x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Are you completely psycho? Please tell me more

In showbiz, like in everything else, it pays to shut up.

If you've ever had a conversation with a psychologist - a casual one, I mean, not necessarily the kind you have to pay for - you've probably noticed that they have a special tone of voice they use.

It's soothing and non-confrontational - characteristics that must come in handy for people who often deal with the mentally unbalanced - and it's hugely effective at disarming the other person.

I have a friend who is a therapist - mostly for the criminally insane, which makes for some very harrowing dinner party anecdotes - and I've noticed, over the years, her "professional" tone of voice bleeding into her social tone of voice.

If, for instance, we are both trying to decide where to have dinner together and I want sushi and she wants Italian, she'll deploy her soothe-the-crazy-person voice to get her way.

"I love sushi," she'll purr. "I really hear you about its wonderful qualities. Such a great, light option. Tell me more about why you're so committed to sushi tonight. I want to understand that."

Because, of course, everyone likes to talk, and everyone is flattered when someone says to them, improbably, "tell me more".

And so I'll talk for a while about sushi, until there's a natural break in the conversation, at which point she'll ask in a nurturing tone: "And Italian food doesn't provide that same kind of pleasure?"

"Sure it does," I'll say.

"Say more about that," she'll say.

And I'll talk for a while about why I also like Italian food, and before you know it we're sitting at Osteria Mozza on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, and I can't even remember when I changed my mind.

A producer friend of mine uses that technique when he's dealing with a difficult or recalcitrant actor. The actor will launch into some long-winded complaint about the terrible lines or the implausible story or the inability of any actor to make it seem real.

Eventually he or she will come to a natural break in the (one-way) conversation - usually, with actors, it's about 17 minutes in - and rather than respond or argue or even present another opinion, my producer friend will simply lean in a bit, furrow his brow in interest, and then say in a soothing voice: "Say more, if you will, about that."

And the actor will launch into another 17-minute soliloquy, so the producer will repeat the process, but eventually it'll all be over, the actor will feel "heard", and everyone will get back to work.

The trick to thriving in show business - and probably every business, too, including the most vicious and competitive one of all, human relationships - is remembering that people just want to be heard. More, even, than they want any real action to take place, people just want to talk about what's running around in their heads. So, let them. Encourage them. Tell them to "say more".

"They just want to be heard," agents tell clients who complain about a studio executive's script notes. "They just want to be heard," actors' managers tell directors about their actor clients. Even the most practical and hard-nosed folks in the entire entertainment business - the lawyers who negotiate contracts for the studios and television networks - melt in the exact same way when they're asked to "say more" about this or that negotiating position.

When you say "say more" to someone in the entertainment business, you're taking a very effective clinical tool for communicating with institutionalised mentally ill people and you're putting it to an equally effective and appropriate use. Because most of the time, the only thing that separates those two groups is one of them is given to violent and deranged outbursts of irrational and self-destructive behaviour, and the other is the institutionalised mentally ill.

But here's the hard part to the trick: when you successfully get someone to say more, you must always remember that the key to winning any exchange is to say less yourself. "Say more" is for other people, people who like to talk - people who will, if the strategy works (and it always works) eventually talk themselves into a circle, and end up heading to the local Italian restaurant.

Clamming up, on the other hand, is the smart play. I know writers who have said more and talked themselves out of a job by continuing to pitch a story until the studio executive's face dropped in boredom. Better to hold the cards close, to keep the mouth zipped up tight, to say less.

If you assume from the outset - as therapists do when interacting with everyone around them - that the people you're dealing with in the entertainment industry (or any industry) have the kind of unpredictable mental health issues that can only be managed by allowing them to talk until they're tired - you'll never regret it. After all, the opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is winning.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl