Help Me, Help Me: My Experiment Taking Self-Help Seriously

Here’s the thing about self-help books: They contain wisdom, but something about them makes my eyes roll. As I read, I often agree with their thesis, but my inner soundtrack of “yes, but”s disputes the advice. I am so adept at contradicting the advice of self-help books that I’ve become immune to their teachings.

Then I started listening to a podcast that showed me I was missing the point. Kristen Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg of By The Book launched a show where, each episode, they read a self-help book and follow it to the letter. They showed me why muzzling my inner smarty-pants and trying to follow advice is a better way to learn.

In fact, it has no downside:

  • If I realize that I want to adopt the advice, then that’s a huge win.
  • If I hate the advice, then I at least have a deeper understanding of how I aspire to act.
  • If I end up on the fence, then I come away with a set of new, interesting questions to pursue.

A Pledge to Paraphrase

So when I came across an article on how to become a better listener, I did something I don’t usually do. I read it, and I tried to follow its advice. In his blog post, Marcus Wermuth shares three methods to improve listening skills, the first of which is the power of paraphrasing. Inspired by Jolenta and Kristen, I pledged to apply this method in every conversation I had for three days.

The power of repetition is a concept I learned as a high school conflict manager. I marveled at how one person restating what the other person said could flip a flight into a productive conversation.

It hadn’t occurred to me to try this in less tense situations. Here’s what happened when I tried it out:

Making small talk with an acquaintance at a networking event

The first time I tried this method was with was a woman (we’ll call her Jane) I ran into at a networking event. It was the end of a long day, and I didn’t feel like I had the social energy to make small talk with a stranger. I dreaded a conversation about the humidity, traffic snarls, or parking prices that would fizzle out into strained silence.

Instead of focusing on my own contribution to the conversation, I tried taking the article’s advice. Every time Jane said something, I repeated the emotional core of her statement (“Wow, that sounds so scary.”). There were a few times when I thought of something to add, but I resisted this impulse. I focused on listening and restating some of what she said. In practice, sometimes paraphrasing meant repeating the last couple words of her sentence.

When I started paraphrasing, I feared Jane might find my conversational style off-putting. I didn’t want her to think I was disengaging from the conversation by mimicking her.

I was wrong. Ten minutes into this conversation, we had moved way past small talk, and together, we were reliving her first day of her Peace Corps stint in Uganda. Though I might have been faking interest at first, she hooked me in. And I learned a few Kiswahili words to boot.

The more I reiterated her words, the more Jane opened up, which led to more interesting conversation. I realized that dull small talk is the soundtrack to conversations devoid of emotional safety.

Taking a call from a marketer looking for advice

The next day, I had another chance to live by the paraphrasing advice. A marketer from Europe (“Reggie”) reached out to me on LinkedIn, asking if he could pick my brain about marketing at Atomic. I agreed to set up the call—though I was feeling a little stressed about all the work I had to do.

Reggie called me, and he presented his marketing problem. With bravado, he rattled off tools and calculations and KPIs they were using to track their marketing success. Normally, I would have engaged in a little competitive comparison about the latest tools and strategies we’ve used.

Instead, I thought for a moment about how odd it was that Reggie was telling me about these things when he scheduled the call to ask me for help. Instead of asking, “So why is it that you wanted to have this call?” I paraphrased back: “It sounds like you’ve been thoughtful in all the tools and measures you’ve established. Well done.”

From there, I perceived a shift in the emotional tenor of the conversation. With earnest humility, Reggie began talking about how he sometimes felt overwhelmed by the number of tools that were out there. I continued to reiterate his words and validate the feelings he shared with me. Our conversation took on more substance. I shared some of the challenges I’ve had with feeling professional inadequacy. We spent an hour talking about the ambiguity of marketing a service company in our space.

When we hung up, I felt like I’d made a new friend, and I think he felt more sure of himself, even though I had not provided any advice. After the call, I realized there wasn’t anything more helpful I could have done than validating his feelings. Reiteration beat advice, even when he asked for it!

Making a new friend

My last conversational experiment of the week took place at a coffee date with a woman I’d clicked with the week prior (“Devan”). I admitted that I saw the power of reiteration in a professional setting, but I didn’t feel like it’d have the same value in a social setting. After all, no one wants to befriend a kowtower, right?

Regardless, I remained dedicated to the experiment. I showed up at the café, ready for a new type of get-to-know-you conversation. When I met Devan, I decided to jumpstart the conversation by asking what keeps her busy. She proceeded to speak for a full hour about her professional trajectory.

I admit, it took a lot of control to stop myself from joining in. But then I asked myself what I hoped to get from the coffee conversation. I hoped Devan and I would leave better friends than when we started. We could have also established a good rapport had we shared equal talking time, but my reiteration also forged a relationship. She’s an interesting person. By focusing more on what she said than what I was waiting to say, I got to soak in her ideas. I admit I’ve been thinking about them all week.

Deeper Learning by Living Advice

In the end, I’m so glad I tried this out. Trading in my dismissive attitude for a curious, experimental one helped me squeeze a ton of education out of a little self-help article. I’m considering creating a monthly cadence of experiments like this—stay tuned!