Are You Having a Conversation Or Just Waiting To Speak?


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?

Well, anyway…

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.

Instead, talk ahead of time, then when the topic does come up in front of the whole family, you’ll have an ally in your corner.

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.

The Dance

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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Comments 16

  1. Nothing is worse than when you are pouring your heart our and someone is glancing down at their phone. It makes you feel so unheard. Listening is one of those extremely undervalued traits. A master listener is the one who can really conquer the world. People think, or I should say act, as if it’s the opposite.

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      Ooh- good point. I agree that most people know better, we just don’t put it into practice or we think we’re the exception–that we’re capable of multitasking effectively and without others noticing while we know that everyone else can’t.

  2. I totally agree about listening being undervalued. People looking at their phones is just the worst (and I see it all the time with people when they aren’t listening to their kids…) I think the thought of silence in a conversation freaks people out. It definitely is important – a change to process and make connections. I’m going to check out that Ted Talk this weekend.

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      One of my friends is really good at this, though her silence can be a little disconcerting when we’re on the phone because sometimes I think we got disconnected! Maybe I should ask her to have some background noise so I can know she’s just thinking 😉

  3. This is such an important topic! With technology as a distraction, the type of conversations you are talking about – the natural, flowing, magical, back and forth type of conversations – don’t happen as often as they should. Vicki’s right – silence freaks people out.

    I frequently use reflection in conversations. Most of the time, people don’t necessarily want you to solve their problems. They simply want to be heard and understood. When you reflect back to them what you hear, it could help them more than any solution you offer. My husband always wonders why people are so willing to tell me things…I think it’s because I listen and reflect (and remember).

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      Amanda, you have a beautiful gift! I think you’re so right- sometimes when I reflect back what people say, they’re able to keep talking and run with the issue and I haven’t done a thing or had a single original idea. It’s wonderful!

  4. I like the point you make that you aren’t necessarily supposed to have all the answers. Sometimes the most important thing in a conversation is to just listen, be there, and support the other person.

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  5. I’m really trying to be present during the conversation. I have a tendency to think ahead about how I want to respond or even start day dreaming if the conversation is slightly dull. This year I’m really trying to become an active listener and give people the consideration that they deserve. Great article and thanks for sharing!!!

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      That’s such a great goal. It’s so hard to focus sometimes, and there’s the FOMO on other conversations going on around you, but you’re right–people do deserve a real conversation. This is something I’ll probably working on forever, but it’s well worth the effort!

  6. I’m so guilty of not listening, and I need to both work on it myself and cultivate it in my child.

    I do like your list of things to take care of first. When biological needs intervene, it’s hard to listen. But there are things we can do to reduce our level of distraction.

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      Yes! Being aware of the distractions is the first step. It’s so hard to focus with phones dinging and TVs on in the background. It’s especially difficult in restaurants where each member of the party is looking at a TV in a different direction so they might not even be watching the same thing. We try to ignore the TVs, but the pretty colors and flashing lights and ads and noises and … It’s all there specifically to gain our attention, so it’s a tough battle. Please let me know if you come up with more tips!

  7. These are great tips, Julie. Often people talk at one another, not with each other. And in a group setting often people are vying for “air time”. If there’s an important topic to discuss I’d prefer it be one on one or in a very small group. That makes it easier to talk or listen without distraction.

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      It is ironic, isn’t it. At a dinner party with a bunch of people, instead of getting to catch up with everyone, I feel like I hardly got to talk to anyone! In large groups we tend to keep subjects fairly superficial, so I like one on one or small groups most of the time too.

  8. I love the idea of setting the stage. It is so hard to know where someone else’s mind is at any given point. They may be waiting for a call or on the edge about something and here you go about to drop a bomb! I’ve been on both sides and the outcome is never satisfactory for either side. We all need this reminder sometimes. I have my moments of talking out of turn and afterwards I kick myself for it! It’s just a bit of common courtesy and attention… Great post!!

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      We all probably have room for improvement 🙂 and somehow I would bet you’re better at this than most of us, so please share your tips!
      Sometimes I feel like I should have this tattooed on my hand as a constant reminder to slow down, take a deep breath, and remember that “it’s not always about me!” so I can work more on asking questions instead of sharing my own examples.

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