How to engage people in conversation

In this excerpt from his new book, Hollywood producer Brian Grazer gives a lesson in the art of eye contact

For the past forty years, I have been tracking down people about whom I am curious and asking if I can sit down with them for an hour. Sometimes this results in meetings with several new people a week. I have no other motive than to learn something from them that will broaden my mind and alter my understanding of the world. It’s also important to me that my conversation partner benefit as well, so I try to ask thought-provoking questions that might ignite insights for them as well. In addition, I am sure to bring some kind of gift or some knowledge they would find useful or interesting.  

Every curiosity conversation is different. I always prepare for them as best I can, but what I’ve found is that the key to a fulfilling interaction depends on much more than showing up with a list of questions. In fact, while it’s important to be prepared, it’s even more important to show up with the capacity for wonderment and openness, a beginner’s mind, really. Approaching these meetings with no end point in mind is what makes them conversations rather than rigid, agenda-driven interviews. When you enter into conversation with someone, you must pay attention to what they are saying if you want the exchange to go anywhere. And paying attention starts with the eyes.

Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

The basic habit of looking other people in the eye is the starting point for why my curiosity conversations work and why they are so exciting. If curiosity is the engine that gets me in the room with another person and propels the conversation, eye contact is the ignition point. It is the first step in truly getting to know someone and creating a real connection.

In a curiosity conversation, looking at someone with calm, centered, interested eyes helps me focus, listen, formulate questions, and move the discussion forward. It also sends a message that is critical to the success of the conversation. It says I am present. When you show someone that you are paying attention to them with your eyes, you are also communicating that you sincerely want to get to know them. You are taking the time and energy to focus on them because they matter; their knowledge, thoughts, insights, experiences are of value. There is not one person on earth, regardless of their industry, status, or passions, who doesn’t crave that kind of validation, whether they admit it or not. In my experience, when you are able to give people that, they are more likely to talk openly and honestly about who they are and why they do the things they do. And often they will want to know about you, too.

We’ve all heard the truism that love isn’t a one-way street. In fact, no connection, even one made between strangers, is. Think about your own experiences at work or at home. If your daughter comes home and you tell her all about your day without asking anything about hers, the moment is likely to fall flat. The same is true if you are talking to someone who wants to tell you everything about their life but expresses no interest in yours. A one-way soul grab never works. It has to be mutually fulfilling. The best curiosity conversations are the ones where both people are engaged, contributing, and learning from each other. We’re absorbed in each other’s eyes, listening, empathizing, and, sometimes, even reaching a place of vulnerability and trust. There is a give and take, which fosters intimacy. When that happens, there is (almost) nothing like it. I often find myself thinking, “Wow, this is like being on the most fantastic date.” When I feel the chemistry of a real connection, I don’t want it to end.

Brian Grazer is an Oscar-winning producer and New York Times best-selling author. His films and television shows have been nominated for 43 Academy Awards and 195 Emmys. His credits include A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Splash, and Arrested Development, among others. Grazer is the cofounder of Imagine Entertainment, a member at WeWork Pacific Design Center, with his longtime partner, Ron Howard.

Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection by Brian Grazer. Copyright © 2019 by Brian Grazer. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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