Sunday, 15 September 2013

the art of conversation

We are losing the skills of being able to have a conversation. The ability to talk to someone - over a coffee or at a bus stop for example - to have polite and pleasant conversation - seems to be rarer than a popular politician. 
What conversation looks like
Person A:  I just got back from holidays.
Person B:  Oh cool!  Tell me about that. Where did you go? 
What conversation does NOT look like
Person A:  I just got back from holidays.
Person B:  Yeah, I've just been to Bloggsville. It was great. They have this place where you....blah blah blah
Person A:  I just got back from holidays.
Person B:  OK.

Lopsided conversations end up with either:
- one person doing all the talking
- one person trying to get blood out of a stone
Come on people! A proper conversation is a beautiful thing. It involves the skills of both listening and talking.  And it's more than just shutting up long enough  for the other to stop talking before you jump in again with more info about you. And it's more than spilling the random thoughts in your head.  Take the time to ask a question and demonstrate that you're interested in what the other has just said.  Allow the conversation to progress to a point where eventually, the same opening question about the holiday (for example) gets asked of you - And what about you? You've been away too haven't you?
The balance shifts to the other foot for awhile.  And so it goes.  Both parties get to share. Both parties get to listen.  It's balanced.  Although there will always be times of long talking and long listening sessions, overall the pattern of a conversation should have some balance to it.
Sharing skills
As we develop these skills of sharing, we get better and better at it. And we actually allow others to get to know us. There are skills to learn in both being willing to share ourselves to the point of vulnerability, and of being able to articulate yourself clearly and succinctly. Being able to say what you mean is a practiced skill.  When someone asks about you, they are giving you the opportunity to share something of yourself.  Willingly.  Giving one word answers, ignoring or shrugging your shoulders using as few words as possible will not encourage anyone to spend time trying to get to know you. If you want to be known, then learn to share yourself. 
Listening skills
Way more than shutting up long enough for the other to stop speaking, listening involves focus, concentration and active interpretation, non-judgmental body language, clarification, summarising, probing questions. Deep listening is a beautiful gift for anyone. It takes effort and is a very active and necessary contribution to any conversation.  It is the non-verbal communication of saying "I'm deeply interested in you".
Things that can stuff up a conversation
Judgment, opinion, interruption, trivialising feelings, jumping into problem-solving-mode, insensitive reactions. These are valid and important things in themselves, however can kill a conversation if not used wisely. Learning the foundational skills of polite conversation will provide a basis for building the more advanced skills of negotiation, conflict resolution or presenting a case in opposition.
Things that help a conversation
Tuning in to what the other is saying.  Laughing about a joke together.  Building trust through open questioning and accepting body language. Being comfortable with a bit of silence - some people need just a second to gather their thoughts.  Listening actively without judgement - make it safe for them to share themselves with you.
Why don't you try having a conversation with someone this week? When Joe Bloggs mentions his weekend tomorrow (Monday), ask if he did anything exciting. And take the opportunity to listen and ask a few questions. Who knows, perhaps he will tell you and then ask about your weekend! Before you know it, you'll be having a conversation!
Comments welcome.


  1. To be a good conversationalist you must also be a good listener x I tell my friends this all the time lol

  2. Hey 40ish! Great comment. Ha ha. You keep tellin' em, babe.

  3. brilliant. unfortunately i think that social media has done a lot of damage - its all too easy to stay ''online'' and not have in person conversations. On the other hand, many of the best convos I've had in the past 5 years have been via skype or messaging - there's more opportunity to think about the questions you ask, and answers you give. Maybe we could learn from that.

    1. hi susan. i'm flattered that you're still there in the ether, after all these months of non-blogging from me! so nice to have your comment. and you make an excellent point about social media impacting communication. I agree it both enhances and diminishes certain aspects of conversation. I like the opportunity to think before I respond too, that messaging allows. love your style.