I have a friend who is an extremely famous novelist and when he’s at a party, he’s always the most popular guest in attendance. Part of it is a reflection of his celebrity because everyone wants to be close to a celebrity so you drop his name later with your commoner friends. But he has another technique that is quite amazing — he’s a wheel greaser. Even though he appears on all the high-brow TV talk shows and has had lunch with the Queen, he is the guy at the party who’s pouring wine into your class and asking what you’ve been doing lately and making you feel good about yourself. It’s almost as if he’s so famous and sure of himself that he is perfectly at ease not being the center of attention. Whatever his motive, it works. Every guest feels at the end of the night that they’ve been with someone spectacular and that this spectacular person likes them.
I also had this experience, if only for a moment, with Bill Clinton when he was running in the primaries in 1991. I was visiting a friend who was staying a hotel in Los Angeles and I was waiting for the elevator. When the doors opened, a group of suited men came out and one of them was Clinton. Without thinking I stuck out my hand said, “How do you do, Mr. Clinton.” Clinton stopped his entire group in the foyer and had a five-minute conversation with me. He asked me where I was from, what I was doing in Los Angeles, what I did for a living, how I felt about the primaries. He talked about the campaign and how he was feeling about it all. To a perfect stranger. One vote could not have been that important. I felt like I was the only people in the room when with the future president. People with super interpersonal skills have just that ability. I’m not saying that any of us is going to rise to that level but it’s interesting to observe.
The trait that these two guys share is their ability to listen and to elicit “stories” from others. But often listening is not as easy as it sounds. As we listen, we have a whole array of thoughts going through our heads. We may be disputing what someone says, we may be bored by it, we may be threatened by it. But listening is so important in human interaction that it’s important to find a way to really be able to listen.