Focus Outward to Win Friends and Improve your People Skills

One common mistake in conversations of any kind is to turn your focus the wrong way.

You (and I) may often focus too much on ourselves while at a party, at work, at school, online or in just about any setting instead of shifting your focus outward, toward the person we are talking with.

Why do we do that?

Please look at me and listen to me

Well, one big reason I can come up with is a need for validation and approval. We want to be validated by people around us so we can feel good about ourselves and our interests. However, it can be hard to get that validation. Especially if you become needy and really want it so you prattle on about you and your life even though the person you are talking to may not be listening that attentively anymore. Which leads you down a downward spiral where your need for validation becomes bigger and bigger.

How do you shift out of that “look at me and please validate me” mentality?

Basically one idea is to give up or at least reduce the need for approval. How? By giving up the need for both negative and positive approval. The two are connected because when if you no longer crave positive cheers and approval from people then you will no longer have fears of not getting that approval either.

When you really start to give it up – which might have to be done over time and with patience as your ego probably will want to snap back to seeking that sweet, sweet approval – you start to realise that neither of them are that important. They are really only as important as you decide they are. You are what you think you are and the world is what you think it is. And if you like, you can start to validate yourself instead of seeking such things from others.

As we grow up we learn – through what may be called social programming or social conditioning – that to gain validation, appreciation etc. from others we can try to impress them. But frankly, I don't think that it that works that well to try and consciously impress someone. When you do that you are seeking a reaction and you will come across as needy rather than impressive, interesting or cool.

However, if you talk about your passions and interests just because you like them so much, without thinking about wanting a positive reaction out of someone, then that is a better approach. It lets people see that you have things in your life you care about and, well, people seems to kinda like people with passions.

Shifting the spotlight

When you start to care less about what other people may think and say about you you'll gain freedom inside your mind to actually take the focus off yourself and develop a genuine interest for what the other guy/girl is saying.

I believe that if don't decrease your need for attention and validation then it will be hard to actually be genuinely interested in other people you meet.

Of course, you are not alone in focusing on yourself. People's favourite subject is often themselves. But if you can shift your attention outward, then here lies a strong power and possibility. If you focus on the one(s) you are talking to then you'll be an exciting exception.

Much has been written about shifting the focus to the other person. Dale Carnegie, for instance, found this great benefit of doing just that:

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you. Which is just another way of saying that the way to make a friend is to be one.”

Make it relatable

In a conversation focus on what the other person is interested in. Ask question, listen – actually listen to what they are saying, don't just wait for your turn to talk (another skill that might take some time to develop) – and make a mental note of topics they bring up and seem interested in and then use those topics to continue the conversation.

When you bring up a topic that the other person isn't not that interested in, then try to talk about it in a way that lets them relate the topic to their lives. By that I mean you can take your interest and talk about in a way that connects to anyone's life instead of going on about it in way that the other person will have a hard time relating to.

If you, for example, are a banker then you may not want to talk too much about your new computer system or your day to day routine. Instead, you can for instance talk about how the changes in economy will affect a regular person and what he/she can do to get a positive result out of those changes.

Make the topic interesting by making it relatable to the person you are talking to. Or drop the subject reasonably quick.

Reinforcing the connection

Another thing you can use to reinforce the connection and put the focus on the other person is to use their name. Also try to use words like you, me and I – or possibly even we and us – instead of indefinite, wishy-washy constructs like “one might”. This makes the conversation more personal and direct. Don't overdo it though or they might start to be reminded of overly personal and phoney salesmen that they've encountered.

You can reinforce that you are actually listening by later reconnecting with what the two of you were talking about. An example where you do just that in a later conversation with a third person: “That's kinda like the thing you told me earlier about your job at the cruiser last summer”.

Try to empathize by using full sentences “that must hard/fun for you“ instead of just using umms, oks and ahs. This can lead to a more active conversation and it kinda just feels better for however is talking. Also, you may want to be a bit careful with offering solutions if someone has a problem. Sometimes they just want to talk and receive empathy.

All of this does – most of the time – not lead to hours and hours of you listening, empathizing and asking questions. The need to reciprocate is strong and if you show a genuine interest in people they'll soon start to return that interest. And the conversation becomes more balanced and interesting. But to still keep much of your focus outward in conversations also has added benefits that you may already have read about them in How to Make a Great First Impression. If not, here's what I wrote then:

“The problem with an inward-focused meeting – where you focus on what you just said, how you look and what the other person thinks of you right now – can reduce anyone to a bumbling, second-guessing, fidgeting shadow of their former self as the self-consciousness becomes almost paralyzing.”

Focusing outward is maybe a bit counter-intuitive. Reasonably you should try to focus the attention of everyone towards you to win respect, influence, friends and to find a lot of joy in communicating. But to instead focus outward, toward the one you are talking to, is a more useful way to gain and experience such benefits and to have great conversations.

About the Author

Henrik Edberg is the creator of the Positivity Blog and has written weekly articles here since 2006. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Gothenburg and has been featured on Lifehack, The Huffington Post and Paulo Coelho’s blog. Click here to learn more…

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Very good post and awarenesses, Henrik ! Hope you hve a good Thursday !

  • Thank you Annie. I´ve had a good day, hope you´ve had one too.

  • approval and agreement. the two A’s that are not really of great value as far as an A goes. i think what you are expressing is to communicate and relate to someone. not seek agreement and approval and think that is a communication. a very deep thought to ponder.
    i too have expressed this and have asked people to re evaluate the way they relate to.

  • You are right, marcia. That was pretty much what I was thinking. Thank you for your comment.

  • eeman

    these things are hard to follow anywhys i think its better to be yourself and comment about other peoples interest

  • Jane

    Focusing outward is typically a good thing. Can’t argue with that. And I believe that the problem with needing validation starts in childhood and so by adulthood has become so ingrained that it operates as a habit, unconsciously and automatically. That can be hard to shift. Awareness is a good first step.