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4 Things to Learn From One of the Greatest Psychologists of All Time

4 Things to Learn From One of the Greatest Psychologists of All Time

Paul Ekman is the world’s most famous face-reader. Every psychology student knows his name and even beyond the field of psychology, Ekman and his work is recognized. Ekman dedicated his whole career towards the understanding of emotions and the associated patterns in the human face. Due to his accomplishments he not only belongs to ‘Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world (2009)’ but he is also one of the 100 most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

You might know his work through TV shows like Lie To Me, which is based on his studies, or you’ve read one of his famous books Emotions Revealed and Telling Lies, which teach you how to read faces and detect lies. Besides this he works with secret agencies like the FBI or CIA and advises movie companies like Pixar. The now 80-year old Ekman already met the Dalai Lama three times and talked with him about emotions.

Despite travelling and numerous responsibilities, he took some time to talk to me. As an aspiring psychologist I am more than familiar with his work and there are already dozens of high quality interviews about his research as well as several books. Therefore I decided to reach out to him and talk with him about more universal topics. More specifically we talked about: the importance of a mentor, how to actually find one, learning, reading, writing and what it takes to become an outstanding psychologist. From our conversation I learned the following things:

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1. The Importance of a mentor and how to find one

Ekman said it is definitely very important to have a good mentor and it had a decisive influence more than once on his own life and career. His mentors led him through critical moments and supported him with guidance. Ekman also listed a lot of different qualities he learned from them, not at least he learned excitement about research and the necessary care.

Though the process of finding a mentor seemed to be rather guided by luck or the right circumstances in Ekman’s case. Robert Berryman, one of his first mentors, was running a lab at his University and Silvan Tomkins, which was his most important mentor, reached in a similar paper at the same journal. The editor of the journal then connected Ekman and Tomkins and this resulted in a long friendship and mentorship between the two.

So obviously Ekman got his mentors rather by chance as opposed to consciously reaching out to them. What needs to be considered is, that fifty years ago it was definitely harder to contact or learn about possible mentors. Nowadays this is far easier, so you shouldn’t rely just on chance, but make an effort and reach out to possible mentors (check out this video to find out how: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQPGQCeqB-I)

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2. You don’t have to have the same views as your mentor

While talking about his mentors and their impact on his life, Ekman mentioned several times that he either had different views, didn’t fully adapt a certain mindset or shook off the influence later (eg. the Skinerian influence of Berryman). Though he still said how important it was to have a mentor in order to learn things like persistence and perseverance as well as care, when it comes up to research. From Robert Berryman, Ekman especially learned about the excitement of research.

His mentors also encouraged him to take on new studies or pursue certain endeavors.  Silvan Tomkins for example led him to the decision to study cross cultural studies.

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So a lot of the learning that occurred was not simply on a content-level but rather on a meta-level. He rather learned about learning, attitudes and working habits. Tomkins even doubted that Ekman would be able to create a coding system of the face. Where in the end he succeeded (he invented the Facial Action Coding System- FACS). This shows mentors are tremendously important, but it is also necessary to free yourself and follow your own path at the right moment. Though finding this right moment, when to follow your own path and when to listen to your mentor is a hard task.

3. Learning, Reading, Writing

I asked Paul Ekman how he learns, reads and what percentage of his time is still dedicated towards learning new things. Often people are very surprised to hear, that even coryphes that accomplished everything you can think of and are already in their eighties still dedicate a significant amount of their time to mastering and learning new things. Same with Ekman, he still dedicates around 10% of his time to learning new things. A few years ago he even invested between 30-40% of his time to learning. This seems incredibly remarkable thinking of the fact that he is the greatest living-face reader, already in his 80ties and he still bothers with learning new things. But maybe this is exactly what helped him to accomplish all these things, the urge to learn and develop at all stages of life.

When he reads he always goes for hard copies to mark things. Also one effective way, as he figured out, to learn new things is writing about them. Since in order to write about something you need to have a deep understanding of the field.

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4. Four things to a great career

When I asked Ekman, “What differentiates good psychologists from those who make truly great contributions?” He answered simply that he didn’t know. Though he said there are four things that were essential to his own career.  These four things are: serendipity, perseverance, aim and timing. Serendipity is important because you sometimes need this lucky strike, where you just find something. In Ekman’s case somebody asked him a question that he hasn’t thought about himself and he didn’t know the answer to, but he thought it was interesting and followed through and researched it. At this point perseverance becomes important. You have to have the endurance to thoroughly research the question and master the necessary skills on the way (and apply deliberate practice as Cal Newport would call it – http://calnewport.com/blog/2013/04/08/deliberately-experimenting-with-deliberate-practice-looking-for-subjects-to-test-my-advice/ always talks about). Ekman further said that it is essential to have the right aim and he even emphasized that you should aim as high as you can. Though the last point is probably harder done than said, but while doing all these things the timing needs to be right.

Featured photo credit: kqedquest via flickr.com

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Last Updated on January 15, 2019

How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

Many of us feel awkward talking to strangers. I’m a very outgoing person, even though I sometimes feel uncomfortable walking up to someone and asking a question or starting a conversation. I consider myself pretty high up on the extrovert meter. So what is it that makes us pause and become worried or anxious about talking to people we don’t know?

In this article, we will discuss why we feel this way as well as some tips on how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

Step right up, don’t be shy!

Why We Feel Awkward Talking to Strangers

The next time you feel uncomfortable talking to a stranger, tell yourself that’s completely normal. There are numerous reasons why it’s actually natural to feel awkward talking to strangers:

Our Stress Levels Rise Around Strangers

Numerous studies have show that our levels of cortisol go up when we are around strangers.[1] Cortisol is the hormone inside of us which produces stress responses.[2]
So there you go, right off the bat you can see part of your standard response to strangers is due to a chemical reaction!

A very interesting by product of increased cortisol is that it makes us less empathetic. More than likely this can be traced to our evolution. The increase in the cortisol and the corresponding decrease in empathy makes us want to stay away from strangers. We are biologically wired to feel concern around strangers.

Evolution Taught Us to Be Wary

Evolution has also taught us to be wary of strangers in general. Humans as a whole have spent a large chunk of their history banded together in small protective groups. We did this in order to help protect each other and maximize resources.

When you think about it in this context, outsiders to our small groups or strangers are considered potential threats. Fear of strangers is common across almost all human cultures.

Culturally Conditioned

We can also thank our society for helping us feel uncomfortable and sometimes afraid of strangers. The term “stranger danger” is something most of us can relate to either growing up or raising kids. Or both.

I remember hearing this from my parents, mostly about not getting in someone’s car I didn’t know. And as the father of 2 teenage girls, you can be sure I’ve talked to them about this very concept more times that they want to hear.

The thought that strangers can be dangerous is built into us as it is. Toss in the amplification of the media on strangers doing things such as kidnapping kids and it takes it to an even higher level.

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Now that we’ve reviewed some of the reasons why we are nervous, let’s look at why you should talk to strangers more.

Benefits of Getting over the Awkwardness

Let’s take a quick look at some of the advantages of how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward. These are some high level benefits of talking to strangers.

1. Broadens Your Network

After you talk to someone, you didn’t know previously they become someone you know at least a little bit. This alone helps broaden your network of people you know. This is helpful in many ways whether it is work related or socially related.

2. Improves Your Communication Skills

I am a huge proponent of the value of solid communication skills and have written about it often. The more you talk to people, especially people you don’t know, the better your communication skills become.

Interacting with a wider variety of people will bring the added benefit of improving your communication skills.

3. Continually Learning

So many of us don’t actively seek to learn new things. This is one of the primary keys to staying engaged in life and our own personal self fulfillment.

Almost every time I speak to someone I didn’t know previously, I’ve learned something new. When we speak to strangers, it pushes us out of our comfort zones and we tend to learn new things.

4. Increases Self Confidence

Every time we learn to do something we were previously anxious about, we feel better about ourselves.

Forcing ourselves to talk to strangers will lead to increased self confidence. As we get more and more comfortable doing something that previously made us feel awkward, our self confidence will go up and up.

So, how to talk to strangers to reap these benefits?

How to Talk to Strangers

Here are some tips to on how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

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1. Say Hello

Putting “say hello” first may seem a bit obvious but let’s take a deeper look. Much of the social awkwardness when speaking to strangers is simply breaking the ice. The first words that will engage someone.

Most people will respond when someone says hello or hi to them. And those that don’t, you probably don’t want to talk to anyway.

Practice being the person that opens the door to a conversation. Say hello.

2. Ask About Them

Something that I have noticed over the years is that people love to talk about themselves. Even fairly private people tend to open up when asked about events in their lives.

You can ask leading questions that get people to talk about themselves and recent events. Things like recent movies watched or the summer vacation are great to get someone talking.

As a father, I also know that people love to talk about their kids. Asking about kids is a fairly easy topic to bring up and in general, most people will expound upon all the great things their kids do or are involved with.

3. Just Do It

One of the biggest reasons we don’t do things we want to or know we should is because we overthink it. Quit thinking about it so much and just do it.

When you give yourself the time to analyze every little angle about a situation, you also give plenty of time to talk yourself out of it. You’ll wind up thinking what if this happens or what if that happens.

Try to force yourself to jump right in without thinking about it too much. Whenever I have done this, I always feel great about it afterwards, no matter how it turned out.

4. Don’t Take It Personal

One of the greatest lessons in life I ever learned was don’t take anything personally. We all go through life with our own sets of experiences and see things through our own lens. The way people react to different situations has almost nothing to do with us. It has to do with previous experiences and the way people feel about things other than us.

When someone’s reaction isn’t what you’d hoped or expected, chances are it has nothing to do with you. Remember that and keep it in context.

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5. Get a Chuckle If Possible

I used the word chuckle purposely because it makes me laugh. In my opinion, it’s one of those funny words. We all like to laugh because it makes us feel good. And when someone makes us laugh, we typically remember those people in a positive light.

One of the best ways to make a conversation easy and free flowing is to get some laughter going. It doesn’t mean you have to be the master joke teller or anything. See if you can work in a way to make the person you are talking to get a smile or some laughter in. In fact, laughing at yourself maybe a nice try.

6. Detach

A great feeling is when you don’t mind which way something turns out, that you will be fine no matter what happens. Kind of like when I watch my two favorite football teams play against each other. I don’t really care who wins, I just want a fun game.

Treat talking to strangers the same way. You don’t really care how the conversation goes because you are detaching from the outcome. Make it a fun time with yourself and if the conversation goes well, awesome! If not then no big deal, move on.

7. Share Your Stories

Well, all like to feel connected to other people. And many times we wind up hanging out with people that we have things in common with. No surprise here.

To help with how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward, tell stories that have commonalities with the person you are talking to. Kids are an easy one. I have a daughter who was a competitive cheerleader and now plays club volleyball. I have instant connection and stories with strangers I speak with who have kids that play sports. It’s easy to relate to.

So when you are speaking to a stranger and you have a story or mutual connection point, bring it up.

8. Give a Compliment

Almost everyone likes hearing a compliment, whether they admit to it or not. As a general rule, we don’t give out enough compliments. It’s amazing how one small remark someone tosses your way about how good you look can literally make your entire day.

When you are speaking with someone you don’t know, see if you can work a compliment in. Nothing creepy here. Not a good idea to tell someone you just met that they are the prettiest or handsomest person you ever met. However, if you can share how you like their tattoo or shoes or something like that, it will help put the conversation into an easy going, smiling place.

9. Relax Your Body Language

If you go into a situation all worried and nervous, it shows on your body. Your shoulders are tensed up, there’s a look of consternation on your face, things like that.

When you engage a stranger in conversation, make it a point to relax your body language. Take a deep breath before you engage the person, let your body relax, and put a smile on your face. This will help relax you and it has the added benefit of putting the other person more at ease.

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If they see that you are relaxed, it helps them relax. Plus having open, engaging body language is very conducive to inviting someone to open up into a conversation with you.

10. Practice, Practice, Practice

Like everything else in life, talking to strangers gets easier with practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Make it a point to talk to several strangers each week and it will definitely help you relax as you do it more and more.

After a while, it will become something you don’t even think about, you just do it. And that takes all of the awkwardness out of being in these type situations.

The Bottom Line

As we have seen, it is perfectly natural to feel awkward talking to strangers. We are biologically built that way and we have our own society constantly warning us how dangerous it is. It’s no wonder we feel awkward talking to strangers!

There are numerous benefits to learning to be more comfortable talking to strangers. See if you can employ some of the techniques mentioned to learn how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

Once you start practicing speaking with strangers more often and utilizing some of the tips, you will become more comfortable doing so. This in turn will lead to a learned new skill and increased self confidence.

Remember, everyone you know was a stranger at one time. Now get out there and make some new friends.

More Resources About Strengthening Communication Skills

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

Reference

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