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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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11 Web Applications that are Ready for Primetime

I’m looking forward to the day I can use any computer with a web connection to be as productive as I am on my own computer. Most websites that try to replace desktop applications fall far short off their counterparts. In the meantime, here’s what’s ready and what’s not:

Ready to Use:

  1. Gmail – this one is obvious and nothing new. With well over 2gb of space I’ve completely stopped using a desktop mail client. I have about 6 email accounts and all go through Gmail. It’s nice getting it all in one place.
  2. Google Talk – while Google Talk isn’t as full featured as other IM clients, it has one great feature–logs are saved to Gmail and searchable right within Gmail. This is the case whether you use Google Talk from the web interface in Gmail or from a desktop client.
  3. Meebo – IM in the browser with meebo feels almost as natural as IM in a desktop client. Meebo is great for friends who don’t use Google Talk since it supports AIM, Yahoo, Jabber and others. It also saves chat logs, though they aren’t searchable yet. I’m not sure how meebo makes money since there are no ads, but I’m sure that will come.
  4. Google Spreadsheets – I’ve seen complaints that it’s not as full featured as it could be, but for the type of spreadsheets I make, it’s perfect. I love being able to collaborate in realtime on spreadsheets and even chat with people in the same browser window as the spreadsheet. I am a pretty basic spreadsheet user, but for me it’s already replaced Excel.
  5. NetVibes – I recently switched from Google’s custom homepage to Netvibes. I went kicking and screaming, but the tabbed pages, more compact interface and a few other things made their customizable homepage better for getting the news and reading blogs than Google’s. I guess this really isn’t a desktop app replacement, but it’s great to be able to log into it anywhere get a quick news fix.
  6. Google Calendar – this has completely replaced my desktop calendar application. It is full featured and integrates nicely with Gmail. Inviting others to events and sharing calendars is simple. Overall a very well done web application.
  7. Bloglines – there are a million blog aggregators out there. Bloglines was one of the first and is still the best. Some of the more interesting desktop aggregators let you sync your feeds so you can read them within the browser or within the desktop application but they still seem like more of a hassle than they’re worth. Why not just do it all from the browser?
  8. Remember the Milk – I defy anyone to find a faster, more featured to-do manager than Remember the Milk. It it excellent. Complete with keyboard shortcuts it makes managing to-do lists simple and much more pleasant than any desktop to-do list I’ve tried.
  9. Basecamp – This one is fairly specific to web development type projects, but Basecamp has been perfect for managing projects. I can’t even imagine going to MS Project after using it. The simplicity and effectiveness of Basecamp is excellent. Basecamp is the only one that I don’t pay for out of the list.
  10. Google Notebook – I use this for storing bits of information on random things. It’s been a hard switch from Notational Velocity (which is much better overall) but the convenience of having it all online has made it worth it.
  11. – It’s been more than a year since I bookmarked anything in a browser. has completely replaced browser bookmarks making them available wherever I am. Google Search History is also useful and falls in this category.

Almost there:

  1. Writely – I’ve tried using Writely for online word processing a la Microsoft Word, but they still just aren’t quite there. Imported documents don’t maintain all their formatting which is of utmost importance when using a Word Processor (otherwise I’d just make a text file). I’m sure that at some point Google will get Writely up to par, but for now I haven’t made the switch entirely.
  2. Flickr – I love Flickr for managing photos and hesitate to put it in the “almost there” category, but I still don’t feel comfortable enough keeping my photos ONLY on Flickr to say that it has replaced iPhoto or Picasa. Fluxiom looks like it might be featured enough to fully replace Flickr, but none of the plans fit my budget–even the one that costs 89 euros a month only lets you store 3gb of stuff.

Someone make this please:

  1. Online Budgeting – I subscribed to Mvelopes for a month or two but couldn’t get used to the strange Envelope budgeting mentality. I just want something decent with double entry accounting online. The one thing Mvelopes did do extremely well was pull data from all my financial institutions. From Paypal to my bank to my credit card companies, they connected to everything perfectly. They also offer bill pay to companies that don’t accept online bill pay. Mvelopes would be excellent if it weren’t for the whole non-traditional envelope paradigm.
  2. Online CRM – I’ve tried Sugar CRM and looked at for long enough to know that they are too tedious for me to ever want to use them. I’m looking forward to Sunrise from 37Signals.
  3. Online Outline– I love Omnigraffle, but don’t get to use it as often as I’d like since I’m always going back and forth between Mac and PC. I would really like to see an online outliner that had similar functionality. I’ve tried Sproutliner and some of it’s offshoots but found them to be pretty lacking.

Might never happen:

  1. Photo Editing – I use Photoshop and Illustrator quite a bit for work and play. While there are basic image editing programs online, nothing comes even close to these.
  2. Video Editing – Again, there are basic video editing programs online, but I don’t foresee being able to connect my video camera and edit video in a browser like i would in iMovie or Final Cut.
  3. Text Editing – (programmers only) – TextMate is my choice of text editor. I still see text editing as the domain of desktop applications. Maybe later I’ll go into more details here. When TextMate isn’t available, I’m comfortable using Vim, but to use that I still have to have an SSH client.
  4. Music – Things like Pandora and are really nice, but I can’t see anything completely replacing desktop music applications in the near future. It’d be nice if something came along and surprised me though.