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How to Have Better Conversations

Some time back I noticed two things:

  • I enjoy good conversations
  • I want to have more good conversations

Nothing revolutionary, but because of those things, I started thinking more about conversation and how to improve it. Here’s what I came up with.

These are some reasons that people converse:

  • Conversation brings back memories from your own life.
  • It validates your experiences and opinions and makes you feel understood and accepted.
  • It gives you knowledge about a subject you’re interested in. For example, what it’s like to live in South Africa, how it feels to be a parent etc.
  • It sparks ideas in you for improving your life, business or hobbies.
  • It gets you something you want.
  • It gives you the satisfaction that comes from convincing (or trying to convince) someone to change their opinion on some subject.
  • The feeling of satisfaction you get from helping someone feel better.
  • The power you feel for making someone feel bad. This is obviously not a good motive for conversation, but it is a real one nonetheless.
  • Conversation is a way to sort out your thoughts and feelings. By talking to someone who cares enough to listen, you often get the time and perspective needed to better understand yourself.
  • It’s an escape from stress and monotony. A way to laugh and lighten things up.

While most of these are valid reasons to have conversation, they don’t directly indicate what makes a good conversation. Ideally at the end of a conversation both people should leave looking forward to the next conversation. Before going on to how to have a good conversation, here are a few things that make conversation unenjoyable.

  • You didn’t feel listened to. The other person either didn’t stop talking long enough for you to speak, or when you were talking they were too busy thinking about the next thing they were going to say to hear what you were saying.
  • You didn’t feel understood. Despite the fact that the other person was listening intently, you didn’t feel like he or she actually understood what you were saying.
  • You felt manipulated. The other person tried to get you to do or say something you didn’t want to do or say.
  • Gossip. While tempting, gossip generally does not lead to a good conversation. It destroys trust–how can you be sure the other person isn’t gossiping about you?
  • Intellectual inequality. It’s hard (but not impossible) to have a good conversation if one party perceives the other as less (or more) intelligent. While this can still lead to a valuable and interesting exchange, it often does not.
  • Lack of common views. This can go both ways. If both parties to the conversation respect each other’s intelligence, differences in politics, religion, culture etc. can make for very interesting conversation and debates. On the other hand, if there is a lack of respect or extreme differences, conversation can become uncomfortable.

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Knowing what makes conversation good and bad, we can draw some conclusions about what to do in order to have a good conversation. Here’s the good stuff.

  • Don’t be selfish. It sounds harsh, but it’s not as obvious or easy as it seems. Conversation is give and take. There are times when you should listen and times to talk. Doing too much of either is not conducive to good conversation. Listen carefully to the other person then state your opinions after you understand theirs. Even if you are giving advice or teaching someone something, the listening/talking ratio should generally be around 50/50. In the end, the time you feel like you’re “giving up” to listen leads to better conversation. Everyone wins.
  • Prepare for good conversation. Read widely. If you know you’ll have a chance for a conversation, learn about the interests of the person you’ll be talking with. Keep up with the news. Broaden your knowledge. This not only will help you have interesting subjects to bring up, but it will help you understand the context of the conversation without interrupting it to ask for a definition. It’s is called cultural literacy.
  • Don’t manipulate, or in other words, be honest and up-front. For the most part, people will immediately recognize when they are being manipulated. You may get away with it, but the chances that the person will look forward to their next conversation with you are slim.
  • Reciprocate. If someone shares details about their life, it is natural for them to expect for you to do the same thing. It’s not good if after a conversation someone feels that they’ve laid their life bare before you and know nothing about you. The opposite is true as well.
  • Avoid gossip and complaining. Both of these things are extremely easy to do and both lead to negative, empty feelings afterwards.
  • Don’t be afraid to differ. Conversation is boring if everyone agrees. If you don’t agree, say you don’t and explain why.
  • Know and use your sense of humor in moderation. Figure out what’s natural for you and go with it.

I’ll finish by saying that I’m by no means an expert conversationalist so take my advice with a grain of salt, but hopefully you’ll find some of these tips useful. If you’ve got suggestions for having better conversations, by all means, comment!

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35 Comments

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  1. Andrew Seltz
    September 6, 2006 at 7:01 am #

    The powers of genuine interest and listening are amazing.

    I wrote an article a while back on how to be a confidant. The big secret to getting people to tell you things is to ask them and then shut up and listen. (Being trustworthy is also important.)

    Excellent analysis of good conversation!

  2. David Burch
    September 6, 2006 at 11:21 am #

    There is only one way to make people talk more than they care to. Listen. Listen with hungry earnest attention to every word. In the intensity of your attention, make little nods of agreement, little sounds of approval. You can’t fake it; You have to really listen. In a posture of gratitude. And it is such a rare and startling experience for them, such a boon to the ego, such a gratification of the self, to find a genuine listener, that they want to prolong the experience. And the only way to do that is to keep talking. A good listener is far more rare than an adequate lover.
    –Travis McGee from A Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald

  3. Bill
    September 6, 2006 at 11:22 am #

    Does anyone have any thoughts on how to deal with people who do not follow these ideas? I tend to be a listener and like to give people the attention they deserve however I find many times once that person has stated what they want to say that they are ready to stop talking. They do not visually seem interested (through facial expressions more in a hurry now that they are done talking) in what I might want or have to say. Basically, leaving the conversation ratio at more of a 85/15 instead of 50/50. I guess I should forward them this email but until then any other recommendations? I have tried to speed up my speach ratio in an effort to get any of my points in as quick as I can but it gets to a point where its not enjoyable!) And forbid you want to talk or debate politics. Its hard to find many people that will debate political issues with out getting all mad and their feathers all ruffled. People are interesting!

  4. pts
    September 6, 2006 at 11:31 am #

    These are good tips, but what I was really hoping for was strategies for dealing with conversation dominators — those people who have a hard time dealing with the “give” part of a conversation’s give and take, and for whom a conversation is a kind of self-oriented fractal, where each anecdote contains an infinity of other anecdotes within it. Not only are conversations with such people unsatisfying owing to their one-sided nature, they are also difficult to escape because of the aforementioned fractal nature.

  5. quixote
    September 6, 2006 at 1:10 pm #

    I’m with Bill and pts. How do you deal with a _well-meaning_ person who will not stop talking.

    A relative whom I dearly love, who’s had a fascinating life I’d like to hear more about, rattles on and on about her kids (who are okay, but bore me to tears after five minutes or so), her memories of places I’ve never been (rather than the interesting things she’s done), and so on.

    I can’t figure out how to get a word in edgewise or how to get her onto more interesting topics. I mean, I could break into a disquisition on her son John’s new patio furniture by saying, “Tell me about the trauma unit you worked with in Florence.” But wouldn’t the subtext be all too clear?

    This social maladept needs hints!

  6. Steven G. Harms
    September 6, 2006 at 9:53 pm #

    Great post! My girlfriend and I recently relocated from the bay area to a new town and are having many more conversations as the TV was sold and hasn’t been replaced.

    Something I’d like to share with you all, is a very interesting difference between communication styles that we’ve identified. I’m a ‘narrative’ conversationalist. She’s a ‘collaborative’ conversationalist.

    Being a programmer with a philosophy degree I work from atoms. I build up more complicated ideas, i put things together, i share them, and viola, modus tollens, expo factor the ending!

    What irritates me? Being interrupted ( because I’ll get to what you’re asking, dammit ) or being asked to clarify poinst as I’m presenting my rhetorical ruby ( heh ). When I listen, I listen similarly, tell me the story, give me the atoms, I will build the conclusion as you talk, verifying what you say against my model. Assuming they jibe, I’ve understood.

    Flip it around. She wants collaboration. Interruption, verification, etc. in realtime. By checking each step the result is collaborative, and may, in fact, not go the direction she thought it would go at the startup (whereas mine always ends where i planned, unless something else intervenes).

    For those reading this article, you might find this consideration to be helpful to look for.

  7. Eapen Mathew
    September 6, 2006 at 10:52 pm #

    I sometimes have trouble bringing up difficult topics, and when I do, my heart and mind are racing so fast that I have trouble reasoning through the discussion. More often than not, the conversation leaves me with an unsatisfied feeling. I try to be calm, forthright, and honest, but even the pervasion of truth sometimes is not enough to help the conversation go smoothly.
    Any suggestions?

  8. Fredrik
    September 17, 2006 at 1:41 pm #

    “[..] if we are either agreeing or disagreeing, then we’re not listening, for to listen there must be an openness, an innocence, a putting away of the old ideas, so that possibly the fresh can come in.” –Joel Kramer, The Passionate Mind

  9. Clayton
    November 3, 2006 at 2:32 pm #

    @quixote: If I were you, I might try bringing up that you are interested in those topics by saying, “I was thinking about going to X, what was your experience like there?”

    One additional comment I have… it is important to note body space. If you’re standing up and the other person is sitting, you should sit down. This makes conversing more comfortable, intimate and natural. If you are the one who is sitting down, suggest to the standing person they are free to sit down.

  10. clara nurre
    November 22, 2006 at 2:29 pm #

    Thank you for a wonderful article, and for these wonderful comments. Here are my quick tips for commenters. 1)Don’t rush to fill the void. Moments of silence allow participants to think more deeply. 2)To gain familiarity, try mirroring the other person’s body language. 3)Try being tactfully direct with your loved ones when your styles collide. e.g., ‘I’ve asked you 3 questions about your day. Now I need for you to ask me a question about mine.’ One of my dearest relatives is a mechanical engineer, and he needs some hints like this now and then. 3)If you’re struggling with emotion in conversation and you can’t express it but you don’t want to stuff it, try saying ‘I’m having some feelings right now.’ Sounds like a corny phrase, but.. I’ve tried it and it works for me. Any hints from anyone else?

  11. mishuexpert
    July 24, 2009 at 9:20 am #

    u shared a good article with us. thank u for that. I think listening is the one think that can conversation a successful
    Mishu

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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