The best way to make a good impression is by keeping your mouth shut.

by John McManamy


YOU ARE seated at a job interview. Or you may be one-on-one at a social gathering. A lot may be riding on the next few minutes or very little. Either way, a successful outcome will enhance your sense of connectedness and move your recovery forward. You have already figured out that yammering in a loud voice only works if you are employed by Fox News. Maybe your meds will keep that from happening.

But what if you fail to grasp the significance of your prospective employer glancing at his watch? Or a potential new friend clearing her throat? There is no pill for that.

Poor Bob. How can I ever forget? I ran into him at open mic night at a NAMI convention a number of years back. He had considerable keyboard talent, and he let it be known to me he also plays four saxophones.

For the uninitiated, if you play one sax you play them all, plus all manner of reed instruments. No one except maybe Forest Gump says, "I play four saxophones." Fortunately, Bob was in a safe place. I replied by asking who his favorite sax players were.

On the last evening of the convention, a fifties-sixties cover band was setting up. I was talking to the sax player. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Bob with his parents. Without warning, without waiting for a pause in our conversation, Bob broke formation, approached the sax player and, without introducing himself, blurted out:

"I play four saxophones."

The sax player and I looked at each other. Oh-oh, I thought. This is the real world now. The sax player, of course, had nothing to say. Whatever reaction Bob had been expecting or hoping for wasn't going to happen. There was nothing left for him to do but rejoin his parents and move on.

Imagine how the conversation (and his night) might have gone had Bob waited for an appropriate break and opened with, "Say, is that a Selmer Mach VI you're packing?"



A year or two later, I was talking to a mom with a 14-year-old daughter. The mom related to me how her daughter - let's call her Patty - had approached her in a state of confusion, seeking motherly counsel. Apparently, Patty had told a friend that she didn't like the bangs on her hair. The friend got all upset. Patty was taken aback by her friend's reaction. She thought it was honest feedback. She meant no harm.

Patty and her friend are learning to grow up, though over the course of the next several years it will appear as if both are regressing to age two. Every day, Patty and her friend will be challenged by new situations. As their brains store new memories and build complex neural networks, the two will respond to similar events far more skillfully, with the confidence to navigate novel ones. They will enter adulthood and the workforce socially adept, and their skills will further evolve.

Poor Bob. I'm guessing he has been sheltered from the real world for a good deal of his life. But even a short break from life's rumble and tumble has the potential to incapacitate us for a lifetime. Alas, Bob and I have a lot in common.

Clawing my way back from my illness - that was relatively easy. Breaking out of my isolation - essentially learning to reconnect - that was hard. Fortunately (I think), I had a lot more going for me than Bob. I had been trained as a lawyer and been successful as a journalist. At least, in the art of communication, I had achieved a certain level of proficiency.




Active Listening

At the same NAMI convention, I had breakfast with highly regarded author and journalist Pete Earley. Later in the day, NAMI would honor him for his outstanding book, "Crazy: A Father's Search through America's Mental Health Madness."

In the course of our breakfast, Pete demonstrated why he is a way better journalist than I am. It was simple. He got me to do just about all the talking. Journalists make their living by getting the other person to talk. Since this is a skill that carries over extremely well into social settings, let's examine a few of the things Pete did:

First, he made ME feel like the star attraction, not him. He showed he was glad to see me, he made me comfortable. He complimented me on my book. He acknowledged my journalistic strong suits and showed he was interested in picking my brains on a topic that was my passion (brain science).

Out of compassion, I kept my answers short, giving Pete plenty of opportunity to break in and change to a subject more to his liking. Instead, he fed my talking points back to me, in his own words, showing he was both listening and interested. Naturally, I came away from our "conversation" thinking Pete Earley was the greatest guy in the world, which, of course, he is.



A Political Example

Cast your mind back to the 1992 Presidential campaign. Numerous commentators have pegged the defining moment as the first George Bush looking at his watch during a key town hall debate. What was Bill Clinton doing?

Journalist Joe Klein in his book, "The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton," describes how an African-American woman asked a confusing question that seemed to have something to do with the disconnect between politicians and those facing hardship during a recession.

Upon clarification from both the moderator and the woman, Bush replied: "Well, listen, you ought to be in the White House for a day and hear what I hear ... I was in the Lomax AME Church. It's a black church just outside Washington DC. And I read the bulletin about teenage pregnancies, about difficulties people are having making ends meet ..."


Then it was Clinton's turn. According to Joe Klein: "He did something quite extraordinary. He took three steps toward the woman and asked her, 'Tell me how it's affected you again?'" As Klein describes it:

The three steps forward spoke volumes about his empathy, his concern, his desire to respond to the needs of the public. Bush, by contrast, was caught gazing at his wristwatch - hoping desperately that this awkward moment would soon be done.

It's All About Listening (Again)

People love to hear themselves talk. Essentially, they get a buzz out of breathing loudly with their lips moving. Your role is to facilitate their needs. Once you've realized that no one really cares about you, your job is easy. All you have to do is keep the conversation focussed on the other individual. If the conversation is about the other party's kitten, keep in mind: He is only interested in HIS kitten, not yours.

When It's Your Turn to Talk

The spotlight is now on you, but only because you have earned it. You have been actively listening. You have been sensitive to the needs of the others in the room. Time for your elevator pitch.

The elevator pitch is based on the necessity of articulating the gist of your point in the time it takes to ride an elevator. Fifteen seconds. Sixteen, tops. Our whole conversational life is a constant succession of elevator pitches. People have notoriously short attention spans. You have a mere 15 seconds to make an impression. Sixteen seconds and you are living on borrowed time. There is a phone about to go off, a baby ready to throw up, a tree on the brink of crashing through the ceiling. Seventeen seconds and you are virtually certain to be looking into a pair of glazed eyes.

"Let your words be few," says the Old Testament. Less is more.

Things We Have to Contend With

It's a cruel Catch-22: Our illness isolates us from the world. Our recovery depends in very large part on making connections. But our ability to make connections is sabotaged by our illness. No one ever said this was going to be easy.

Things We Can Build On

Try these on for size: Thinks deep, creative, passionate, smart, funny, intuitive, original, skilled, talented, cares about issues, cares about people. On and on. Chances are you recognize a bit of yourself in this. Funny thing about the brain: In so many ways, we show up for the game of life as ten-point underdogs. In so many other ways, we have a ten-yard running head start.


Heaven knows, when it comes to connecting and reconnecting with others, we all have our individual special challenges. But our common lesson is a simple and recurring one - learn to listen. People like Bob clearly have their work cut out for them. Then again, so does George Bush the First. We're not all that different, after all.

Based on a series of blog pieces published in 2008, reworked with new material as two articles May 6, 2011, revised and consolodated into one article, Dec 5, 2016.


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