Here’s a fact: Human beings are not born with conversation skills.
Here’s another: Many of us still suck at conversation.
We talk about the weather, whatever we’ve consumed to excess on Netflix that week, what we’re eating. Oftentimes we walk away from the conversation feeling like it hasn’t added very much of value to our lives. The problem is that most of us assume that we’re very interesting, and when we’re bored in conversations, the fault must lie with the person we’re talking to, and that may, actually, not be the case.
Paul Barnwell writes for the Atlantic that “conversational competence might be the single-most overlooked skill we fail to teach students. Kids spend hours each day engaging with ideas and one another through screens—but rarely do they have an opportunity to truly hone their interpersonal communication skills.”
We’ve all spent time with someone who’s had us yawning and surreptitiously glancing at our watches. This may have been because they themselves were poor communicators, or because we as the listeners were not pulling our weight in the conversation. Either way, skills were lacking in that interaction, and while many of us may be stuck in quarantine for a while longer, these are skills that, fortunately, thanks to the internet, we can start to practice and be mindful of right now.
“Many of you have already heard a lot of advice on [how to be better at conversations]”, says Celeste Headlee in her TED talk on the subject. “Things like 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, she adds, “I want you to forget all of that. It is crap.”
In her TED talk (which is so concise, I highly recommend watching it), she outlines ten points to keep in mind in order to have more meaningful and valuable interactions. These include, amongst others, “don’t multitask”, “use open-ended questions”, “don’t pontificate”, and “don’t equate your own experience with theirs”.
She also emphasises that if you don’t know something, you should say so. Each person that you interact with knows something you don’t, and each conversation is an opportunity to learn. So why waste your time pretending you know everything, when you could be absorbing new information and increasing your own understanding?
This is related to Headlee’s most important point: listen. It seems counterintuitive, but listening– actually paying attention to somebody with the intent to understand– doesn’t come naturally. We’re so often in a hurry to talk about ourselves, our problems, our opinions, to be the centre of attention, or perhaps we just fear the next dip in conversation that in our heads we’re trying to plan the next question, that we forget to really tune into what the other person is saying.
Tim Herrera writes for the New York Times that in order to be more interesting, we need to be more interested. Ask questions, listen, draw people out. He quotes Morra Aarons-Mele, author of “Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home): “Channel your inner Oprah”.
If it start’s to feel like you’re interviewing them, you’re on the right track.
Go into conversations unscripted. Don’t fear the silence. If you pause for thought before answering or asking the next question, it’s just another sign that you were listening to what your partner has said, and are processing that information. It is, in fact, far less awkward than a sudden leap to an unrelated subject. By entering a discussion without an agenda, our brains don’t get bogged down by having to stick to that agenda. Our interactions can be more organic, authentic, and, as a result, more enjoyable for everyone involved.
In case your mind DOES jump to something off-topic, firstly, you need to keep sharpening your attention and listening skills, and secondly, both Headlee and Herrera recommend ignoring it or saving it for later. Herrera writes: “If you notice something you want to say, don’t say it. Challenge it and go back to listening. For bonus points, wait an hour to bring up that thing you didn’t say earlier.”
Of course, one doesn’t want to spend all that attention and energy interviewing someone about the weather, so to make all of the above steps easier for yourself, and also to make all your conversations more interesting, chuck out the smalltalk. Ask the meaty questions. Really try to get to know someone on a deeper level and you’ll both walk away feeling like you’ve connected and had a meaningful interaction.
So why do we still engage in trivial smalltalk anyway? Kristen Berman and Dan Ariely at Wired believe this is because we feel pressured to pick socially acceptable topics. “This is a shame,” they write, “because research has confirmed what most people know but don’t practise: surface level small talk does not build relationships and it is not great for our happiness levels.”
It may be hard at first to escape the trap of smalltalk if that’s what you’re used to (and let’s face it, most of us are), so Jay Shetty has provided a list of 9 questions to ask to get you going and warmed up:
- What was the last lie you told, and would you tell it again?
- If your younger self met you now, what would make them happy, and what would make them sad about you today?
- What situations make you feel awkward and why?
- What did you buy recently that you now regret?
- Have you ever been to jail, been arrested, or gotten away with something of the like?
- What do you think makes a person most attractive, and how attractive are you on that scale?
- Complete this sentence. If you really, really knew me, you would know that…
- What is the one thing you fight about most in your romantic relationship?
- What would you talk about the most in a one-hour therapy session?
Time is a finite resource. The time you spend discussing the weather is time you can’t get back. Make each interaction count by using it as an opportunity to learn something, an opportunity to deepen your bonds with others, and a chance to add value to every interaction.
In short: we suck at conversation, but we can improve. Don’t just take it from me, though. Of her own conversations, Headlee says: “I keep my mouth shut as often as I possibly can, I keep my mind open, and I’m always prepared to be amazed, and I’m never disappointed.”
Her last piece of advice to all of us?
“Do the same thing. Go out, talk to people, listen to people, and, most importantly, be prepared to be amazed.”