Everyone knows how to have a conversation, we all do it every single day, with several people, in different contexts. However, conversations can go terribly wrong in a day and age when everyone argues on every media channel, and society is more divided than it has ever been. To navigate conversations like a pro, you should apply some of the strategies that we are going to discuss in this article, inspired by Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk.
1. Don’t multitask
Multitasking is as bad for conversations as it is for your productivity. So don’t multitask when you’re in a conversation. This should be the first rule of communication that everyone follows without exception.
Nothing ruins a conversation faster than doing other activities at the same time. You have probably been in the situation of talking to someone just to see them grabbing their phone and lowering their sight to watch the screen. So you might know how rude, frustrating and off-putting that is.
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It’s a clear sign that the other person has absolutely no interest in listening to what you have to say, and also a hint that they have no respect for you and your time. Therefore, avoid doing that at all costs. If you need to do anything else in the middle of a conversation, just ask politely for a short time-out and make sure to actually make it short.
2. Don’t preach
We all have strong opinions about one subject or another. However, preaching is not a conversation, but a one-sided monologue. When you start preaching, you stop listening. It means that your thoughts about a subject are unchangeable and you are not really interested in hearing other opinions about the subject.
If all the people involved in a dialogue would do that, there could be no conversation. So instead of trying to convert the other to your beliefs, assume that you have something to learn and give the other person a chance to express their opinions. Leave preaching to priests, lecturers, and politicians 😉
3. Open-ended questions
Using questions that can be answered with yes or no won’t keep the conversation going for too long. Besides, it might sound a lot like an interrogation. So a much better idea would be to try asking questions starting with who, when, how, why, where and what.
Instead of asking “is everything good with your children?“, and get an automated “yes“, you should ask “how are the children?“. While it serves the same purpose, the second formulation requires a much ampler answer that can be continued as a conversation.
4. Don’t get stuck on one idea
While listening to other people talk, there are a lot of thoughts and questions that come to our mind. Sometimes people get stuck on one of these clever ideas that they stop listening and wait for the moment they will finally be able to talk. It occasionally happens for the person to have already answered your question, but being stuck on your own idea in your head, you forgot to listen. Avoid awkward situations by allowing thoughts to flow through your mind and let go of them instead of getting fixated.
5. When you don’t know, ask
As author and philosopher Pierre Levy puts it, “No one knows everything, everyone knows something“. And most importantly, everyone knows something that not everyone else knows. This is meant to be an encouragement, meaning that it is totally OK not to know – no one expects you to know everything all the time.
What makes the difference is the way you react to a not knowing situation. You can either pretend that you know, or simply admit that you don’t. People looking for social validation are more likely to pretend they know stuff when they don’t – a strategy that can go wrong in so many ways. However, admitting that you don’t know, and asking more information, is a great opportunity for honest conversation.
6. It’s not always about you
This is an often mistake we are all tempted to make, even though we all know how annoying it can be. You know that moment when you share something really intimate and put yourself into a vulnerable position, exposing something that affects your life and the other person is like oh, that happened to me too!.
Don’t. Just don’t! Besides being impolite and inconsiderate, it also moves the subject of conversation on you, on your feelings and your experiences. Turning the subject of the conversation to yourself with every occasion is the opposite of dialogue. If you need to talk about yourself, start a diary, a blog, or write your memoirs.
7. Avoid repetition
Saying the same thing over and over again won’t make your conversation partner understand you. Had they failed to understand first time you said it, they probably won’t get it third time either. Rephrasing the same idea will have similar results, unless you add something more to your idea. Try explaining why that point is important and bring new information to support your claims.
8. Forget details
Unless you are a poet or a writer giving a reading to the public, the color of the sky and the stones on your mom’s earrings the day you were born bring absolutely zero value to the conversation. On the contrary, it clogs the channel of communication with unnecessary information that is neither interesting nor useful.
Spare your interlocutor the details and focus on what is truly important.
9. Listen to understand
As weird as it might sound, the most common mistake we all make in conversations is not listening to the other person. Of course, you hear what they say, but even when you do pay attention, there is a great chance that you are not actually listening just for the sake of listening. As Stephen Covey puts it, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.”
Therefore, what you need to do is focusing more on the dialogue partner than yourself. Easy, right? 🙂
It takes two to tango
In the end, it all sums up to one main idea: keeping an open mind and valuing the person in front of you. As long as you take a real interest in others, and if you are aware that you can always learn new things from them, you are on the right path. Remember that everyone is special, and everyone knows something that you don’t.