The Lost Art of Conversation
“Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you do not know.”
When is the last time you had a great conversation? Because we live in an age of texts and emails, it sometime feels like great conversations are a thing of the past. I will be the first to say that I am a big fan of technology, especially when I can consolidate a half hour phone call into a three-word text, but all of this technology means less time having conversations. And then to further complicate matters, we seem to be living in a time when we are more divided than ever. Regardless of your viewpoint, it seems that even topics such as sports and the weather can lead to arguing. If you don’t believe me just try having conversations regarding the anthem protests or global warming. To be clear, this article is not going to be about politics or any other dysfunction we bring upon ourselves. Rather, this article is about what I found in attempting to improve my own conversation skills and how that can be used in the context of the business world.
First, there are two myths that we need to remember. Being a great conversationalist is not about your ability to be a great speaker. While being a great speaker can be very helpful, I have met some great speakers that are still terrible at having conversations. Think about that person who often has some very interesting things to say, but rarely stops to allow others to say anything. Great conversation is about give and take and involves both parties getting a chance to speak. Second, conversations are not only about the transfer of information and ideas. Yes, the transfer of ideas and information happens through conversation, but great conversation is about our ability to connect with others in an authentic way. If great conversations were based solely on how much information can be transferred, then my computer would be much better at conversation than I will ever hope to be.
Now that those two myths have been cleared up, I want to move on to figuring out what a great conversation looks like. A little over a year ago I stumbled across a TED talk by Celeste Headlee, that was unsurprisingly called “10 Ways to have a Better Conversation.” And although I decided that a little creative insight could have been used in the title, I found the following ideas helpful in trying to improve my own conversation skills.
- We have all heard that when we are speaking with someone we need to look the other person in the eye, nod and repeat back things we hear. This is hogwash. There is no reason to act like we are paying attention if we are in fact paying attention. Well so much for the listening skills I thought I had.
- Don’t multitask. If you need to excuse yourself from the conversation then excuse yourself from the conversation. Think about how frustrating it is to try and speak with someone who is only partially in the conversation. My wife can provide many examples.
- Don’t pontificate. To save you from having to look this up like I did, I will tell that the meaning for pontificate is “to express one’s opinions in a way considered annoyingly pompous and dogmatic.” Need I say more.
- Enter each conversation with a sense of what you can learn. “Every person we will ever meet knows something that you do not know.”
- If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Imagine every conversation you have is going to be part of an official record. It safe to say the thought of this could keep me awake at night.
- Don’t say how you have the same experience. After someone tells us about an experience they had, we often feel the need to tell them our experience. While we may be trying to relate to them, everyone’s experiences are different and we cannot know what they are going through.
- Try not to repeat yourself. My vote would be that this does not apply if you have children.
- Stay out of the weeds, people don’t care about all the details they care about you. People are less interested in whether the event happened to you on November 5th or 6th, and more interested in what happened to you.
- Listen, this is the most important. If your mouth is open you are not learning. Steven Covey said, “we don’t listen with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply.” There have been times in which I am so busy thinking about a great question to ask, that I fail to realize that my question would have been answered if I had been listening.
- Be brief. The sign of a great conversation is not about how long the conversation is.
Mark Twain once wrote the following. “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
While being a great conversationalist is not often mentioned in the skills needed to survive in the business world, think about how much energy you or your company puts into communicating with everyone from customers and vendors to employees. Yes, I know much of this communication is no longer done by conversation, but the goal is still the same. We want to do more than just exchange information and ideas with customers, vendors and employees. What we really want is to connect with them in an authentic way. That means there are times that we need to walk away from the computer and go have a great conversation.
 Bill Nye