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.
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!