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Have Better Conversations With the "Rule of Three"

Are you getting your message across? Maybe you should try this.

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The secret to being a good conversationalist—one people enjoy talking with, and whose company they seek—is very simple. It's talking with them, not to them or at them.

It works like magic.

William James, a pioneer in the development of psychology, said, “The deepest craving in every human being is the desire to be appreciated.” Yet many people are too busy appreciating themselves in conversation to notice or appreciate others.

Whether we like it or not, most people react to more than just the words we say. They respond to certain subtle features of our statements, and to the degree of respect, appreciation, and generosity we convey in the way we speak.

People who throw out dogmatic opinions like little verbal hand grenades usually don't recognize the subtle reactions of avoidance by others who feel a vague sense that they're being bombarded or bullied.

  • "All he ever talks about is himself—what he's doing, what he's interested in, what his ideas are."
  • “She constantly lectures me. She never asks what I think.”
  • "There's no disagreeing with him. I just let him expound, and then I just try to change the subject."
  • “She has an opinion about everything, and she’ll give it to you—whether you ask for it or not.”

What's a better way to communicate? How can you attract people to yourself and your ideas without alienating them? Start by changing the proportion of three kinds of sentences you use in your conversation.

1. Declarations. Statements of fact, or at least something you claim is a fact, e.g. "Nebraska is the only state in the U.S. that has a unicameral legislature." A statement that is truly declarative can be verified by some evidence. Unfortunately, too many supposedly declarative sentences are really disguised opinions, e.g. “A nationalized health plan will never work in this country.” A conversation with 100% declaratives and a predominance of opinions is a conversation that’s really all about the speaker.

2. Questions. Ways we license others to contribute what they know and believe. Questions personalize a conversation and allow others to feel that they're participating in it, rather than enduring it. “Where are your favorite places to travel?” “What do you think about the candidates?” “How are you dealing with that challenge?” Asking a fair number of questions during your conversation shows that you’re willing to share the stage with other people.

3. Conditionals. Also called qualifiers, these are ways of gently expressing our views, opinions, and perspectives with specific acknowledgement that others have the right to see things differently. For example: "I can't speak for everyone, but taking melatonin supplements doesn't seem to help me sleep." Consider the comparatively dogmatic alternative: "Melatonin is no good for insomnia." The self-reference form—"It seems to me..."; "As far as I know..."; "I think I read somewhere that..."; "I’m not completely certain, but I think..."—subtly conveys that you respect the other person's right to a different viewpoint, and signals that you'll treat their ideas with respect, even if you disagree.

Not everyone gets this concept right away. People who've spent most of their lives battling with their opinions sometimes feel that identifying one's opinion as an opinion, thereby signaling that the other person might have a different view, may reject this conversational strategy as wimpy or time-wasting.

The response of one woman who attended a seminar I taught many years ago sums it up. She declared forcefully, "Why should I have to tell somebody that it's just my opinion? A person would have to be stupid not to know it's my opinion!"

The irony of her statement reminds me of the example of the person who comes into a room wearing earmuffs in ordinary weather. When someone asks, "Why are you wearing earmuffs?" he answers, "What?" When the other person asks the question repeatedly, a bit louder each time, the wearer finally says, "I can't hear you—I've got my earmuffs on."

Try an experiment for the next few days, to evaluate this "rule of three." When you're in a conversation of any kind—casual or business—monitor the proportion of declaratives, questions, and conditionals you use. After a few declaratives, try turning the conversation around and asking a question, so the other person can begin to own it. When you answer, try substituting a conditional or qualified response for the strong opinion you might otherwise put out.

As you consciously rearrange your conversation, try to detect the subtle reactions others show to the differences, and see whether the Rule of Three helps you create greater empathy and more rewarding conversations. While you're at it, keep track of the relative proportion of the three key sentence types in the conversations of others. How does the relative abundance of all three types affect their conversations?

Let me know how it works.

Order Karl's book Brain Snacks: Fast Food for Your Mind

Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, coach, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in business on the topic of leadership.

He is a recognized expert on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are widely used in business and education. The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.

Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks is fun.

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