Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

How To Make Clever Conversation

Without being especially clever.

I routinely see patients, both men and women, who have every reason to think they are bright. Often they were exceptional students throughout high school and college; and a number are working successfully at jobs that require skill and good judgment. Nevertheless, they are afraid to talk with others because they think that what they say is boring or just plain wrong. How can people who have every reason to think they are intelligent think also that they seem stupid as soon as they open their mouths?

The reason is the same reason some people feel unattractive or unsuccessful or unappealing or just plain inadequate. They were taught to feel that way. They grew up in an environment where they were told, usually by parents, that they were not as good as their siblings or their cousins, or the guys down the street. Sometimes their parents were explicit. “Stop eating all the time; you’re too fat as it is.” Or “You better learn how to cook because no man is going to want to marry you on your looks alone.” Or “A ninety-five is not good enough.” Or “Get your brother to explain it to you. He always knows these things.” Sometimes it is a teacher. “Sit in the back of the room. You’re not going to understand this stuff anyway.”

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Sometimes the admonition is more subtle. “It doesn’t matter how well you do as long as you try. I think you’re doing pretty well, considering.” In this way low expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What I am speaking about, of course, is low self-esteem. Someone who has been told she is stupid is likely also to feel unattractive and inadequate in other ways. So, naturally, such a person has learned that what she, or he, has to say is not worth listening to. These self-deprecating ideas are very difficult to change. They continue on sometimes in the face of signal achievement—although, of course, they diminish the chance of such success.  There is nothing I can say here that will challenge these beliefs. If you feel you are not interesting, I cannot say anything that will change your mind.

But, there is a strategy you can take that will make you seem clever and interesting nevertheless!

Back in the 1960s, someone wrote a program, a SIMPLE computer program called Eliza, based on an idea in Rogerian psychotherapy, a system of psychotherapy in which the “therapist” simply reflects back to the patient things the patient said or asks simple questions like “How do you feel about that?” For example:  patient:   “I went to see my mother at her job.”        Eliza:  “You went to her job.”            Or,             patient: “Both my brothers were at the party.”                         Eliza:  “How did you feel about that?” Or,     Patient: “I went to school in the Bronx.”                                     Eliza: “Tell me more about your school.”

These stereotyped, and somewhat inane conversations, led the patients to believe that Eliza was a real person! And they liked her as a therapist! Despite being told that she was only a computer program, a VERY SIMPLE program, they were impressed by how insightful she was. Which brings me to the point I wish to make: seeming intelligent does not require that you be intelligent—or that you consider yourself intelligent.

In order to conduct an interesting conversation, you do not need to know much about literature or art—or politics or the stock market or the latest play on Broadway. These are not things that preoccupy most people. Certainly, telling jokes well, does not make you interesting. Knowing a lot about some peculiar subject, such as Eastern religion, does not make you interesting. What people are interested in is ME and YOU. That is what people talk about. If your mind goes blank-- If you are shy or self-conscious—follow Eliza’s strategy. Ask your new friend questions about himself/herself. You can reflect his/her conversation by remarking about something similar that you experienced. Being a good listener means responding in such a way. Ask your friend how he/she feels about whatever the two of you are discussing.  Repeat (showing interest) what he or she has just said. Ask him or her to elaborate. This is good conversation. If you can manage to seem very focused on your friend’s responses, you will seem very sensitive and insightful, even charming.

Eliza used to lose her way every once in a while by not quite understanding what was being said.

Patient: “My God, how could he do something like that to me!”  Eliza: “Tell me more about your god.”

But I am not suggesting that you limit your conversation strictly to what Eliza would have said.   (c) Fredric Neuman  Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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