Five Things Jerry Seinfeld Teaches Us About The Art Of Great Conversation
October 26, 2018
Submitted by ACPEN presenter Dr. Bruce Weinstein, The Ethics Guy.
Thank you, Netflix, for releasing all at once the latest season of Jerry Seinfeld’s essential series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The show pulls off the unusual feat of appealing to people who love automobiles, espresso, comedy or any combination of these.
Most of all, however, Jerry Seinfeld demonstrates the art of great conversation. Specifically, he does the following five things in the show that anyone interested in becoming a better leader would do well to heed.
A conversation is like a tennis game. In tennis, you hit the ball to your opponent, she or he then lobs it to you, and back and forth you go. In a conversation, you ask a question or make an observation, and then you stop and listen.
That’s how a conversation is supposed to go but too often does not. For many people (otherwise known as yakkers or crashing bores), the conversational metaphor is not a tennis game but a batting cage. They hurl ball after ball at you. You try to bat one back, but whether you do or not doesn’t matter, because the yakker has already prepared another ball to shoot at you.
Jerry Seinfeld uses the tennis metaphor. You rarely get the sense that when a guest on the show is speaking, Jerry is waiting for the next thing to say.
Converse like Jerry. Listen.
“She studied the lines in my face,” sings Bob Dylan in his breakup song, “Tangled Up in Blue.” Like that woman, Jerry Seinfeld studies the faces of every guest he has on the show. Unlike that woman, he’s not in the throes of a troubled relationship. No, Jerry studies faces because it’s life’s details that fascinate him and form the basis of all of his comedy.
I’ve never had the pleasure of speaking with Jerry one on one, and I’ll admit that I’d be a bit self-conscious. But none of the guests on the show appear to be bothered by Jerry’s attention to their faces. That’s because each guest is both a friend of Jerry’s and an observer of life too. It’s not a stretch to say that Jerry Seinfeld and all of his comedian friends are successful because of their attention to detail.
Converse like Jerry. Look.
One of the intoxicating pleasures of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is the good-natured humor and ready laughs that permeate every episode. The lightness and airiness of the conversations make whatever professional or personal problem you’re dealing a little easier to bear. Yes, it’s that good. (That’s also a characteristic Larry David’s interactions with his real-life pals on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but a proper analysis of that marvelous show would require a separate column.)
I once remarked to a friend that Jerry’s laughter on Comedians sometimes feels forced. He will howl at something his guest says that hardly rates a 4, let alone a 9, on the Richter scale of comedy. “But that’s how friendships are,” my buddy replied. “Friends laugh at things others wouldn’t find amusing at all.” He was right.
We’ve all had conversations with people who regard their every utterance with deep reverence. I fear that I’m like that on occasion, and the show reminds me of the dangers of being this way.
Converse like Jerry. Laugh (some of the time).
There is no more touching example of how Jerry Seinfeld treats his guests with respect than the final episode of this season. Jerry Lewis is his guest, and the love and admiration Seinfeld has for the true king of comedy is evident in every moment of its twenty minutes.
Lewis appears fragile, and the episode must have been filmed not too long before he died. That makes it even more touching than it would have been already, and your eyes will be welling with tears by the end.
Seinfeld evinces the same respect with other legends of comedy who have been on the show: Don Rickles, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks and among them. One can only imagine how amazing it would have been to see Jerry with Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, George Carlin or Richard Pryor.
Converse like Jerry. Show respect.
Jerry Exudes Confidence
As far as conversation partners go, a milquetoast is almost as bad as a cocky, arrogant fill-in-the-blank. Jerry Seinfeld is no milquetoast. He makes no bones about his unmatched success in both comedy and television. On a couple of occasions that level of confidence does become boastful, but when I observe that, I ask myself, “Who wouldn’t be guilty of braggadocio from time to time if they had Jerry’s level of achievement?”
Even Bruce Springsteen, whose leadership style I wrote about in a previous column, admits to hubris. As he told Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes:
I got as big an ego and enjoy the attention. My son has a word, he calls it ‘Attention Whore.’ But you have to be one of those or else why would you be up in front of thousands of people….”
Overall, Seinfeld’s degree of self-regard is absolutely right for the spirited conversations he has with his friends and colleagues.
Converse like Jerry. Believe in yourself.
The Bottom Line
On Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld makes you feel as though you’re right in that car with him and his esteemed guest. It’s not just because the show strategically uses GoPro cameras inside the vehicle. Seinfeld is a gifted conversationalist who shows what talk can be like when it’s done right: enlightening, engaging and just plain fun.
If you fancy yourself a leader, or simply want to be a better friend or colleague to someone, watch the show and follow suit.