How many of us have found ourselves in conversations where we leave feeling unheard, frustrated, and reluctant to converse ever again? Or awkward, sticky situations, where silences outweigh words, where both stillness and sound suffocate?
Bad conversations trigger a very visceral reaction, like there’s an itch in your gut than makes you want to distance yourself from the situation, or like your skin is the wrong size for your body, slightly too tight and scratching at the seams.
On the flipside, there are conversations that leave you feeling inspired, fascinated and incredulous. They reveal a corner of the earth you’ve not visited, a life unlived. The difference is not discomfort, but wonder.
It’s my job to have fruitful and productive conversations. Often when I meet new people, I find myself ‘doing a journalist’. I naturally lean into asking questions, because meeting someone new presents always an opportunity: an opportunity to learn something new.
Since our ability to interact and spend time with others has been heavily restricted, I believe many have come to appreciate a healthy, engaging and enjoyable conversation more than they did before.
Perhaps you don’t lose hope quite so quickly, but oftentimes we don’t get as much out of conversation as we could. And conversations in themselves present opportunities to participate in someone else’s experience and perspective – even if we don’t agree with it – and in turn, learn more about ourselves and our own likes, dislikes, values and morals.
That said: conversations will never be consistently ‘perfect’ because people are not consistently perfect. Nevertheless, we can all strive to create an atmosphere where conversations have space to thrive, and our capacity to communicate and connect to others is at its strongest.
DO – ask questions and listen
I am of the opinion that one of our biggest obstacles to communicating effectively is ego (this may massively oversimplifying matters, but this is only a short article, so there you go). We are so concerned with sharing our own views, opinions and thoughts that we are not actually trying to have a conversation, we are trying to make ourselves heard. Take a moment to think about how you act during social situations, be aware of how you dominate or shy away from situations. If you are a confident and frequent speaker, then you are missing out on the opportunity to hear and learn new things. This isn’t about self-censorship; this is about awareness and openness.
DON’T – get caught up on that one point you really wanted to make
We’ve all had the experience where we’ve come up with the ultimate argument, the argument to end all arguments. We nod along, waiting for a space in speech, a place to pounce and we stop listening, because our focus is spent entirely on coming out on top. So, while it can feel physically painful, I suggest: let it go. I am not advising never to defend yourself or make a point during a conversation. I am saying that the conversation will continue to flow, change and transform, and by overly centring your attention on one facet of the discussion, you are not engaging, or learning: you’re scoring points and treating the conversation as a game instead of a mutual interaction.
DO – consider the aim of the conversation
This ties in with the “conversation is not a competition” point. You might often leave conversations with a sense of satisfaction, knowing you’ve successfully beaten your opponent in whatever topic you were discussing, which in some cases is fine. But winning does not contribute to long-term growth and learning, and people will stop wanting to talk to you if all you’re doing is trying to outdo them at every instance. Winning can be a lonely path to take. If your aim is to make a genuine human connection and discover something new, then by all means challenge, but don’t attack.
Some suggest approaching a conversation like a sales pitch: you know what you’re going in for and you plan a strategy for achieving this. While I understand the thinking behind this strategy, I also find it turns conversations into transactions. But maybe this works for you and this makes you feel more confident. Do try to allow space for a conversation to grow beyond the confines of your expectations, let it roam for its own sake. If there is a target, I would argue: let it be learning, let it be educational, let it be sharing; it’s not all about control.
DON’T – push people beyond their limits
It would be marvellous if we could talk to everyone about anything, but we all have our own experiences, moreover, and our own reasons for not wanting to entertain certain subjects. Always consider who you are having a conversation with: we all like feeling that our boundaries will be respected, so extend that to whoever you engage with. At the same time, no one owes you access to information about their life or a peek inside their brain. This isn’t a personal slight, some people may just not be ready, willing, or able to share everything and anything with you, and that’s okay.
DO – be aware of the context
I pinched this paradigm from Professor Steve Peters, who calls it “the square of communication” (from his mind management book “The chimp paradox”). It involves considering each element of conversation: the individual, the time, the place, the agenda, and finally, the method of communication.
The person is at the middle of your square, and as Peters points out, it is very easy to address everyone but the person you have a problem with about the problem itself. Approaching someone about an issue can be awkward, painful and scary (and I would avoid it if it puts you in harm’s way), but in the long term is less draining and stressful. So when you have a problem, think about it: who is really, truly, the person you need to talk to? When it comes to the other points of our square, they’re a little more straightforward.
Time: do we have time for this conversation? Will we be rushed? Are we under pressure? Place: are we in a busy space? In public? In a neutral space? Agenda: what is the real reason we are having this conversation? What are we trying to gain? How can we avoid getting distracted? Method: what tone of voice, body language, words, are we using? What atmosphere are we setting?
Basically, all these factors are important to consider when wanting to create an ideal environment for conversation, probably one of a more serious kind.
DO – tailor your questions
In order to get the most out of a conversation you want your conversation partner to feel at ease. Big, open questions can lead to some quite interesting philosophical debates. However they can be rather intimidating to someone who doesn’t feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings that way just yet. Apparently “numbers based questions” – how long have you lived here/been in this job/been together/known that Chewbacca is the one for you? – is a good way to glean more information that, in turn, provides a springboard to more nuanced questions. It allows you to delve deeper at a slow and comfortable pace and allows people to access their memories rather than struggle with existentialism.
Basically, start small and watch out for details that open doors. Once they are happily engaging, enter the wide, sprawling, “fabric of the universe” questions.
DON’T – forget body language
This is important and I would listen out for things like the sound of their voice, a raise of the eyebrow, as well as the well-known “crossing arms” sign. It’s easy to tell when someone is excited, really excited, or passionate about something, and that is usually the key to an inspiring conversation. Emotion can be contagious, which is why accessing what’s important to them can feel so electrifying to us. Ask about projects, books they’ve read, defining moments, adventures. Again, listen: oftentimes people steer towards what they want to talk about. Ask questions about what they’ve just said, each sentence bears potential to learn more.
DO – not be afraid to interrupt
As long as you are not constantly doing it and find a way to do it somewhat politely – it would be unrealistic of me to declare interrupting is never necessary. Sometimes people who never stop talking are those who we engage with the least (unfortunately ironic catch 22) and it might be that engaging with them sincerely will allow them to actually say their peace and feel ready to listen. Sometimes you need to wait until they take a breath, and if interrupting, it helps to respond directly to something they said (for example: “As I see it, this is what you’re saying, so I think …”). An honest “can I quickly interject?” does wonders, and if they interrupt, you can say that you would like to finish your point. Making yourself heard is not always easy, but it is important.