You know that guy. The one who never stops talking about himself (no matter what the topic of the conversation was originally). If you own or run a small business, you don’t want to be that guy.

Unfortunately, we are all wired to talk about ourselves.

According to research conducted by Harvard neuroscientists Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell, about 40% of what an individual talks about everyday is devoted to what we feel or think. (Thus, the popularity of Twitter.) The reason we chatter so much about ourselves? It feels so rewarding, at the level of brain cells and synapses, that we can’t help sharing our thoughts. Bragging provides us sensations of pleasure similar to that provided by food and money.

“Self-disclosure is extra rewarding,” Tamir told the Wall Street Journal, “People were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves.” Unfortunately, forgoing money is exactly what will happen if you’re responsible for selling products or services and you make yourself the center of each conversation you find yourself engaged in.

The benefits of listening.

In popular culture, the stereotype of a salesman is something akin to a carnival midway “barker” encouraging people to step right up to see his demonstration of  Ginsu knives. But even a good Ginsu knife salesman knows when to stop talking and ask the reluctant customer if he’s ever seen such wonderfully sliced tomatoes. When a sales person stops talking and starts listening, it’s amazing how much the customer will reveal about themselves, their needs, their purchasing preferences, their favorite color. More than any browser cookie will ever reveal, a 10 minute conversation where the customer is talking and you are listening will provide you a deep understanding of whether or not you can develop a mutually-beneficial longterm relationship with them.

The Judo approach to becoming a brilliant conversationalist.


To succeed in sales, it’s important to work on developing a skill similar to the Errol Morris interview technique we’ve shared: “Shut up and listen, or, speak as little as possible.” Because you now know there’s a scientific reason people want to talk about themselves, use that knowledge in the same way a person who is an expert in Judo uses their opponent’s momentum as the source of power to knock them off their feet.

Tips for getting other people to talk about themselves.

All you need to do is Google the term “icebreaker” and you’ll see hundreds of top-ten lists for ways to start a conversation in any situation. We prefer the natural ways that reflect your personality and that don’t make you seem like a stalker. We will skip the “pickup line” approach and focus on some general guidelines:

  1. Be aware of the context: A natural way to start a conversation if a customer is looking at an item in your store is different than a natural way to start a conversation at a Chamber of Commerce business mixer. “Where do you work?” is not a great way to start a conversation if you run a tee-shirt shop, for instance.
  2. Children and pets: Just like on the internet, you can’t go wrong if you can get a person talking about their children or pets. You can’t stop them, either. If you head down this route, plan for a long, long conversation.
  3. How can you help them?: As we have written before, great salesmanship is not about being slick and “always be closing.” It’s about making customers smarter. If you can get a person to talk about a frustration that can be solved by the service or product you supply, you’ll have a much better chance of finding a natural way to segue into discussing your company.

Join the conversation: How do you get others to talk about themselves? We’ve added comments below so that we can stop talking so much, and start listening.  Please, please join in.

(Featured photo: Fabio Gismondi via Flickr)

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