How to learn from conversations

post by Neel Nanda (neel-nanda-1) · 2020-07-25T09:36:16.105Z · LW · GW · 3 comments

This is a link post for

(This is a post from a daily blogging experiment I did at, which I thought might also fit the tastes of LessWrong)

I’m currently in the middle of a virtual conference, so one thing heavily on my mind is how to get the most out of talking to people who know more than me. How to get as much information as I can, how to get it efficiently, and how to ensure I actually understand it and retain it! I think this is a very learnable skill, and one that I’ve cultivated a lot over the past 3 years. Having fascinating conversations with interesting people is one of my great joys in life, and I care a lot about being able to do this well! In this article I’ll try to convey some of the key tools I’ve developed!

Health warning: I get the feedback that I come across as fairly intense in conversations, and sometimes give the vibe that I’m judging whether the other person is worth my time. I try to minimise these, and to pay attention to the other person’s comfort level, but this seems like a pretty inescapable cost of this approach!


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comment by jacobjacob · 2020-08-18T04:43:44.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm glad this post exists. 

Back at university, I used to find conversations difficult, and regularly failed to make new friends and connections. 

At the same time, I had a close friend who would walk up to senior professors or startup founders after they'd given talks, without knowing them from before, and after 15 min of conversation end up laughing together, and getting invited to various cool opportunities. 

I was in awe. And I was confused. I asked him how he did it. His answer was very similar to some of the advice in this post. 

This was different from what I had been doing, which was roughly "Say something that sounds very complicated and insightful, and you'll impress them". (Ah, my youthful folly!)

I now think one of the core things allowing a good conversation to happen is to actually connect with someone -- coming to understand each other, and have the things you say follow either build on, or riff off of, each other in genuinely meaningful ways. There are different ways for those meaningful exchanges to happen. Metaphorically, they can be like ping-pong games, dances, musical jams, raising a barn or exploring a jungle. However, when conversations fail, they feel more like a blisterfeld, or two loudspeakers playing two different songs at the same time. 

I think this is also what makes your techniques tick. They're largely about building a particular kind of meaningful connection. (But I don't think they capture all of the art of conversation. For example, they don't cover "jamming" style conversations.)

Replies from: neel-nanda-1
comment by Neel Nanda (neel-nanda-1) · 2020-08-19T06:13:38.572Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Glad you enjoyed it!

That's interesting - I'm mostly optimising for efficient and accurate learning, but it does also seem effective for signalling sincerity and building rapport. Turns out smart people seem to enjoy talking to someone who's clearly putting effort into understanding what they have to say!

I'm curious what you mean by jamming style conversations?

comment by Ian Televan · 2021-07-30T19:24:18.467Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you very much for posting this! I've been thinking about this topic for a while now and feel like this is criminally overlooked. There are so many resources on how to teach other people effectively, but virtually none on how to learn things effectively from other people (not just from textbooks). Yet we are often surrounded by people who know something that we currently don't and who might not know much about teaching or how to explain things well. Knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them makes these people into great teachers - while you reap the benefits! - this feels like a superpower.