A Surefire Method to Talk to Anyone – In 1960s, an MIT professor invented a “chatting robot” that could start a conversation with any human. Most people fell in love with the robot just after a few interchanges, and some even treated it as a good friend, and shared their personal secrets with it. However, the program actually couldn’t comprehend any human speech. It just used a silly trick to fool people into thinking it was listening.
In 1966, Professor Joseph Weizenbaum of Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT) wrote a little computer program called ELIZA. It was essentially a “chatting robot” – its only function was to start a conversation with a human user. For example, if the user typed “I’m sad today” into the program, then the program may respond with something like, “Why are you sad today?” And the conversation goes on from there.
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The interesting thing was that ELIZA actually didn’t understand the content of the user’s speech. It simply detected the keywords from the input, and regurgitated it into a question form as a response. For example, here is an excerpt from a real “conversation” between the program and a young woman:
Woman: Men are all alike.
ELIZA: IN WHAT WAY
Woman: They’re always bugging us about something or other.
ELIZA: CAN YOU THINK OF A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE
Woman: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
ELIZA: YOUR BOYFRIEND MADE YOU COME HERE
Woman: He says I’m depressed much of the time.
ELIZA: I AM SORRY TO HEAR YOU ARE DEPRESSED
Woman: It’s true. I am unhappy.
ELIZA: DO YOU THINK COMING HERE WILL HELP YOU NOT TO BE UNHAPPY
Woman: I need some help, that much seems certain.
ELIZA: WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO YOU IF YOU GOT SOME HELP
Woman: Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.
ELIZA: TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR FAMILY
Woman: My mother takes care of me.
As you can see in the example, the program’s responses actually showed no understanding in what the woman said. It simply restated the inputs (e.g. “I’m depressed” → “Sorry to hear that you’re depressed”) or requesting details (e.g. “Men are all alike” → “In what way”). In other words, it just parroted the user’s speech back to the user in a slightly different manner.
At first, Weizenbaum didn’t really think that this silly program had any real significance, but his perception soon changed when one day he found that his secretary fell in love with the program. As he recalled:
“My secretary, who had watched me work on the program for many months and therefore surely knew it to be merely a computer program, started conversing with it. After only a few interchanges with it, she asked me to leave the room.” Then she started pouring her heart out at the program as if it were a real psychotherapist.
In a short time, ELIZA became a sensation at MIT, and people started to approach Weizenbaum in order to “chat” with the program. Even though they knew that it was just a machine, they treated the program as seriously as a human listener. This phenomenon had bewildered many scientists: why did people like to talk to a silly piece of silicon that didn’t even understand what they were talking about?
The answer is very simple: because we all love to talk to ourselves. When we post a status on Facebook, we like to see people sharing and commenting on it; when we upload a picture onto Instagram, we hope that it’d get dozens of “likes.” Deep down inside, we are all narcissists who enjoy being the center of attention and love people who listen to our stories.
And it was exactly what ELIZA had to offer: it let people talk about themselves. Since it was incapable of judgments and criticisms, it could only encourage the other party to keep talking. As people were encouraged to express their views, the program gave them a false sense that it was listening to them and respecting their opinions. It made people feel like they were in the limelight, and hence developed a fondness of the program.
It is a rare moment when a human has a lot to learn from a computer program. Most people in a social interaction never understand the virtue of listening: they just keeping talking about themselves, and hence they are unable to connect to people effectively. Therefore, if you want to talk to anyone in any situation easily, you shall learn the following three things from ELIZA:
1. Use words that are used by the speaker
The easiest way to show people that you are listening to them is to use their vocabularies. When people hear that you are using their words, they will think that they have your attention. Moreover, using their words has the advantage that you don’t have to think at all: you just mirror back their phrases, and they’ll keep talking.
2. Mix open and closed questions
Even though it is important to listen to others, you will soon look weird if you just keep parroting others. On the other hand, if you keep asking people questions, it will start to sound like an interrogation. Therefore, you shall find a balance between asking for more details and mirroring what he has just said. It will make the conversation sound more natural.
3. Relate to the experience of the speaker
There is no better way to build rapport than showing the other person that you understand his world. Even though the two of you may not come from the same background, you may still find aspects of your life that are related to them. For example, if the speaker is a married woman who has two kids, then you may talk about your childhood memories at school; or if he is a young man who is about to start his business, then you may share stories from a friend who runs a business.
In conclusion: ELIZA was able to talk to anyone because it was a patient listener who gave people the chance to talk. If you can do the same in your social encounters, you’ll become a popular person to talk to as well.
To learn more about how to influence people effectively, please get a copy of my book, the Art of Influencing Anyone.