Alison Wood Brooks is the O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration in the Negotiation, Organizations, and Markets Unit at HBS. Her research, course development, and teaching focus is on the psychology of conversation—why we say things we shouldn't and don't say things we should—and how emotions influence how we think and interact with others, particularly in the workplace. An award-winning teacher, Alison’s new MBA course, “How to talk gooder in business and life,” will debut in spring 2020. In addition to her scholarly work, she has designed research software, chatplat, that helps scholars and firms capture and analyze conversation data online.

We sat down with Professor Brooks to discuss the "How to Talk Gooder" course and to get some advice on that very topic.

What is the class “How to Talk Gooder” about?

Even though we get lots of practice conversing with other people at work, home, school, and beyond, we aren’t that great at it—we make mistakes, have awkward moments, miss golden opportunities—we all have room for improvement. If we can improve each conversation in our lives just a little bit, the cumulative benefits would be monumental. The best way to sharpen conversation skills is through practice, experimentation, feedback, reflection…and more practice. “How to talk gooder in business and life” will help Elective Curriculum (EC) students hone their conversational skills—so they can continue improving and executing their conversational skills after they leave HBS. Through conversation exercises and simulations with students in the course and people outside of HBS, “How to talk gooder” will focus on developing conversational skills related to choosing and shifting topics, asking and answering questions, creating and appreciating humor, navigating conflict and disagreement, listening, and conducting group conversations—across diverse contexts such as work meetings, giving and receiving feedback, dating and relationship health, hiring and firing. 

I co-taught the earliest version of this course in January 2019 with Professor Mike Norton as a Short Intensive Program.

What role does word choice play in the business world?

Words matter! But words are just one of three important buckets that fill our conversations with meaningful content: 1) verbal cues (words), 2) nonverbal cues (facial expressions and body language), and 3) prosodic cues (things like tone of voice, cadence, silence, laughter, interruptions, and back-channel feedback like “uh-huh” and “yea” that don’t quite fall into the verbal or nonverbal buckets). In “How to talk gooder,” we’ll reflect about students’ natural strengths and weaknesses—and practice skills—across all three buckets: verbal, nonverbal, and prosodic expression.

What role does confidence play in “talking gooder”?

Confidence is good, but overconfidence is bad and can make us bad listeners. Perhaps the more pertinent question is “what role does anxiety play in conversing effectively?” because more people suffer from being too nervous during their conversations than being too confident. I hope a large part of this course will help students find the right balance between speaking and listening—between confidence and humility—striking that balance should reduce any social anxiety.

What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when having conversations?

Too many to list here! What it means to “make mistakes” depends on your goals, which vary from conversation to conversation. Sometimes we just want to enjoy our time with other people, other times we want to make a positive impression (by seeming smart, kind, competent, funny, charming, creative, etc), and still other times we need to manage disagreement or conflict, or convey or receive information. Sometimes we need to aim for all of these things at once—and our goals conflict. We make countless mistakes in pursuit of these goals.

If I had to pick one common mistake to highlight here, it would be egocentrism. Humans have an innate tendency to focus on their own perspective without considering (or misunderstanding) the perspectives of those around them. Particularly during a conversation—which exerts adeluge of cognitive demands on your brain—we suffer from egocentrism because our minds are too busy monitoring our own behavior and the behavior of those around us to fully understand what others are thinking. What does egocentrism trip us up on during our conversations? There are a whole slew of mistakes borne from egocentrism: we are bad at knowing what topics will be interesting to others, we give backhanded compliments, we make offensive (or boring) jokes, we forget to ask questions, we ask the wrong questions, and on and on. In “talking gooder,” we’ll work on breaking free from egocentrism. 

What kind of strategies do you use in this class to teach students?

The students will spend most of the time in and out of class practicing conversational skills, getting feedback (from me, from peers, from machines, from observers), and trying again. Though we are unlikely to engage in more than one or two case discussions, we will have several practitioners visit the class (including comedians and matchmakers) and we will situate many of our conversational exercises in the context of the workplace, where conversational challenges related to impression management, appropriate conduct, and productivity are paramount. 

We will use exercises, feedback, and repetition to sharpen conversational skills to try to close the knowing-doing gap. That is, even if you know how to converse well in theory, you may not be able to actually execute your knowledge in practice, when emotions take flight and stakes are high. 

What recommendations do you have for our audience (many of which who are starting jobs, going on interviews, and networking)

So many! Don’t be afraid to prepare personalized topics before your conversations, ask more questions during, and ask for feedback after. Listen. Smile. Be delightful. 

What advice do you have for introverts?

Prepare a couple bullet points of topics you could bring up when a conversation starts to lag or stagnate—it’s pretty easy to personalize these topic ideas depending on who you expect to talk to. Even if you never talk about the topics you’ve brainstormed, you will worry less about awkward pauses and avoid that panicked feeling when you don’t know what to talk about.