Cultivating feedback

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In theory, a psychic reading could consist of the psychic doing all the talking and the client doing all the listening. Cold reading can work under these circumstances, and indeed postal readings cannot work any other way. However, the cold reading process clearly works best if the client provides plenty of responses, feedback and information. For this reason, the psychic does whatever she can to make sure the reading becomes an interactive dialogue.

In this respect, some clients need less encouragement than others. Some confirmed believers are inclined to talk almost non-stop, thereby greatly facilitating the cold reading process. However, the majority of clients are less generously forthcoming. They may be shy, wary, naturally reserved or downright sceptical and waiting to see the psychic 'prove' her abilities. In these cases, the psychic has to work to overcome this reticence. There are many ways of doing this, some more subtle than others.

How the psychic encourages feedback

One technique psychics use to cultivate feedback is to develop the kind of calm, intimate 'ambience' that we looked at earlier as part of The Set Up. The more at ease the client, the more likely she is to lower her defences.

Another is to provide plenty of prompts, which is to say conversational cues for the client to respond. We looked at a number of these in the section on 'Extracting information'. It also pays for the psychic to be a good listener, who provides plenty of time for the client to talk openly, even if she is not especially confident or articulate.

Open and closed questions

Psychics also strive to make sure that they ask open' questions rather than 'closed' ones. This distinction will be familiar to anyone who knows about sales and inter-personal skills. In case you have not met these terms before, a closed question is one which can be simply answered 'yes/no' or 'agree/disagree'. They do not promote good interaction. An open question cannot be answered this way, and forces the respondent to provide more detail. Open questions are much better for promoting and sustaining conversation. Here is a simple illustration of a closed question:

"Are you interested in music?"

The other person might simply say yes or no. There is no conversational flow, and it is then up to the first person to think of something else to say. Here is the open version:

"Tell me, what sort of music do you like?"

Now the other person has to think of more to say, and the conversation progresses beyond the rather banal level of 'yes/no' 'agree/disagree'.

Eye contact

Another way in which psychics promote response is to make good use of direct eye contact. When you sustain direct eye contact with someone, you simultaneously (i) signal that you find them interesting (ii) hold and guide their attention (iii) encourage them to pay attention to you. These three factors all encourage the other person to trust you and talk to you. Maintaining eye contact is not the same thing as staring, which has precisely the opposite effect.

Body language

I have already expressed my cautious stance towards the 'science' of body language. Nonetheless, if only for completeness, let me mention some body language factors which are theoretically relevant.

One is for the psychic to incline her head slightly left or right when listening to the client. According to theory, this is subconsciously interpreted as a signal of co-operative/consenting attitude, rather than aggressive/confrontational. It therefore promotes the client's sense of security, and diminishes any confrontational aspect to the proceedings.

Venturing further into the realm of body language, the psychic may also take care to synchronise her own breathing pattern with that of the client. This is said to be a very subtle yet effective way to build a sense of rapport and mutual well-being. Another is for the psychic to align her own posture, or stance, with that of the client, so that they are not in what is called a 'crossing' or 'conflicting' position. In case the jargon is not clear enough, here is the theory. When you are talking to someone, imagine a line running across your body, connecting your shoulders. Imagine a similar line on the other person. The more parallel the lines, the more interested and sympathetic you seem to be to the other person. If the lines diverge or cross, this has the opposite effect.

I have tried the incline of the head and the posture alignment, and I can only report that they seem to work. Whether they actually work or not is for others to say.

So far, we have seen that the psychic can try numerous ways to encourage the client to provide feedback. The next question is, what kinds of feedback is she after?

Different types of feedback

Clients can provide several different types of feedback. Obviously, the most direct kind is verbal. As well as listening to what the client says, the psychic also listens to:

- stress and emphasis

- tone and manner

Let us consider a simple response such as:

"I wouldn't say that was entirely true."

If you try saying this out loud, but emphasising a different word each time, you will see how this makes a huge difference to what the client actually means, which in turn makes a difference to what the psychic can infer from the response.

I wouldn't say that was entirely true. (But others might, there are different viewpoints.)

I wouldn't say that was entirely true. (I'm quite emphatic about this.)

I wouldn't say that was entirely true. (But I might think it, or feel it, or I might not be willing to commit myself either way.)

I wouldn't say that was entirely true. (But other parts of what you've said seem accurate.)

I wouldn't say that was entirely true. (But you're more right than you are wrong.)

I wouldn't say that was entirely true. (Some of it is open to interpretation, speculation or doubt, but I'm not emphatically denying it.)

Even if the stress and emphasis is relatively even, the manner in which the client responds can tell the psychic as much as the words themselves, or even more. Such factors as the client's phrasing, pace, responsiveness, choice of words, tone of voice and confidence of expression can all convey a great deal about what she is thinking and feeling. The 'I wouldn't say that was entirely true' response can be said so as to indicate any of the following:

- strong denial and disagreement

- a dismissively sceptical and perhaps even sarcastic attitude

- a genuine difficulty in assessing how true the statement is

- indecision, reluctance to declare a verdict

- evasiveness and a tendency to 'sit on the fence' rather than commit to any one, single interpretation

- broad agreement, tinged with a mild doubt about fine details

- partial agreement, unimpressed with the psychic's inability to do better

- partial agreement, but very pleased with the psychic's brilliance

A second important source of feedback is the client's facial expression. We all know from everyday life that this often provides many subtle clues to someone's thoughts. Similarly, subtle shakes and nods of the head can provide fairly clear signals.

A third source of feedback is provided by the client's gestures and mannerisms - from idle fidgeting with her hands, to scratching her ear or running her hand through her hair. Some cold reading sources set great store by this kind of feedback, and take pains to detail many correlations between thought or mood X and gesture or mannerism Y. I consider this kind of 'analysis' to fall somewhere between idle fantasy and misleading exaggeration. Reliable examples of such a close correlation must be few and far between. If a client scratches her nose, she may -as some would have us believe - be signalling a lack of truthfulness or a subconscious desire to shield herself from a perceived threat. Then again, she may just have an itchy nose.

What is true is that clients generally remain blissfully unaware of the feedback they provide. In one demonstration I gave for BBC Television, the client maintained afterwards that she had tried hard not to give anything away. The video playback showed that she was nodding or shaking her head, giving me the plainest possible 'yes' or 'no' guidance, all the way through the reading.

How psychics use feedback

Given that the psychic encourages feedback, and that it comes in several different forms, how does this assist the success of the psychic reading?

First of all, it helps the psychic to determine which of the Principal Themes the client is most interested in. This strengthens the inexplicability of the process ("Gee, how did she know about that tough decision I'm facing?"), and also makes the reading seem more relevant and worthwhile.

Secondly, it helps the psychic to gauge the extent to which the client agrees, or disagrees, with any statement she offers. The psychic capitalises on the strongest hits, and allows the misses to quietly fall by the wayside.

Perhaps most significantly, the different kinds of feedback help to reveal conflicts between what the client says and what she actually feels. This can be a very valuable aspect of cold reading. Clients often give responses which are less than honest, especially if something comes up which they consider embarrassing or sensitive. It can be very helpful for the psychic to perceive this.

To take a simple example, suppose that the psychic decides to mention financial concerns (a very common theme). Suppose also that the client happens to have some money worries, but denies it out of embarrassment. If the client's unspoken gestures tell a different story, the perceptive cold reader may decide to return to this theme, suggesting with feigned bewilderment that the cards seem in conflict with the client's own assurances that all is well. This will greatly impress the client (and everyone she tells afterwards). It also strengthens the illusion that 'psychic forces' unerringly detect the truth. This is good for trade.

To sum up, psychics try to make the reading into a dialogue rather than a monologue. They have many good ways of encouraging feedback, and of putting it to good use. This is an important aspect of cold reading, and one which clients often fail to notice. Many clients leave after a reading believing that they merely listened to a series of astonishing psychic revelations. They may never be aware that in fact they provided a rich fund of information and feedback.

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