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Smooth Encounters

Although little interactions add up to a good chunk of our everyday lives, we often don't give them their due. Yet there's a way to make almost every encounter successful.

Image: Wallflower at party vs. Social butterfly

Every day, we engage in hundreds of seemingly mundane interactions that we think little about but that nevertheless add up to a substantial portion of our social life. Some, like asking for a raise or attending a cocktail party, generate significant levels of anxiety, while others are so ritualized they consume little thought.

Despite the mindlessness we often bring to such everyday encounters, they cumulatively impact perception of the quality of our life: We receive a compliment, then automatically deflect it. We lodge a complaint but feel tainted by the negativity. We make a minor blunder but can't shake the humiliation.

Just because we may not pay mundane interactions much attention, however, doesn't mean that researchers ignore them. In fact, it is one of the operating principles of social psychology that even the most minute encounters can have large effects on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

In that spirit, researchers have explored many of our everyday activities—and found empirical evidence that they can be performed better. We can greatly reduce our stress and get more of what we seek by applying a cornucopia of information from recent studies that bear directly on the small problems and challenges of our daily lives.

If there is a unifying theme to the findings, it is that the most successful encounters accommodate, even anticipate, the respondent's point of view. That is, if we want something only another person can give—friendship, acceptance, forgiveness—we need to factor the other person's mindset into our requests and behaviors.

How to Get an Honest Answer

You're buying a used car, moving into a new apartment, or determining which doctor should treat your cancer. These are times when you need to get directly to the core of an issue.

Asking general questions elicits little valuable information and may even yield deceptive responses, observes Julia Minson, a visiting scholar in decision sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. The best bet is to ask probing questions that presume there are problems.

Let's say someone is selling a used iPod. A general question is, "What can you tell me about it?" A positive-assumption question is, "There aren't any problems with it, right?" But a negative-assumption question, such as, "What problems have you had with it?" will get the most honest response, found Minson and colleague Maurice Schweitzer. In a study that set up a fake sales interaction, 87 percent of the sellers alerted the buyer to problems when asked a negative-assumption question, versus 59 percent of those responding to a positive-assumption query and 10 percent of those responding to a general one.

When you want to hear the unvarnished truth, you have to ask for it: What mechanical problems does this car have? What are the worst parts of the job? How many people with my kind of illness has she successfully treated? What are their relapse rates? Your questions should communicate that you assume there will be difficulties and drawbacks, and that you want to hear about them. Depending on the situation, to elicit the most honest response you might want to add an offer of confidentiality. Timidity should not deter such questioning, says Minson. "We found that asking negative-assumption questions did not affect ratings of politeness."

How to Frame Criticism

No one likes being told they are doing something wrong, which is why even "constructive criticism" is usually received with defensiveness. That's why Denver psychologist Susan Heitler, author of From Conflict to Resolution, recommends feedback that "skips the complaining and goes straight to the explaining."

For instance, while cooking, instead of saying, "That's not the way to sauté, that will dry out the potatoes," offer helpful tips, such as: "If you start out with a hot skillet, it will be easier to tell when the potatoes are done; that's it, keep stirring until the onions are translucent, add a little more butter, keep stirring...perfect!"

For parents, the same approach applies to homework and chores. Choose encouraging statements over a stern grilling, Heitler advises, and say what you would prefer your child to do rather than what she has not done or has done incorrectly. ("I'd love to see your playroom cleaned up by this weekend so you and your friends can have fun downstairs," instead of "This place is a mess! What have you been doing? You haven't picked up one thing. No one is coming over this weekend until this room is spotless.")

Criticism is the single most significant factor in a child's perception of the parental relationship. It's important to criticize without demeaning or humiliating.

If you feel disappointed with a child's performance at school or in any other domain, it's best to channel the feeling into a fact-finding discussion. Ask your child to evaluate his own performance and what he got out of the experience. If he is dissatisfied with the outcome of his own actions, ask what he might do differently the next time, and what he feels he needs in order to do as well as he wants.

There is mounting evidence that criticism can be damaging to all relationships and individual mental health. Jill Hooley, a psychologist at Harvard, and John Teasdale, a psychologist at Oxford and architect of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, have found that the single best predictor of relapse for married adults with depression is response to the question "How critical is your spouse of you?" Patients who relapsed rated their spouses as significantly more critical than did patients who remained well.

We are social creatures, and the way we say things has real power. To show care when choosing how to phrase something is a way to honor, and safeguard, any relationship.

Accepting a Compliment

Nearly everyone who is asked, "What is the proper response to a compliment?" replies, "Say 'thank you.'" But when actually offered a compliment, only a third of people accept it so simply and smoothly, found linguist Robert Herbert of Binghamton University.

The difficulty lies in the fact that a compliment ("What a nice sweater!") has two levels: a gift component (accept or reject) and a content component (agree or disagree). The addressee is confronted with a dilemma—how to respond simultaneously to both: "I must agree with the speaker and thank him for the gift of a compliment while avoiding self-praise."

Contrary to conventional wisdom, women aren't worse than men at accepting compliments. It is the gender of the compliment-giver that most influences the response. Women and men are both more likely to accept a compliment coming from a man than from a woman. When a man says, "Nice scarf," a woman is more likely to respond affirmatively: "Thanks, my sister knitted it for me."

But when one woman tells another, "That's a beautiful sweater," she is likely to demur or deflect: "It was on sale at Walmart, and they didn't even have the color I wanted." Such a response, intended to make the complimenter feel that the recipient isn't overly proud, only makes her feel awkward or invalidated instead.

Compliments can expose a wide range of social ineptitude. Responses Herbert recorded include "praise upgrades" ("Yes, it really brings out the blue in my eyes"), follow-up questions ("Do you really think so? Do you want to borrow it?"), and disagreement ("It's itchy; I hate it"). Better to make a relevant, related comment ("Thanks, it's my favorite too"). But nothing tops a smile, looking the complimenter in the eye, and saying, "Thank you."

How to Ask a Loved One to Drink/Eat Less

Expressing concern about a friend or family member's food or alcohol consumption is a walking-on-eggshells conversation if ever there was one. The technique of motivational enhancement, which guides people toward making healthier decisions by tapping into their own values, can provide a template for encouraging someone you care about to drink less alcohol, eat fewer unhealthy foods, or partake less of any other harmful behavior.

The most effective change conversations begin with active empathy, says William Miller, emeritus professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico and a specialist in alcoholism and addictions. Confrontation leads only to resistance and denial.

Miller and colleague Stephen Rollnick found it is essential to engage a person's intrinsic motivation to change. Conversational techniques include asking open-ended questions ("How do you feel about your health right now?" "What kinds of activities do you like that don't involve eating/drinking?" "What small change would you like to make?"), providing affirmations ("It seems that you would like to work on your self-control."), using reflective listening, and making summary statements.

A key component of motivational enhancement is to help a person recognize the difference between the way she wants her life to be and the way it is now: "How does drinking every night interfere with other things you would like to do?" The question allows the person to come up with her own solutions as well as her own motivations.

It's helpful to focus on things that are important to your loved one without laying on guilt ("What will the children think?"). Goals should be small, specific, and realistic, and always the person's own idea: "So what do you want to tackle first?" Self-control can be practiced, and habits can be formed and unformed. The path starts within, whether it leads to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting or a brisk walk around the block.

Parsing Praise

Kind words can be powerful motivators—but only if you praise the right things. Praising someone's ability to work hard is more effective than gushing about how brilliant she is. Research shows that kids who are praised for their intelligence do not try as hard on future tasks. Praising smarts breeds the belief that things should come naturally —and when they don't, kids think they are no longer bright. Or they choose unchallenging paths so as not to be exposed as "frauds."

"Being praised for effort or other aspects of performance directly under your control leads to resilience, while being praised for being smart or for other innate abilities can lead to feelings of helplessness or self-doubt when a setback occurs," says psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. The ideal is to help someone think positively but realistically about achieving goals while praising their hard work. When praised for persistence, those who think the path ahead will be difficult invest more effort.

How praise is delivered counts as much as what gets praised. Praise should be specific and sincere—and given generously, especially at the office. Workers asked to learn a task performed better the next day if they had been praised at the end of the first day, report Japanese researchers. To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being given money.

The Power of Persuasion

Our polarized political climate might suggest that no one can be persuaded of anything, everyone's already made up his or her mind. But if that were true, there would be no sales jobs, lawyers, or therapists. In fact, many of us have to persuade people, in our daily lives, to buy into something they might not otherwise consider.

When you want to change someone's mood, mind, or willingness to act, ask yourself not "How can I win this argument?" but "How can I win agreement without anger?" says rhetorics expert Jay Heinrichs, author of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. Figure out what you want, then go about getting it.

Image: Devil boss shaking Angel employee's hand

"Never debate the undebatable," he says. "Instead, focus on goals." Control the mood with volume, tone, stories. Watch for persuadable moments. And most important, to gain agreement, be agreeable—express similarities and shared values; show people that you have their best interests, as well as your own, at heart. ("You may not agree with gay marriage, but do you really want Big Brother deciding what we can and can't do in our private lives?")

And never discount the power of bringing up someone's peer group, says Robert Cialdini, Arizona State University psychologist turned consultant, who wrote the book on persuasion (Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion). He points to an energy company that placed monthly hangers on doors to let people know where they stood on energy use compared to their neighbors—and reduced usage by 3.5 percent. "It's not peer pressure as much as 'social evidence,'" says Heinrichs. Evolutionarily, it's proven smart to do what those around us in similar situations have done.

The Act of Apologizing

Sorry, my mistake. It won't happen again. Please forgive me. If such words come easily to you, you're lucky. Most of us have to steel ourselves to apologize, sometimes because it feels as if we were fully justified in our offending behavior, other times because it is so humiliating to admit that we weren't.

It turns out that the words you utter when apologizing are less important than the act of apologizing itself. Decades of research exist about both the things people say when they apologize and the effectiveness of apologies in remediating the negative effects of a transgression.

Social psychologist Steven Scher of Eastern Illinois University has identified five main elements of apologies: a simple expression of regret ("I'm sorry," "I apologize," or "Excuse me"); an explanation or account of the cause that brought about the violation ("I forgot to call you the other day with the information"); an expression of the speaker's responsibility for the offense ("What I did was wrong"); a promise of forbearance ("I promise nothing like this will happen again"); and an offer of repair ("What can I do to make it up to you?").

Image: Big bad wolf apologizing to pig for wrecked house

"The greatest improvement in perceptions comes from the addition of one apology strategy—the offering of an apology, compared to no apology," Scher has found. "And each element has something to offer apologizers in their attempts to remedy the social relationships that have been threatened." Sometimes the effects are additive (the more components, the better).

While all apologies appear to increase judgments of blame—after someone admits to something, there is very little doubt that they are responsible—they also tend to reduce sanctions against and negative evaluations of the transgressor. Most apologies also reduce the anger of the victim, although that clearly varies with the level of the offense (say, forgetting a meeting of your book club versus forgetting your cousin's wedding).

Insincere apologies can be worse than none at all, find psychologist Jeanne Zechmeister and colleagues at Chicago's Loyola University. That's why they titled their study report "Don't Apologize Unless You Mean It: A Laboratory Investigation of Forgiveness and Retaliation."

Women do apologize more than men but not for the reasons you think, say social psychologists Karina Schumann and Michael Ross of the University of Waterloo, Ontario. "Our findings suggest that men apologize less frequently than women not because their egos are more fragile but because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior."

Complaining with Grace

Both direct observation of experts and psychological research point in one direction: A successful complaint usually boils down to being really nice and staying very calm, but never settling for less than you believe is fair.

Image: Complaint box with card sticking out

First, determine exactly what you want in reparation and figure out who has the ability to provide it. Start with something pleasant—"This is one of our favorite restaurants"—which prevents the target of your complaint from feeling attacked.

Then make your complaint or request—"But tonight the cheese bread was burned. Could we possibly get another order that is less crisp?"

And follow it with a statement of gratitude for their help ("Thanks so much, you're a dear").

If you master the art of effective complaining, you'll get what you want, says New York psychologist Guy Winch, author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem.

Businesses are now realizing how important it is to take complaints seriously and resolve them to the customer's satisfaction. Many have put a response process in place and train employees to deal with complaints.

Companies that go to the trouble of developing a response system presuppose that you actually want something and aren't complaining just to blow off steam.

But if that is all you're doing, make sure that the person to whom you're complaining knows you just need a sympathetic ear.

How to Thrive at a Cocktail Party

Indie rocker Alex Kapranos says, "Just because you can leap off a drum kit doing a scissors kick while hitting a chord, people expect you to be an extravert socially. But I'm not always comfortable with the idea of small talk at a party." Kapranos isn't alone. Forty percent of the population falls into that category, observes Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast.

Carducci considers small talk the "cornerstone of civility"— it paves the way for bigger conversations. His pocket guide to social discourse, How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything, suggests you seek out a prop or act as a host by introducing people to each other.

Like anything else, small talk gets easier the more you do it, so you have to look for opportunities to practice. Start with people walking their dogs in the neighborhood, move up to small gatherings, and soon you'll be able to hold forth at the office party. Here are Carducci's five cardinal rules: Be nice, but not necessarily brilliant; keep your opening lines simple and think about your introduction beforehand (your name, and a little information about yourself that might serve as conversation kindling later); join conversations that are already in progress by extending or elaborating on the topic of discussion or introduce new topics, perhaps from current events; end by saying, "There's someone I have to speak with but it was really nice meeting you"; and summarize the conversation so they'll know you were listening.

Don't make the mistake of staying on one subject for too long. It's called "small talk" for a reason. Think conversational hors d'oeuvres, with each topic sampled and savored.