How to have a better conversation
How many of you have unfriended someone on Facebook because they said something offensive about politics, religion, childcare or food? And how many of you know at least one person that you avoid because you just don’t want to talk to them?
It used to be that in order to have a polite conversation, we just had to stick to the weather and health. But these days, many subjects are still not safe. Every conversation has the potential to devolve into an argument, our politicians can’t speak to one another and even the most trivial of issues have someone fighting both passionately for and against it. It’s not normal. At this moment, America is more polarized and more divided than ever in history. We’re less likely to compromise, which means we’re not listening to each other. And we make decisions about where to live, who to marry and even who our friends are going to be, based on what we already believe. Again, that means we’re not listening to each other. A conversation requires a balance between talking and listening, and somewhere along the way, we have lost that balance.
Part of that is due to technology. Everyone has a smartphone. About a third of American teenagers send more than a hundred texts a day. And many of them are more likely to text their friends than they are to talk to them face to face. Conversational competence might be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach. Ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain coherent, confident conversation?”
We talk to people that we like, who we don’t like or who we disagree with deeply on a personal level, but can still have a great conversation with. General advice might be look the person in the eye, think of interesting topics to discuss in advance, look, nod and smile to show that you’re paying attention, repeat back what you just heard or summarize it. But forget all of that. It is crap. There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.
Behave like a professional interviewer to learn how to be better conversationalists. Learn to have a conversation without wasting your time, without getting bored, and, without offending anybody.
We’ve all had really great conversations. We know what it’s like. The kind of conversation where you walk away feeling engaged and inspired, or where you feel like you’ve made a real connection or you’ve been perfectly understood. There is no reason why most of your interactions can’t be like that.
There are 10 basic rules but mastering just one will help you enjoy better conversations.
1. Don’t multitask. A minimum is set down your cell phone or your tablet or your car keys or whatever is in your hand, but also be present. Be in that moment. Don’t think about an argument you had or what you’re going to have for dinner. If you want to get out of the conversation, get out of the conversation, but don’t be half in it and half out of it.
2. Don’t pontificate. If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth, write a blog. Pundits are really boring. If they’re conservative, they’re going to hate Obama and food stamps and abortion. If they’re liberal, they’re going to hate big banks and oil corporations and Dick Cheney. Totally predictable. And you don’t want to be like that.
You need to enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn. True listening requires a setting aside of oneself. And sometimes that means setting aside your personal opinion. Sensing this acceptance, the speaker will become less and less vulnerable and more and more likely to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener. Again, assume that you have something to learn. Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don’t. Everybody is an expert in something.
3. Use open-ended questions. Start your questions with who, what, when, where, why or how. If you put in a complicated question, you’re going to get a simple answer out. If you ask “Were you terrified?” you’re going to respond to the most powerful word in that sentence, which is “terrified,” and the answer is “Yes, I was” or “No, I wasn’t.” “Were you angry?” “Yes, I was very angry.” Let them describe it. They’re the ones that know. Try asking them things like, “What was that like?” “How did that feel?” Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you’re going to get a much more interesting response.
4. Go with the flow. Thoughts will come into your mind and you need to let them. Don’t come back in and ask a question that seems like it comes out of nowhere, or it’s already been answered. That means you probably stopped listening two minutes ago because you thought of this really clever question, and are just bound and determined to say that. Let stories and ideas that come to you go.
5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. Don’t claim to be an expert and to know for sure. Err on the side of caution. Talk should not be cheap. There is a fine line between combatting someone’s experience with your own and empathizing with it. Often the related experience is a great opportunity for a more empathetic, and therefore connected, conversation!
6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs. If they’re talking about having lost a family member, don’t start talking about the time you lost a family member. If they’re talking about the trouble they’re having at work, don’t tell them about how much you hate your job. It’s not the same. It is never the same. All experiences are individual. And, more importantly, it is not about you. You don’t need to take that moment to prove how amazing you are or how much you’ve suffered. Conversations are not a promotional opportunity.
7. Try not to repeat yourself. It’s condescending, and it’s really boring, and we tend to do it a lot. Especially in work conversations or in conversations with our kids, we have a point to make, so we just keep rephrasing it over and over.
8. Stay out of the weeds. Frankly, people don’t care about the years, the names, the dates, all those details that you’re struggling to come up with in your mind. They don’t care. What they care about is you. They care about what you’re like, what you have in common. So forget the details. Leave them out.
9. Listen. This is the most important one. Listening is perhaps the most, the number one most important skill that you could develop. If your mouth is open, you’re not learning. No man ever listened his way out of a job.
Why do we not listen to each other? Number one, we’d rather talk. When I’m talking, I’m in control. I don’t have to hear anything I’m not interested in. I’m the center of attention. I can bolster my own identity. But there’s another reason: We get distracted. The average person talks at about 225 word per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. So our minds are filling in those other 275 words. It takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone, but if you can’t do that, you’re not in a conversation. You’re just two people shouting out barely related sentences in the same place.
Said more succinctly, most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.
10. Be brief. A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.
All of this boils down to the same basic concept: Be interested in other people. Assume everyone has some hidden, amazing thing about them. Go out, talk to people, listen to people, keep your mouth shut as often as you possibly can, keep your mind open, and you’ll never be disappointed. Be prepared to be amazed.