially in the context of communication, what types of things are you thinking about?

Matt Abrahams: Great question. For me, a structure is nothing more than a logical connection of ideas. It’s a bridging of ideas, and not only is it the form that the communication takes, but it is the way you think about the communication. Having a structure helps solve one of the two fundamental problems I believe we have in communication: what to say and how to say it. The structure is how you say it, and then you can focus on just what is it you’re saying. People call it story; people call it framework, but it’s really the logical connection of ideas. In a conversation, from my perspective, structure is deployed in lots of different ways, and you’re turn-taking within that structure as well. That’s my perception. I’m curious, what’s your perception, and what does your research tell us about structure?

Alison Wood Brooks: That was such a great response. It really helped me to understand what you’re thinking about. When I hear the word structure, I think there’s three levels of things that I think about. The first is mechanics, and this gets down to the very basic, sort of fundamental “how does a conversation unfold,” so things like turn-taking and the very definition of what even is a conversation. How we define conversation in our very dry, academic sense is any exchange of verbal content between two or more people. It’s the verbal — and by verbal, I mean there has to be language. There has to be words. They might be typed. They might be signed through sign language, but there has to be verbal content.

So the mechanics in my mind are things like turn-taking. I speak, and then you speak, and then someone else speaks, and then I speak, and ideally, you try and avoid as much cross-talk and overlapping turns as possible. You can start to think about what’s the time gap between turns. There’s amazing research showing that shorter pauses between turns, or inter-turn silences, as we would call them, indicate that you’re closer with somebody, that the discourse is bubbling and exciting and it’s sort of fun and going well. You’re clicking. Even just thinking about that turn-taking, there’s so much that we can study and learn, even just with that basic mechanical thing.

Then you take turns, and in my research, I’m really interested in topics. What topics are is you take a chunk of turns. You ask me this question, “What do you think about structure?” Turns are one organizing structure, but if you take all of the things that we’ve said on this topic about structure, that’s a topic. So we can chunk the turns that we’ve taken on this topic into a topic, and that opens up all new ideas and thoughts about “Well, how do we choose the best topics? And once we’re on a topic, how do we steer it in a direction that serves my purposes, it serves your purposes best? And how do we manage the boundaries between topics?” The topic heuristic is very intuitive to the human mind. What we don’t realize is that we’re making these micro-decisions constantly in our conversations to manage topics. Literally every time you speak, you’re choosing whether to stay on this topic or switch to something else. So I’m trying to be a very polite podcast guest and answer your question about structure, but I could jag and start talking about the Kardashians. That’s an option that I have.

Matt Abrahams: Yes. Yes. That’s right.

Alison Wood Brooks: Anyway, that’s topics. Topics chunk our turns into thematic, logical chunks. Then, even still within this mechanical bucket, we think a lot about — and you said this nicely earlier, what we talk about. There’s actually a lot more complexity there than we might intuitively realize. There’s actually three streams of content. The first is verbal, the words we say to each other. The second is nonverbal, and that’s everything about how your body’s moving, your hand gesticulation, your facial expressions, your eye gaze. Everything that you perceive visually about other people is nonverbal.

Then there’s this third bucket that a lot of people don’t know about or think about as a separate category that’s extremely important for the structure of conversations, and that’s paralanguage, and it’s everything acoustic about how we’re talking to each other that’s not words. Words are the carriers of meaning, but paralanguage also can change the meaning. If I say “Ah, I love that, Matt,” that’s very different than “I love that, Matt. I love it.” It changes it entirely, and it’s just an acoustic property, the tone of my voice, how fast I’m saying it, the pausing, whether I laugh while I’m doing it, and there’s so many aspects of paralanguage that that can change.

Matt Abrahams: I want to come back to small talk, because small talk is something that many of us struggle with. The chitchat that we have at mixers or at coffee meetings or even cocktail parties can be really challenging for people. What advice and guidance do you have to make small talk less challenging, and are there certain choices — you talked about conversation being a series of choices — that we can make that can help small talk go more smoothly?

Alison Wood Brooks: Yes. Small talk gets a bad rap, man. It’s not fair. It gets a really bad rap. The purpose of small talk is to help us coordinate easily around more interesting topics. Everything about conversation is this sort of coordination kerfuffle. We’re trying to coordinate with another human mind, like “What should we be talking about? How should we be interacting? What do I feel safe sharing with you?” et cetera. Small talk is really useful. It’s the predictable way that we open up this really crazy experience we’re about to have together. So I think it gets too bad a rap. It serves a very important sort of search process.

Matt Abrahams: Right now, Alison, we are going to rebrand small talk, you and I, together. We’re going to rebrand it. Okay.

Alison Wood Brooks: Yes. There’s a really amazing article in The Atlantic. It was written by an author, James Parker, and the title of the article was his Ode to Small Talk. I highly recommend this. He had this amazing quote in it where he said, “The merest morsel of speech can tip you headfirst into the blazing void of another person’s soul,” and it’s really dramatic, but it, I think, captures the spirit of we’re searching for a topic on which we are both excited to move on together. If you think of small talk as a search and really lean into it as this enjoyable search process, then it can become less awkward.

Matt Abrahams: I like that notion of reframing, for sure, and I think that can help, when you see it as serving a purpose beyond just this awkward “I’m standing next to you and need to say something.”

I’ve come to learn — and I’m curious if you have other insights into this — that, in small talk, the decisions we make can really influence how the conversation goes. I’ve heard that there are two choices people often make, either supporting choices of the topic that’s being discussed or shifting choices. Do you have insight into that and perhaps other types of choices that we can make to make things better or worse?

Alison Wood Brooks: Yes. We do a lot. We study topic selection a lot, and we call it topic management. Two choices is actually a good heuristic, but it’s oversimplifying what we’re doing, right?

How we study this — we study topic selection on a turn-by-turn basis. Every time someone talks, they’re making a micro-decision, and you could imagine it as “I’m staying on this topic. I’m going to support the topic or I’m going to switch.” That’s a good heuristic, but actually, there’s some gray area in between those two poles. There’s also “I’m going to passively let you stay on this topic” versus “I’m going to actively encourage us to stay on this topic. I’m going to say, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing. Tell me more,’” which is very different than “Uh-huh.” Right? That’s a big difference.

The same with switching. You can imagine moves that are very subtly drifting that are almost ambiguous, like we’re not sure if we’re moving onto a new topic or if it’s just sort of like an adjacent fuzzy drift away from the current one. Then there are really aggressive switches to new ones, where we’re talking about conversation with each other, and then I’m like, “And also let me tell you about my chicken salad sandwich. Wow. So yummy. Everyone should eat chicken salad.” When we’re making these choices about how to manage topics, there’s shades of things you can do to support, as you said, or switch to something new.

Something that really helps — we can all feel when the juice is dried up from a topic. What we find in our research is that people who assertively switch in those moments — they’re great conversationalists. If you can sense, if there’s longer pauses, if there’s awkward laughter, if people start repeating things they’ve already said on the topic, they’re signals that it’s time to switch, and so doing so assertively is something we can all do a little bit better. The risk of it is quite low, actually, because, if either of you feel like you actually have more to say, you could always come back to it. That’s the amazing thing about conversation. You can always go back and say, “Oh, yeah, wait. There’s one more thing I wanted to tell you about this, and this was the thing I meant to tell you all along.” Or you can text them afterwards or email them. It’s fine. We have this instinct to be a little afraid to switch topics because it feels rude or abrupt, or maybe they have more to say, when in fact it’s much safer and usually a good idea to switch to something new, because boredom and stagnation are bigger risks than we know.

Matt Abrahams: I’m not going to take the advice you just gave and abruptly switch topics, because I’m hearing a theme across several of the things you’ve talked about, and it’s really about being sensitive to what’s needed in the moment. To me, this thoughtfulness, this slowing down, is related, really, to listening. You and I study communication, and there’s this notion that, in communication, it’s about what you’re saying.

But so often I’m coming to realize it’s about what you’re listening and hearing. I know, in a recent chat you and I had a while back, you shared with me that you’re really beginning to focus your research on listening.

I’m curious if you could share a little bit about how you see listening and how we can become better listeners.

Alison Wood Brooks: It’s so funny that you say this, Matt, because my course is called TALK, and the great irony of it is that I think it should really be called “Listen.” That’s one of the biggest takeaways from it, is that it’s so hard to be a good listener and so very important. We have some really exciting research about listening that’s just come out. I work on this topic with a PhD student here at Harvard named Hanne Collins and a co-author named Mike Yeomans and my colleague at the Harvard Kennedy School named Julia Minson.

What we realized is the human mind is built to wander. It’s not built to focus in on one person for long stretches of time, and yet that’s what conversation demands of our mind, is to really pay attention to those three streams of content that I mentioned earlier, the verbal content, all those nonverbal cues, and also the paralanguage. It’s like drinking from a fire hydrant. We’re bombarded by information, and that information is very interesting. It often makes our minds make connections to random ideas, and then we want to elaborate and think about something else. This sort of feels like a personal profession of my own crazy mind wandering, but really, for everyone, it’s tremendous work to stay focused on a conversation partner as the whole conversation unfolds. What we have found in our research is a key piece of this is, if you’re putting in the effort to listen attentively to somebody, show it to them. Don’t just assume that they know.

There’s decades and decades of work on active listening. This focuses on things like eye contact and nodding and smiling and laughing at the right times and leaning towards your partner, these sort of nonverbal cues that you’re listening to somebody, and that’s all great, but it’s great as a very basic starting point. What we’re finding now is actually expressing your attentive listening with your words is what makes someone such a compelling communicator. I heard you earlier talking [about] that you also eat the same lunch every day, and the only way that I can say that now is because I was listening to you, and so remembering to bring it up later or express affirmation and say, “That’s so interesting that you eat the same lunch every day. Why do you do that?” and asking a followup question — these are undeniable cues that you’ve actually heard someone, processed what they were saying, and you’re repeating it back to them.

These are the sort of high-fidelity cues of good listening, and often people put in the work to listen to someone, and they just forget to show it. They forget to say it out loud, and it’s a huge missed opportunity. The ways to do this are through things like followup questions, callbacks to earlier topics, paraphrasing what someone has said, or if someone has said something that’s confusing, again revisiting those repair strategies, like can you ask a question that helps to fix a quick misunderstanding or this sort of rift in your shared reality. Can you do it right then and there, like you say, “Oh, I heard you say something about listening I didn’t quite understand. Can you explain that a little bit more to me?” All of these things show that you’re listening attentively to someone and that you care.

Matt Abrahams: I think the gift of listening is a true gift and having to demonstrate it — through your words is really, really important.

Matt Abrahams: As somebody who hosts a podcast and teaches people how to interview and to run panels, all the skills that you just talked about are critical in that success.

Alison Wood Brooks: Matt, are you always caught in the meta-loop? Do you feel like you’re floating over the room, watching yourself? It’s like you’re communicating about communication?

Matt Abrahams: Meta-communication is really critical to becoming a better communicator, but I absolutely agree, and I actually describe it just like you did, that to become a better communicator, you have to be engaged in it and present in the moment, but at the same time observing it from above to see what’s going on and what’s needed. Really effective communicators learn how to toggle between those two areas of focus to be effective, and it takes practice and time to do it.

You know, Alison, this conversation has been absolutely fantastic. I have learned a lot. I’d love to ask you the same three questions I ask everybody on this podcast. Are you ready for that?

Alison Wood Brooks: I was born ready.

Matt Abrahams: Sure. I know that for sure. Question one: if you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Alison Wood Brooks: One thing that sticks with me — this was from a professional matchmaker named Rachel Greenwald, who I love and adore and who also teaches communication. She uses this catchphrase, “Be more interested than interesting.”

Matt Abrahams: I think that’s a really powerful bit of advice, especially going back to the notion of small talk and chitchat. It’s really not about you. It’s about them. And I love that idea about being interested rather than interesting.

Alison Wood Brooks: Even more profoundly, I know that we both teach about communication and conversation, but to me, conversation is just the vehicle by which we express our humanity to each other and our caring for other people. So this idea of being more interested in others than trying to be interesting yourself is a good nudge to move beyond — it’s not about you. It’s about the people that surround you.

Matt Abrahams: And what you’re building with them, for sure. I am going to be really curious to hear your answer to this one. Number two: who is a communicator you admire, and why?

Alison Wood Brooks: It’s such a great question. There are so many communicators I admire, Matt. I mean, I admire you as a communicator and for many reasons. Perhaps the most embarrassing one is because you have such a lovely timbre to your voice. It’s pleasant to hear all the time.

Matt Abrahams: Why, thank you.

Alison Wood Brooks: Yes. We should get you to sing on this podcast.

Matt Abrahams: No, that would be a disaster.

Alison Wood Brooks: I think my real answer here is Stephen Colbert. In my course, we watch a few examples of his live conversation with other people. The first one is a conversation he has with comedian Ricky Gervais, and they’re debating the existence of God.

Matt Abrahams: Ooh.

Alison Wood Brooks: Have you seen this conversation?

Matt Abrahams: I have not.

Alison Wood Brooks: Ricky Gervais is trained as a philosopher, and what I love about it is that it’s this super serious topic, which they take seriously, and yet they find these moments of levity that are just so amazing, and even beyond the levity, they show incredible graciousness to the other person’s perspective, in particular Stephen Colbert, so big ups to Stephen Colbert.

Matt Abrahams: Wonderful. Question number three: What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Alison Wood Brooks: This is so hard. It’s so hard to pick. As a scientist, I can tell you what the most robust predictors are of a good conversation. It’s hard to narrow it down to three. I think it comes down to choosing good topics and making any topic good, asking good questions, finding moments of levity, and expressing our kindness to other people, but that’s an easy answer, so that’s not going to be my answer.

My real answer — I talk about this. I have a book coming out next year, and so, in the book, we talk about Minding the GAP, G-A-P. G-A-P are these three ingredients of gratitude, so being grateful for your conversation partners even giving you the honor of their time and to be in their presence. The A is acceptance. Every great conversation starts from a place of acceptance. It’s sort of this mantra of “yes and” that we borrow from stand-up comedians. Then the P is patience, so knowing that we’re always going to make mistakes, being patient with ourselves and with other people, and trying to fix them, so being patient with people when we predictably falter.

Matt Abrahams: Well, I cannot wait for your book to come out, and I really appreciate you filling in those gaps for us today —

Alison Wood Brooks: Aw.

Matt Abrahams: — and helping us understand better how we can communicate and converse and really listen, so that we can engage, demonstrate warmth, and learn from others. Alison, this was a tremendous pleasure to have you on, and it was great to chat with you.

Alison Wood Brooks: I’m so grateful for your time. Thanks, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Michael Reilly, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our theme music is composed by Floyd Wonder. We invite you to find more episodes wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to tell a friend or two to listen in as well. Subscribe and go ahead and rate and review the show as well. Finally, join us on LinkedIn, where our conversation continues.

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