Harry Nilsson’s Grammy award winning song, “Everybody’s Talking at Me,” has been stuck in my head all day, specifically the lyric: Everybody’s talking at me, I don’t hear a word they’re saying, only the echoes of my mind.
I actually met Harry Nilsson years ago when I managed a restaurant in Southern California called Severino’s. Nilsson’s sister and her partner, Severino Surace, owned the place.
Nilsson decided to make a surprise visit to his sister and walked into the restaurant one busy Saturday night. He bypassed the Maitre D, walked into the bar, and started playing the piano. I didn’t recognize him, so I did what any attentive restaurant manager would do: I officiously insisted that a Grammy award winning singer/songwriter get up from the piano and stop disturbing the other patrons.
In my defense, he wasn’t exactly dressed for a night out at a high-end Italian restaurant. Luckily, Severino intervened before it turned into an argument by walking up to us and giving Harry Nilsson a big bear hug. Severino introduced me to Harry, after which I made some sort of lame apology and beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen.
As I told the story of my Harry Nilsson encounter to a few of my Saybrook University cohorts this week at the school’s residential conference in San Francisco, I recognized that I had acted out the song title by “talking at” Nilsson. Now that I can’t shake the song, I find myself thinking a lot about the prevalence of “talking at” as opposed to, for example, “talking with.” We’re eager to influence one another; our causes are noble as we aim our speech at one another.
Earlier this week, I worked with a group of insight strategists for a consumer product goods (or CPG) company. This group typically analyzes consumer behaviors and trends so that they can help the company predict the impact of things, like marketing campaigns or changes in packaging. In our discussions about how to work more collaboratively with other business functions, we kept coming back to the simple fact that the insights group wanted more influence. They wanted to know how to use their data and expert judgment to get their way. All the departments of the CPG company talked at each other. They talked at each other brilliantly with PowerPoint slides serving as the “talking at” talkers’ weapon of choice.
Someone with more training in psychology or neuroscience will have to help me understand our drive to influence. In the meantime, I want to share a thought about influence—and yes, I get the irony of complaining about “talking at” through the medium of “writing at.”
Maybe it’s just me, but when I detect someone’s uninvited intention to influence my perspective, I’m less inclined to focus on what’s being said and more inclined to focus on what I think about what’s being said. When I focus on what I’m thinking and you focus on what you’re thinking, we’ll be talking at each other not with each other.
Keith Johnstone—teacher, author, and iconoclastic authority on improvisational theater—offered keen insight on how to shift your attitude to increase the odds for influence to happen.
“We shouldn’t tell actors to listen,” Johnstone wrote in Impro for Storytellers. “It just confuses them and they don’t know what to do. Rather, we should say, be altered by what’s said.”
Maybe when we all learn to enter into conversations with an intention to be influenced by what we hear, we’ll all—paradoxically—become more influential.