August 30, 2017

Verbal Jujutsu: A Conversation Catalyst

Posted by AGU Career Center

Drawing introverts into conversations can be difficult.  As an introvert, I will admit to curmudgeonly behavior in social situations.  Frankly, I’d rather eat chopped liver than go to a reception of people I don’t know, so networking and small talk can be awkward.  Put me in a room with other introverts and we might as well decorate the room like a middle school dance because everyone is going to be clutching a drink and staring at the wall.

Over time, I have learned a few survival techniques for receptions.  First, hide all chopped liver.  Receptions don’t seem as bad when you limit the number of preferable options. 

Second, coerce others to do the talking by asking them a series of high-gain questions.  High-gain questions generally start with “why” or “how”, and they require a detailed response.  Most questions starting with “what” or “is” can be answered with a one-word response, so they are likely to be conversation killers.  Prompting your conversational partner to give longer responses gives you time to think between questions.  It also gives you a chance to listen for things that you find interesting.  Following up on topics of common interest allows you to gain additional insight about them while you add to your body of knowledge about the subject.

Third, make the initial questions about them.  Even introverts know about themselves.  For introverts, this is likely to be their area of expertise, because they spend so much time in their own heads.

Example 1, Conversational Failure

Me: Hello, my name is Dave.  What is yours?
Them: Mel
Me: What do you do?
Them: Research
Me: Is the meeting going well for you?
Them: Ok
Me: Great, have a wonderful evening.
[End of Scene...conversation over]


Example 2, Conversational Success

Me: Hello, my name is Dave.  What is yours?
Them: Weiwei
Me: Why did you choose to attend the meeting?
Them: I am doing research on silicic magma systems, and I want to gain insights from researchers in other fields who are studying similar systems.
Me: I’ve always been fascinated by volcanology.  Why did you choose to study silicic magma systems? What is the most important thing to know about them?

[Conversation continues for 15 minutes more]


Think of the conversation as “verbal jujutsu” where you are using your conversational partner’s energy to propel the conversation.  Their energy becomes your energy, and any pressure on you is transmitted back to them.

Although you are using your superior mental abilities to manipulate them into speaking, you shouldn’t see this technique as completely self-serving.  By creating the initial momentum for the conversation, you are making the situation more pleasant for them as well.  Like a catalyst, you have lowered the energy barrier for the conversation, and you have enabled interpersonal interactions to occur.


Like any martial art, verbal jujutsu is perfected through practice.  The more you use high-gain questions, the more natural they will feel to you, and the better you will become at formulating them.  The flow and the balance of your conversation will also improve as you become the master of technique, timing and application.

Jujutsu is a Japanese martial art form that was developed as a way for an unarmed person to defeat sword-wielding samurai.  Verbal jujutsu is an artificial construct; however, it can be equally applied to conversations where you fell that you are at a disadvantage.  Like the original martial art, the only weapon required is your mind, so leave the chopped liver recipes at home.

Next time you find yourself in a networking situation where you are having trouble making the first move, try using these tips to flip the conversation in the right direction.

David Harwell is the Director of Talent Pool at the American Geophysical Union.