Imagine you are running. Because you’re running, your heart is beating faster, you’re perspiring, you’re nearing the end of a challenging run, so you’re also feeling a little negative about the experience because you want it to end.
Meanwhile, someone comes up to you to have a conversation. They see you are still running, so they start to pick up their pace too. Now they are running with you. Soon enough, their heart is beating, they are perspiring, and so on.
It’s a little weird to think of it this way, but you just transferred your feelings to that person because they needed to set themselves to your pace in order to stay engaged.
Most of us understand the less subtle nature of emotional transferrance: Walk up to someone with anger, and they’ll feel threatened and angry too. We understand the concept already to some degree.
But we know better than to act this way at work where we keep our emotions and true feelings in check. Yet if we choose to speak at a fast rate, we have the jogger’s transferrance happening in that person’s mind. Isn’t that interesting? You are talking fast, so the listener must think harder. They have to stress themselves just a little bit to more attentively hear you than they would if you spoke slower. And this is to say nothing of tone of voice.
Put another way, we can't flip the stress switch off, but we can down-inflect and force ourselves to just speak a little slower. Even when we are burning in the flames of stress, accomplishing this modification does wonders to prevent that stress from transferring.
Making a Connection
The point is not that we should all talk slowly. This is just to show how we can create emotions in other people's heads in subtle ways.
That sounds a little devious, doesn't it? Understanding the subtleties of non verbal cues does wield power that can be used for evil. I like to think of this more like a knife—it is a powerful tool but it can be used both to hurt and to feed depending on how it is applied.
With that permission to explore further, let us acknowledge the overlap of connecting with other humans and the transferrance of emotion. If you've ever felt frustrated with someone for trying to solve your problem when what you really wanted was for them to understand how you feel, then you understand this element of connection all too well.
We've been told all our lives various bits of advice all having something to do with smiling, but the trouble is with simple, seemingly obvious advice is its nature to be so obvious as to be ignorable: Just smile, when you're feelin' down, just smile, and whatever other vacuous vagueries.
The thing is with smiling is it's a deeply animalistic mode of communication. The human race evolved to handle dynamics of threats, mating, protection, and the like.
I was given some immensely helpful advice a while back in Paris when I was roaming the streets with a local to the region but still new to the city. It was early in the morning and we were finding our way back via the courtesy of strangers.
Let me rephrase that, we were finding our way back home by approaching parisians as complete strangers, asking them to stop what they were doing and give us guidance. My host was doing quite well. She would greet the individual, make eye contact, and proceed to ask politely if they might help her to show her the way.
After a few repetitions of these interactions, she turned to me motivated by her success and told me, "always smile, the smile puts people at ease. It makes them want to help you." I've never forgotten this advice and honor it by using it in my daily interactions. There is something about the addition of just a smile that swims right through the nostrils of the listener, back into their head until it reaches the center of their brains to dip their thalamus into a jacuzzi of calmness.
I notice this when I need to ask a colleague a difficult question, in the forum of their peers. I do nothing else but to add a smile to my face while asking my question. As if uncontrollable on their part, they just can't help to return the smile back. We are in conversation but I'm convinced our midbrains are having their own bonding exercise through our facial gestures. Whatever feeling of fighting conflict they might have had or suspected prior becomes a fight against gravity because they couldn't help but intercept my universal symbol to prove that I am not a threat.
Suffice it to say, it's a magical experience when it works. I encourage you to practice throwing a smile whenever you can. Do it while you're already mid-sentence. Do it even if you feel it will come across too faked. The smile is an indispensible tool of communication.
To add another layer to the power of the smile, consider this study from 1988 which has since been referenced in psychology textbooks worldwide. The study shows us that the act of smiling itself even has unknown effects on the smiler. Participants were asked to read the text of comics holding a pencil in their mouths. A separate group was told they could not let their lips touch the pencil. Little did they know this required them to form a smile. Without knowing these two groups existed and not knowing the significance of the instructions, the group that smiled when they read the comics rated the material funnier than the group who were allowed to relax their lips. In essence, smiling made them happier which is a reversal of the more obvious directionality of smiling being a consequence of happiness.
If you've ever patted yourself on the back for having such a great idea only to find someone had discovered it long before you did, I give you my own such example: Conversational breadcrumbs.
When Hansel and Gretel wandered into the woods, they were afraid they wouldn't find their way back home, so they dropped crumbs of the bread they were eating behind them. In the story, this strategy was proven clever but ineffective because the birds ate them up immediately afterwards. Despite this, "breadcrumbs" have entered the lexicon as a metaphor for wayfinding.
In conversations, people will drop breadcrumbs for you in the hopes you'll see the trail and follow it. They may not even be aware they are doing so.
"...and that's what I get for being a professional diver!"
"...so I realized that helping with my Dad's business actually was the right thing for me."
"...and that's what gets under my skin, it's like when people say they'll meet you somewhere, but they show up late and with their friends."
These are all examples of unusually specific statements in a conversation. They can sound a little awkward, but if we remove the judgment, we see the speaker is subconsciously pleading with us to steer the conversation towards a topic that is buzzing in their heads. Look for and read into the breadcrumbs.
Mirroring and Unpacking
Interesting things happen when we demonstrate in the simplest way possible that a transmission has been received.
"...and that's what I get for being a professional diver!"
"You're a professional diver?"
"I am! I...[30 minutes of the person opening up about themselves]"
How many times have you been in a conversation with one or more people that was really an exchange of people taking their turn to speak while barely tethering to the subject at hand? When you break from this and actually invite your guest to unpack part of what they're saying (especially if they're leaving it as a breadcrumb), you'll notice they become motivated to do exactly that.
As if compelled by a spell, it is equally remarkable how little it takes to do this—simply repeating their own words back to them and with genuine interest, they are suddenly motivated to give you more information on the subject.
I've long struggled with a clumsiness in conversations where I find myself constantly turning the conversation back to myself, submitting myself to the cycle of taking my turn to speak. The act of mirroring and unpacking by just repeating back what the speaker has said has been tremendously helpful to me personally.
Simply parrotting back others' statements will come across a little annoying eventually, so it helps to vary it a bit by not only repeating word-for-word the speaker's statements, but actually paraphrasing them. In fact, this is an improvement on active listening in a way. When we get it right, there is a delight in the speaker to hear their own thoughts repeated in the vein of our own style of speaking. When we get it wrong, there is a delight in the speaker to retain control and have the space to guide the interpretation.