When was the last time you had one of those conversations that went so deep you completely lost track of time? A discussion that completely surprised you or taught you something that changed your life trajectory? A story that made you laugh until you cried, or cry until you could finally release that weight inside your heart?
Let’s talk about me.
That’s what I often hear instead. While one person is pouring her heart out, the other is just waiting to talk. Rather than listening and asking questions to learn more and dig deeper, she’s just preparing her next speech. And I’m completely guilty of doing the same.
So about my hemorrhoids…
Or maybe you find yourself in the midst of an engrossing group discussion when a verbal sniper attacks and starts a sidebar, pulling you aside as her own private and captive audience.
Let’s make this year better.
Set The Stage
Conversations don’t have to be individual monologues occurring in alternating sound bites. With just a little more effort, they really can be two-way (or multi-way) interactions.
If you know that the topic you want to discuss is on the heavy side or might take a while, set the stage first. Whether in person or over the phone, give your conversation partner(s) a heads up and ask if it’s a good time to talk. If it isn’t, then agree on another time.
Maybe Christmas dinner with 30 people and too much wine really isn’t the best setting to tell your mom you’re quitting work at your law firm to travel full-time in an RV in South America with a guy you met last week and his five kids.
Make sure to
- Eat first. No one wants to be interrupted by a growling stomach or end up fighting because one of you is hangry.
- Use the restroom first. It’s awkward to pause the conversation for a field trip of this sort, yet even more awkward to hear bathroom background noise over the phone. (If it’s an emergency, please, just excuse yourself and call back.)
- Arrange childcare. It’s a law of nature that the more you try to focus, the more spills, fights, dirty diapers, and tantrums will distract you.
- Turn off the TV and put away your phone. Even leaving it visible on the table is a distraction. Silence it and put it out of sight.
- Plan an activity that makes you less nervous. Some people are more comfortable talking while walking, fishing, hiking, or gardening.
In an appropriate place when everyone necessary is present, the real fun begins. Just like a dance, though, someone leads, someone follows, and rhythm matters.
Space and silence are necessary. You don’t have to start talking the second the other person stops. In fact, if you do, it shows that you haven’t really been listening. Somewhere along the way you thought of what you wanted to say next and got stuck there, so you probably didn’t hear much after that.
Instead, really listen. Let pauses exist. When it’s clear that the other person has finished a thought, take a few seconds to process what you’ve heard.
If a conversation sniper misinterprets the silence and takes aim, kindly tell her that you’ll talk with her after you finish this conversation. Repeat as often as needed.
When a friend shares big news like a cancer diagnosis or a job loss, you’re supposed to be shocked. It’s okay to take your time. You’re not expected to have all the answers, just to listen and show support. Sometimes hugs are better than words.
Was there anything you didn’t quite understand? Ask clarifying questions and make sure your assumptions are actually correct.
If you want to know more, ask gently and respectfully. You can respect your partner’s privacy by asking, “Do you mind telling me more about…?” Put those question words you learned as a kid to good use–Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
How? is an exceedingly good question. How did you feel when? is an even better phrase. Use it often.
Then listen some more.
Make Your Move
If you think you have a pretty good grasp of what’s being discussed, test yourself. Summarize aloud what you’ve understood and ask if you’ve missed anything.
Withhold judgment and feedback at this step until you’ve confirmed your understanding.
So your Uber driver was really your twin separated at birth and the officer who pulled you over was your dad!?!
Give the initial speaker a chance to correct any misunderstandings or fill in any gaps.
Feel The Beat
Now that you’re all on the same page, the real beauty begins. Conversation will ebb and flow, and you can brainstorm and plan together.
Leaning in and making eye contact come naturally. The rest of the world disappears. It’s magic.
Share your ideas and don’t worry about being right or wrong. You’ve built a strong foundation and you can now discuss anything. Even with an uncomfortable subject, you feel safe. You can share your opinions and might just learn new information that will change your mind.
Becoming a better conversationalist and friend is one of my goals for this year. Luckily, more practice makes everything easier. Rapport from previous conversations carries over to new ones, and we’ll be able to dig deeper faster because we won’t have to start from scratch.
Relationships will deepen and acquaintances will become forever friends. It’s well worth the small investment of time and attention.
For even more tips, watch this excellent Ted Talk by Celeste Headlee.
May this be a year of better communication for all of us. Share your conversation tips in the comments below.
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