Let’s Talk: 5 Practices to Improve Your Conversations

Surely only boring people went in for conversations consisting of questions and answers. The art of true conversation consisted in the play of minds. Ved Mahta, All For Love.

I was parented by a wonderful introvert and computer programmer who is my father. Dad engaged in real conversation with only a few people, but when he did, he mainly sought to share and gather data. “The weather is getting stormy.” “Did you enjoy your trip to Paris?” “Did you like the movie?” I am not a technical mind, but I largely repeated these same practices in my conversations until I met a good friend named Mike who asked different types of questions in our conversations that searched for insights into me or shared information that added value. “What did you like about Paris?”, he might ask, or “I hear the weather will be stormy tonight. Tell me what you do when it storms.” When Mike shared information or asked me a question, I felt valuable and appreciated because he seemed interested in me and not in the data alone. (For the record, my father is interested in me too.)

That is how good conversations make us feel. Rich conversations move the needle, further the dialogue and reveal interesting insights about those who participate Yet, good conversations are not so common anymore in our friendships, romances, or in our work meetings. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle explains in her excellent book Reclaiming Conversation, our use and even addiction to technology has stunted our ability to engage in real conversations in comparison to the past. As I know from my own work in executive coaching, we are having to teach people how to talk again.

As Ved Mahta points out in the quote above, real conversation is an art and not a question and answer ping pong match. Great conversations feel more like a dance. Anyone who has ever experienced a miserable first date understands that meaningful dialogue is more than just questions and answers. Yet, we can have better conversations if we will ask better questions and provide more transparent answers.

Here are Five Simple Ways to Have a Better Conversation:

  1. Be fully present. Face the other person directly. Put away your mobile device. Shut the laptop. Intend to fully understand and empathize with the other person. Casually match their posture and demeanor (are they casual or formal?).
  2. Be vulnerable first. Share something that is difficult for you to admit or that provides insight in your concerns, fears or anxieties. For example, “I found it difficult to follow that film. What about you?”  “I am fearful that our team is not going to meet the project deadline.”
  3. Ask open ended questions. Open ended questions begin with: How, If, Why, Describe, Tell, and What. “What did you love about Paris?” “Describe the movie’s plot to me.” “Tell me more about your concerns regarding the project deadline.”
  4. Stay focused on knowing the other person. Don’t turn the conversation back to yourself. For example, if you ask someone, “How was your weekend?” Once they respond that they stayed on the couch and watched Netflix all weekend, don’t immediately add, “Well, my weekend was great. I went skiing in Tahoe and stayed at a luxury resort.” Instead, follow up with, “What did you watch that you loved?” Now, add your comments about what they watched. Only loop back to your weekend in Tahoe if they ask you about your weekend. Stay on topic.
  5. Have a point of view. Have the mental mindset of non-judgment, but the verbal expression of a point. It is possible to remain open to the ideas of the other person while also having an interesting point to add to the conversation. No one enjoys talking to a “yes” man or woman. We want to dialogue with people who have something thoughtful to say. This likely means that you stay current on events, that you don’t just digest news and data but that you think about it, and you develop points of view about what you are reading or hearing. The movie was not just “awesome” but it was “awesome because …”; the policy is not just “frightening”, but it is “frightening because of how it would impact … .”

I encourage you to make some of these small adjustments to your conversations, and enjoy the dance. I also recommend these tips on conversation from NPR’s Celeste Headlee.

Dialogue is the art of thinking together. There are no winners or losers. In that sense, it is the opposite of debate. A dialogue is a conversation with a center, not with sides. William Isaacs

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