So, true story: almost everyone on my team here at Happen to Your Career is an introvert. (Myself included!)
Which is kind of surprising for a company that teaches people all about how to use relationship-building and presentation skills to create new opportunities in your professional life, right?
Well, contrary to popular belief, we introverts don’t have to be completely socially anxious and hiding ourselves away in a closet somewhere. (Most of the time.)
Case in point: this week’s podcast episode with AJ Harbinger, from The Art of Charm, he reveals that despite being a social skills coach for top performers, he’s also an introvert.
So what’s his secret weapon for making conversation as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible? It’s the same skillset that Brene Brown identified in her famous TED Talk: The Power of Vulnerability.
“A lot of us have this confusion or misconception around connection. We feel or assume that connection happens through commonalities, shared interests. In reality it happens through sharing emotions because they are universal. Vulnerability leads to connection.” – AJ Harbinger
AJ learned about using vulnerability to create connection and relationships the hard way — through a lot of painful life lessons learned from doing things wrong:
“I’m introverted. Even though I have these tools and skills of extroverts. It’s energetically draining for me to go into a loud crazy social environment and talk to a lot of people….My career stalled out in graduate school because I didn’t have effective social skills. I held back not sharing ideas. Over time that led to my boss and laboratory mates thinking I was arrogant and disinterested.
When you have that situation where you are feeling and acting one way but the people you interact with are getting a different sense of who you are it can lead to a lot of frustration and heartache.” – AJ Harbinger
AJ breaks down the building blocks of connection into a simple analytical process so that anybody can create a meaningful conversation with a total stranger.
His process streamlines conversational confusion and creates conversation starters broken down into these three clear steps:
1. Are questions and smiles all it really takes to be interesting?
We all know that someone interested in you through nonverbal communication, body language, being present, and having great energy but what does that actually mean?
Counterintuitively, if you showcase parts of your personality that include being challenging, not being totally agreeable and boring, you become more “real” and more intriguing to someone else.
This means that taking a genuine interest in the other person and asking them questions, listening for the emotions and deeper-level answers. Focus on asking “how” and “why questions.
I personally use the emotion indicators as my signal to go deeper.
For example: I met this photographer in a coffee shop the other day. He told me every year he takes 12 teenage kids plus to a different country in Africa to build houses for people that need them.
We started out by talking about what he did for work, but when he started telling me about this his tone changed, his voice changed, he had a smile on his face as he was talking and he was leaning forward as he was talking to me about it.
All those signs were indicators that was the subject I wanted to find out more about… plus I was genuinely interested in what he was telling me!
Listen with your eyes and your ears, so you’re staying present to all the nuance of their communication.
Remember, to be interesting, be interested.
2. Wait… So I shouldn’t tell them I like their shirt?
Once they’re interested, show genuine interest back and reward their interest with a compliment about their personality or character or even something they clearly value and care about.
What this looks like:
Remember my coffee shop photographer friend from above? When he began sharing his “building houses in Africa” story I was impressed. So I told him that.
He had a cool camera (Canon 7D for photography buffs) and I could have given him a compliment on that. But it’s more meaningful and creates a different experience if I focus on personality, character or what he values.
Compliments about superficial parts of them will come off as…superficial. Dig deep about something you find beautiful in their heart or soul that you’ve picked up on from the conversation.
For a conversational cheat sheet in this part, you can ask a question, listen to the answer, and then respond with a statement. Note that you actually do not want to respond with another question! After an average of two questions, they’ll start being interested in you and asking a question in return to fulfill the norm of reciprocity.
3. Once they’re interested now you can share your story
Finally, once you’ve developed a rapport and back-and-forth, share your own narrative. Build a connection with them by picking an emotion they’ve mentioned that resonates with one of your life lessons, and share that lesson.
For a template on exactly how to do that AND to map out your own narrative so you’re prepared to share it:
How to start having vulnerable conversations right now
Creating connection is the first stop to relationships and it takes practice and for most people trial and error to truly master this.
If you want an even deeper understanding listen to the entire episode above or download on iTunes or Stitcher.
Transcript from Episode
Scott Barlow: Welcome back to Happen to Your Career. I am ridiculously excited to be here with our guest today. He has a very interesting story with a couple twists and turns for how he got to where he is now. His expertise relates to what you are all interested in. We will dive into that. AJ Harbinger welcome to the show.
AJ Harbinger: Thanks for having me.
Scott Barlow: How do you tell people what you do?
AJ Harbinger: I'm a social skills coach for top performers. I work with people who struggle with social anxiety and introversion and give them the tools that extroverts use to get ahead in their career.
Scott Barlow: That is perfect and a reason we are interested in talking to you today. Where did that start for you? Your career didn't start anywhere close to that right?
AJ Harbinger: That is fair to say. Growing up I wanted to be a doctor. My dad was a single parent and a blue collar guy putting a lot of emphasis on education. The idea of his son becoming a doctor was pleasing to him. That was my track in high school and college. When I got into college I decided to strengthen my medical school application and get a job in a hospital. I got my first medical job in the emergency room. And I hated it. The quality of life for most people in the medical profession, especially in the emergency room, was pretty poor. I worked with a lot of doctors that were tried to their pager and didn't have time to spend with their family or travel and they had a large amount of debt. Up until this time I had family friends that were doctors, my aunt was a nurse. I had the sunny rosier picture of modern medicine and this was my first real experience where it was unfiltered. I didn't like the clinic setting and the pressures of being profitable as a medical professional. I told my dad I wasn't sure about medical school and wanted to travel a bit after graduation. It frustrated him because I had put all this time, energy, and effort into science and he thought I needed to go to medical school next. He told me what any responsible parent would tell their child looking to travel, get a job, I'm not paying for you to travel. Put this education to work.
I got my first real job out of college at a laboratory doing research on head/neck cancers. My boss was a surgeon who removed tumors from patients. I took a small piece and did experiments on the tumors using animal models to try and isolate a population of cancer stem cells, a popular theory in cancer about 10 years ago. After working on this for a year we were ready to publish. I was excited to prove to my dad I had started this biology career and it was going somewhere. Unfortunately Stanford scooped us. A laboratory in Stanford was ready to publish the same results. Medicine doesn’t care about the second person on the moon just the person who discovered the event. My boss was freaking out because he needed the paper to be tenured. He made a deal with Stanford to combine results and
publish together. I received zero credit for my work. I went from first author on the paper to third author and Stanford and my boss receiving majority of the credit. I was pretty disappointed.
Growing up I just had to work harder than everyone else and I would succeed. I never thought about social skills being important to your success. My dad was focused on education. My boss could tell this shook me. He pulled me aside and said I’m sorry it shook out this way but I want to help you, you did a great job on the project and you are doing graduate student level work. You are the only one working on this project in a laboratory by yourself. Have you thought about getting a PhD? It was the first time I had thought about it. We started talking he said let me talk to the university of Michigan and see if I can get you into next year’s graduate school class. He did. Iapplied and was accepted. I had to choose a new laboratory because my current boss wasn’t tenured yet. Trying to find a new laboratory I wanted to get into the best one so I wasn’t in another Stanford experience getting scooped. I joined one that was pretty famous with a principal investigator famous enough that he traveled a lot and was an editor on a number of journals. He was rarely there. He wasn’t much of a mentor because he wasn’t around. I was the only graduate student. I was convinced that he was so famous that if I produced any results I would get tons of credit and it would advance my career.
Scott Barlow: How did that work out?
AJ Harbinger: Well it was at this point that my lack of social skills and confidence impacted me. In the laboratory things weren’t going my way. Jordan and I started a podcast in my basement in Ann Arbor. We started getting listeners and doing cool interviews with famous people and potential mentors. Jordan took a job on Wall Street as a lawyer and was moving to New York. I started daydreaming about what this podcast could be versus my job in the laboratory. I never really got along with my boss in the laboratory. I put him on a pedestal and I was shy around him and my labmates. It hurt my work, my moral. I developed imposter syndrome that nothing was going my way and I didn’t belong here. My old boss greased the wheels to get me into graduate school. It started haunting me and I doubted myself and my abilities.
I was presenting to my thesis committee on what I wanted to work on. My boss had been traveling a lot. I sent him my proposal slides. This is back in the Blackberry days. My boss was always on his. I stupidly assumed when I sent him an email that he saw the slides and was happy because he didn’t reply. In all actuality he hadn’t had a chance to look at the email. In the meeting he basically pantsed me. He pointed out everything wrong with the idea and research data points in my presentation that didn’t fit in my hypothesis. They paused the meeting and asked to come back in 90 days and try it again. I was dejected. I felt that I wasn’t getting anywhere. Graduate school was a dead end track. I had a boss that wasn’t my ally and had my back. I called my dad and said I’m moving to New York City and pursue this podcast with Jordan. As you can imagine he was thrilled. I dropped out of graduate school, moved all my possessions into a truck, and moved to New York. I had never lived outside of Michigan. It was my first time traveling that far. New York was fantastic in the beginning. I was in my twenties. We had this great business started with the podcast, turning into coaching working with clients and a Sirius XM radio show. I felt my dad would be impressed with all we accomplished in a short amount of time. He was not. He was very frustrated that I left college and graduate school and chose a career that in his mind wasn’t a career. This was ten years ago when no one had heard of podcasts.
Scott Barlow: Yeah I still find myself explaining what a podcast is. I can’t imagine it ten years ago.
AJ Harbinger: We heard a study that 30% of Americans have heard of podcasts. It’s growing but there are a lot of people who haven’t heard of it.
Scott Barlow: It is building steam. Why at this point, what drove this for your dad? He had certain expectations and perceptions, but you were being increasingly disagreeable to those? What was going on?
AJ Harbinger: My dad was in the Navy and missed an opportunity to go to college and felt that his lack of education hurt him in his professional life. It led to him doing mostly manual labor. Obviously all parents want their children to do better. The fact I had scientific aptitude and did well in school he thought I should continue until the end. Like all good business ideas things start great and we ran into some difficulties. None of us, the three business partners, me, Jordan, and Johnny, had any business experience. We were learning on the fly and making mistakes. We ran out of money and weren’t certain after a year and a half whether it could survive. I called my dad in a moment of panic to get clarity and his advice was to move back to Michigan and go back to graduate school.
We decided we wanted to give it one last go. We relocated to L.A. about eight years ago. When we moved here things started to pick up. We have been in business for ten years. We have been through the downturns and upswings. Unfortunately my dad and I became estranged and didn’t talk much. He was disappointed in my career choice. He didn’t’ tell friends and family what I was doing. Which led to difficulty. I was proud of what I was doing but he didn’t understand it.
Jordan and I being Michigan alumni were invited to give a talk after graduating as part of their lecture series “What I Wish I Learned in Undergrad.” for whatever reason they assumed we were successful alumni. Of course at this point we were still struggling. I was excited and called my dad and said we were flying in and giving a talk and the only question he had was how good are the football tickets. He wasn’t interested in what I had to do with the Art of Charm or what I had to talk about but he loved Michigan football. I was fortunate and had an amazing weekend with him and Jordan’s dad at a Michigan football game and a private stadium tour. Then we had to give this talk. I was nervous. It was the first time I would present in front of my dad. I had done small presentations before but it was a first in front of a roomful of students, faculty, and parents. It went okay. It wasn’t one of our best talks but it ended well and my dad, I could tell he was moved by what we were teaching. The focus was networking skills and how to nail a job interview because those graduating are looking for a job and need help on interviews. At this point my dad had an idea of what the Art of Charm was about. I was excited I rekindled my relationship with my dad.
Unfortunately he passed away suddenly from a heart attack. I had to fly back home and help my family. There were no funeral arrangements or will and it was on my shoulders. I remember getting the news and getting his address book and feeling this sense of dread about calling everyone. What do they know about me? What do they think I’m doing? What did my dad say? To my shock, my dad after the talk had called a lot of friends and family to brag about me. I didn’t know how proud my dad was but he told friends and family and I was fortunate to hear that with his passing. It was one of those moments where you realize how short life is and sometimes if you struggle to communicate and so does your parent you can lead to a lot of misinformation and feeling like the other person is against you, even though they aren’t and just don’t have the faculties to support you in a more loving way. The company has been through some things, and me personally. It’s fun now, the career choice I made worked out but in those initial years there was a lot of heartache, wondering, concern of whether it would work out.
Scott Barlow: I’m super curious. All of that, especially the situation with your dad and him passing has had an impact on you. I’m curious how much that drives you now? How does it impact you?
AJ Harbinger: One of the core concepts we teach is how to be vulnerable. Vulnerability leads to connection. When you talk about this it’s an ambiguous word. We break it down as part of your narrative. We all have a story we tell ourselves and share with the world. It’s made up of three components: Your past - experiences, your present - your values, beliefs, morals that guide you daily, your future - goals, aspirations and fears. Fears can motivate your goals. For me the past I went through with losing my dad and not having the greatest relationship largely due to lacking social skills and knowing how to have conversations and showing love when it doesn’t go your way. My
present, my dad valued and instilled in me, the value of education. He felt if you could achieve some semblance of knowledge you have enough power to succeed in life. I firmly believe that even though I left graduate school. In my future, I’d love the Art of Charm to be taught as a curriculum in schools. These social skills are lacking in a lot of our youth. It leads to frustrations in people’s careers, love lives and relationships. And also the fear of failure of proving my dad right that the Art of Charm wasn’t my future and I shouldn’t go in this direction. That fear of failure still motivates me to make sure we are dotting all our I’s and crossing our t‘s.
Scott Barlow: I’m pausing for a moment because I’m so impressed with you describing your background and where you have come from. Behind the scenes is someone who has put together a lot of trainings and talks. What you just did there in terms of being able to take that story and turn it into the framework you have used and taught and intersperse that amongst the framework. That takes practice. Kudos to you. I love how you are an example of the product for lack of better phrase.
AJ Harbinger: We eat our own dog food. We live and breathe these concepts. That is one of the biggest reasons we are so drawn to teach it. Gaining these skills for me, and your listeners may be shocked, but I’m introverted. Even though I have these tools and skills of extroverts. It’s energetically draining for me to go into a loud crazy social environment and talk to a lot of people. At the end of those events I need to be in solitude to recharge. Extroverts gain energy from being social. They gain energy in those environments. My career stalled out in graduate school because I didn’t have effective social skills. I held back not sharing ideas. Over time that led to my boss and laboratory mates thinking I was arrogant and disinterested. When you have that situation where you are feeling and acting
one way but the people you interact with are getting a different sense of who you are it can lead to a lot of frustration and heartache. In building this company the social skills were around how do I make more friends and date women. Now it’s grown to building confidence and knowing you have skills you can walk into any situation and confidently express yourself and make sure the other person knows who you are fully. There is no grey area where they can assume negatives.
Scott Barlow: Let’s talk about the concept of holding back and vulnerability, which is the opposite of holding back in some ways. You talked about this past, present, and future concept. I’d love to delve into that and how people can get started in being more vulnerable day to day.
AJ Harbinger: I think the biggest thing is a lot of us have this confusion or misconception around connection. We feel or assume that connection happens through commonalities, shared interests. In reality it happens through sharing emotions because they are universal. They are tied to experiences. Even if you and I have had vastly different experiences, maybe you haven’t been to graduate school or shared in front of a bunch of people you can still tell that, oh A.J. was nervous going into this talk. You can think
of times when you felt nervous and that is where the connection is. On the emotion, not the experience like we both went to Michigan. Becoming vulnerable starts with owning your past. We’ve had these life lessons but they are tied to hardships where we don’t look our best or achieve what we set out to. We hold on to the lessons but don’t share them. We try to present ourselves as competent and impactful. In reality it’s in the lessons that people can sense who we are as a person and get to know us better.
When we work with clients the first thing we do to build your narrative is identify two to three lessons in your past that have come through experience. Ideally one or two of these should be ones that didn’t go your way. Then we talk about sharing them with your friends and strangers. If you have a clear narrative the person you are talking to will find you charismatic, memorable, and feel more connected to you versus if you were to spout off your resume or accomplishments. In your present you have to identify your values. That takes talking to your friends - what do you think about what I value. A lot of my friends would say honesty and loyalty and education. I always find myself trying to learn new skills. Once you have those together we don’t have to tackle the future but we have a good starting point to guide our conversation. When someone says be vulnerable you can share these two stories or lessons. For me I’ve had this chance to share my story with thousands of people. Your narrative strengthens. People know you for these reasons and feel connected to you.
Scott Barlow: My question and what my listeners may have is that sounds fantastic in theory. I have experienced and benefited from this however, within those one to three lessons, what are the context with which I might share. Do I just go up to people and say I had this happen in my past? Where and what context does that get used to bring clarity in how people might get started?
AJ Harbinger: We like to think there are three phrases to the interaction. There are different tools. The first is getting people interested in you. I’m not walking up to people and telling them my life story. That first phase is all about your nonverbal communication and setting the first impression. That is made before we open our mouth. Then it’s showcasing three parts of your personality everyone resonates with, fun loving, a back bone - being challenging, making sure people don’t see you as just agreeable. Sometimes when we start a conversation when we don’t know them we want to win their approval so we just shake our head yes and agree with everything. It pushes them away. At the start we want to get them talking. Take interest in them and ask them questions. Listen to the logical answer and the
emotions coming through.
We move to the second phase. We have them interested and ask questions. We’ve related. Now we want to show them genuine interest and reward their interest in us. We give a compliment around their personality. It’s much more genuine than saying you are good looking or tall. If you are a good listener pieces of their personality will come through.
The third phase is where we share our narrative. We are trying to build a connection. As we are listening to emotions they are sharing we pick one that is resonating in our life lesson and then you share your narrative. Don’t lead with my dad died and I dropped out of graduate school. I lead with questions to get to know them and listen to their answer and respond with the relatable by disclosing about myself. When we get nervous we get in the question trap. We ask a question but don’t pay attention to the answer and it's back to us so we just ask a follow-up question and so on. They feel they have shared a lot but you haven’t. The formula we discuss in class for starting conversations with anyone is we ask a question, listen to the answer and respond with a statement. If you do that, we’ve found two questions leads to them taking interest in you and asking a question. That is how conversations start.
Scott Barlow: And how they flourish I would say.
AJ Harbinger: We say in order to be interesting you have to be interested. People will not be interested in you until you take interested in them. We are all primed to answer stranger’s questions. Even if I were sitting at a stop sign listening to music and a car pulls up by me and rolls down the window I’m going to instinctively roll down my window because they are going to ask me a question. Asking questions is a great way to start conversations. In those moments where you don’t know what to say or you’ve run out of everything to talk about you ask a different question and get them opening up. The beauty of questions is the answer will be about themselves which is
everyone’s favorite conversation topic.
Scott Barlow: Let me ask you about that and practice what you are preaching. I hear all the time and suspect listeners do to, that you need to be genuinely interested in somebody. It sounds great but how do you actually do that. What are ways to get out of my head and be genuinely interested? What is the nitty gritty?
AJ Harbinger: The best way we talk about is asking how and why questions. Much like this conversation we are having, not knowing each
other beforehand, one of the first things you ask is how did you decide on this career path and what happens. I can talk for 30 or 40 minutes. When you ask how and why questions it gives the other person opportunity to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. You have a lot to draw from in sparking that interest. It takes the initial curiosity and becoming a good listener. Unfortunately, a lot of us have dull listening skills. We think too much and don’t focus on the other person. It’s important to listen to their answer with your eyes and ears. We make eye contact as we ask the question. While I’m talking to you I want to make eye contact while I ask the question, one so you know I’m talking to you, and two I can see your facial expressions and your response to the question will be seen through your expressions, then your words. Allowing eye contact and reading their emotional state and turning your ear to listening, looking at someone and breaking eye contact allows those with anxiety to break and actually hear what the other person says.
Scott Barlow: That is interesting and useful. On the note of anxiety, I’m curious, what is the most difficult thing you have found to teach to someone experiencing tons of anxiety in terms of being able to connect genuinely?
AJ Harbinger: The basis of the program is built around cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. You learn something and we go out into the world and apply it. We teach the concept of the conversation formula then we have them practice with each other. Grab a partner and practice training yourself not to fire back question after question. But focus on making a statement. You have to listen to do it. The formula is so effective for analytical people. If I have to follow the formula I better be listening. That is the first step.Then we bring in coaches to interact with them on camera and videotape the conversation with you using it. We play it back with no audio to see the nonverbal communication. We often overlook this. Then we play it back with sound and look at what were the moments in conversation where you asked a quick follow-up or didn’t use a statement. We pause and ask what you could have said. We prime them even though it’s not real time. All I need to do is slow down. When we have anxiety we move fast and everything is hyper speed. The video work slows things down and then we go out and apply them in the town with coaches watching you and giving feedback the next day. We learn concepts, practice, break them down, get feedback, slowing process down and go out in the real world and speed it up and get 360 degree feedback.
Scott Barlow: That is amazing. What you are talking about is behavior change. That is not the easiest thing to do. I love how you have developed this over the years. I want to ask you a completely different question out of curiosity. You have been teaching this for a while. You came from a place, and I think many people do, where they don’t have social skills, it has to be learned along the line. What do you find the areas you are personally working on tor the areas that are the most difficult even though you know the stuff?
AJ Harbinger: The big thing we were fortunate with is we have incredible mentors. I think that one of the big reasons we went into coaching is the value of having someone who has been through the process guiding you. These social skills were assimilated working with mentors, taking Dale Carnegie courses, and self-development and business development courses and hard work. In terms of what I’m currently working on is adding structure and discipline to my daily life. I tend to be more spontaneous and not as structured. Which is unusual for a scientist. Time management is one of my focuses to maximize the scarce resource of time. Running a company there are a lot of demands that need done. I’m working on that and health and physical fitness. I’m not a gym rat but my dad’s mortality has shown me I need to emphasize my health and nutrition. That is another area over the last couple years. That has been a struggle but I have a supportive girlfriend and friends to get over the hump. For fun I’m learning how to play golf challenging my mental and physical skills there.
Scott Barlow: Golf is one of those things you can spend so much time and plateau, or get to an area of where it is increasing in smaller steps. I used to live in Portland, Oregon where there are tons of golf courses and you can play all year round. There are areas in California like that too. That was a fun time for me. I got to go for a year and dive into golf and play three times a week. With all of those areas what are you doing in the time management area?
AJ Harbinger: The biggest thing is turning off notifications and creating blocks of time to be in my inbox or working exclusively on something. I’ve removed electronics from the bedroom so I’m not focused on what is going on on social media in terms of getting ready for bed or getting up in the morning. It’s blocking time saying for this hour I’m focusing on my inbox and not checking it all day because you lose a lot of time doing things just to do things and not moving forward. Creating chunks of time to tackle certain things so I’m not getting drawn on goose chases where I have time set to create content, getting the word out and sharing. Running the coaching programs I have set aside very week and business development to grow. I’m focused on those and chunked on that. I stay on that focused path. I have a weekly check in to say in terms of my to-do list how effective was I? What did I put off? This needs to be what I tackle first next week. That is a work in progress. I’m not a time management expert but I’m trying to grow and strengthen.
Scott Barlow: I so appreciate you sharing and taking and making the time to come on the show in the first place. This has been a fun conversation for me. Thank you, I have nothing else to say but thank you. I really appreciate it.
AJ Harbinger: It’s been great thanks for having me.
Scott Barlow: Absolutely. For people that want more AJ or the Art of Charm. How can they find out more about you?
AJ Harbinger: We have a podcast. If you are a podcast listener that is the best place to start. The Art of Charm where we interview successful people, celebrities, and athletes and distill actionable steps so listeners can improve their lives based on these life lessons successful people have had. We offer toolbox episodes where we cover the social skills I was going over with you in detail. You can go to the artofcharm.com/toolbox to find more social skills content from us. Those are free episodes where we break down how to have conversations with people, how to build a social circle, how to be more confident. If you are interested in upping your social skills we have a social skills challenge at the artofhcarm.com/challenge. It's 30 days, testing your metal with social skills and there is a Facebook group to meet like-minded individuals trying to improve themselves.
Scott Barlow: I love it. I encourage you to check it out. There are so many great resources. Take the challenge. Thank you again AJ. I so very much appreciate it.
AJ Harbinger: Thank you so much. It’s a great time