"Shyness is just a strategy": how to communicate better

  • Small Figures (untitled) by Ester Svensson (Ceramics and Glass, 2013)

Author and School of Life speaker John-Paul Flintoff's FuelRCA workshop on how to have better conversations was a fun and insightful approach to improving communication skills. We had our own conversation with him just before the event, and discussed the importance of vulnerability, change and openness when it comes to communicating with other people – whether they're colleagues, clients, collectors, or just friends

I’m going to do various exercises and games that show people different ways that we interact with each other on an ordinary basis. Experiencing what it’s like to be different from how you usually are, and also experiencing what it’s like to talk to someone who is like how you usually are, gives you insight into how you have a choice.

I’ll also be looking at the different ways in which we have to play two contradictory roles: one is listening, and one is talking. You can be a brilliant listener, and that’s lovely, but if you’re not talking at all, you’re not contributing to the conversation. At some point I believe that we all need to be seen and heard so it’s not enough to be a good listener. On the other hand, if nobody is a good listener, then none of us are going to be seen or heard. It’s about honing those skills. They’re actually skills!

Anyone can talk, but what kind of a conversationalist are you? How do you listen? Like you, right now, when you’re listening to me, are you really listening, or are you just thinking about your next question? We all do that a certain amount of the time; we mostly do it all the time. It’s to do with things like wanting conversations to go the way that we expect. It’s OK if we expect them to go badly, we don’t like it, but we can deal with that because at least it’s going how we expect. The trouble with having other people involved in a conversation is that they do things or say things that take it in another direction, and that can change us. Being changed by a conversation is an amazing and wonderful gift that doesn’t happen all the time. It’s also terrifying, and we do all that we can to avoid being changed by the things that people say to us because we’re scared of change.

People want to reduce the effect conversations have on them, not to be changed. In my workshops, I show people what manoeuvres we come up with, what strategies we come up with to hide our authentic feelings and our authentic response. There are some brilliant people who have done research on this, including a woman called Brené Brown, who talks about showing our vulnerability. It takes courage, but if we don’t do that, we aren’t engaging with each other, we’re not full human beings. We all want to see the other person being real and authentic and vulnerable but we’re terrified of doing it ourselves.

In my workshops, I sometimes do a scene where you have people talking to each other and it’s all really normal, and I tell one of them to say, “I’m an alien.” In real life, if someone said that to you, and they seemed really seemed to mean it, you’d be completely freaked out. That means they’re either crazy or an alien. And that’s alarming. But what people tend to do is say, “Oh, I’m an alien too.” They want to limit the surprise and not look like they are thrown. It’s that sense of hiding the authentic response. And that’s OK! What I’m not saying is, go out there and freak everyone out by being vulnerable all the time. But what I’m saying is, really do notice what you’re not willing to go into, what you’re not willing to play or say. That’s the really interesting area to explore.

Shyness is a strategy that allows you not to step forward and be noticed. That’s fine, if that’s how you are then just notice it. My favourite thing to do is to just get people to notice what they’re doing, and that there is another choice, you don’t have to be like that. One of the classic things with shyness is avoiding eye contact. And that makes people feel that they’re not being seen, and they feel frustrated by that. So I tell people, you have a choice, you can try making eye contact.

A lot of people are basically saying no to experiences in life. The reward that they get for that is safety. A small number of people say yes to things in life. They have a lot of adventures, but they feel that their life is out of control. So if you can experiment with different ways of being, which is what I do in my workshops, sometimes some people have stunned revelatory expressions on their faces. There are lots of reasons why we behave the way that we do, but the key insight is that we don’t have to do it like that.

- John-Paul's workshop on Tuesday 8 October is sold out, but you can add yourself to the waiting list here: http://fuel.rca.ac.uk/events/how-to-have-better-conversations