Interesting or Interested?

“Live For Today…Plan For Tomorrow…Party Tonight..!!!”

Again I find myself reflecting on some of the things my mother taught me about how to lead a successful and fulfilled life.  To say I was a poor student when it comes to learning from my parents is an understatement, but since my mother kept at it, a few choice tidbits did sink in.

When I was in high school, nearing time to go off to college, she started talking about how to behave at parties or when interacting with a group of people.  Up to that point, I never gave much thought to these sorts of “social” things.  My experience so far had been to observe the most popular kids in school, soon working out that to be popular one had to be the “life of the party”, tell lots of jokes and always have an “I can top that” story.  In general, be an interesting character.

However, being a basic introvert (see the interesting recent book on introverts: The Introvert Advantage), I was shy and so the tactics of being the life of the party were beyond my comprehension and my courage. I can remember numerous high school dances where the boys sat on one side of the room, the girls on the other, like a socially awkward stand-off.  On nearly every occasion I went home not having danced once, kicking myself for not having the courage to walk across the gym floor and ask someone to dance. By the end of high school I at least had a couple of “go to” girls whom I knew well enough to dance with. That was about the extent of my social party skills.

Having known this about me, Mom began teaching the principle of being Interested instead of Interesting. To her, those who try to be interesting are mostly acting out of ego and definitely trying too hard.  And if we lead with ego, it is easy to progress into some very awkward situations.  For example, the life of the party is usually the one who get taunted with “I dare you to …”, and of course with ego leading the way, there is opportunity for all kinds of mischief, sometimes turning into real trouble and tragedy. I imagine all of us know at least one kid who wound up in a terrible accident or worse as a result of a dare or by trying to be the life of the party.

I had to admit, Mom had a point.  But what’s the alternative, sit on the other side of the room like a bump on a log?  Be “interested” she replied.  By this, she meant to ask lots of questions about the person you are interacting with.  Ask about their favourite things, their favourite subject, how many brother and sisters, favourite trips or cities, favourite movies or books.  As you can see, there is endless opportunity to ask questions “about them”.  The basic principle here is that people love to talk about themselves, but are often too shy to just blurt it out.  So by being interested and asking lots of questions, an entire conversation evolves and at the end the person often things, “boy, what a great conversationalist he is”, when in actuality, they did most of the talking.

But, like all lessons in life, it comes with a health warning.  My Mom kept stressing that to make this social technique work appropriately, I had to be genuinely interested, not just faking it or going through the motions.  I think we have all had the experience of talking with someone who only half pretends to listen, all the while glancing around the room at other people and occasionally nodding politely.  Lights on but nobody home.  Not a rewarding conversation at all.

Well, 50 years later and Mom was definitely right (amazing how smart my parents get the older I get).  Not only are you considered a great conversationalist with the strategy of being genuinely interested and asking lots of questions, but you wind up learning a lot about other people and discovering how interesting they really are.

Interesting or Interested?

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to Interesting or Interested?

  1. Steve Borek says:

    The reason I became an executive coach is because I enjoy people and want to know each of their stories. It takes great listening skills to be good at it.

    For me, I’m not just interested in what they’re saying. I also look for what they’re not saying. I’m interested in how they’re saying it. I’m looking for personality and behavior traits.

    That’s probably why I’m a great listener. I’m looking for more than just what’s being said.


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