You know how it feels when a conversation is so much fun you wish it could go on forever?
Frank and I had one of those when we went to dinner with a business friend of mine. She and I had never been out socially; we’d certainly never met each other’s husbands. Still, it seemed like a red-hot idea to meet for dinner…
And it turned out it really was a red-hot idea. The four of us had a ball! I learned things I’d never have guessed about Laurie’s life. She eagerly tuned in for my radio war-stories. I got to know her husband Tom and his exciting plans for the future. They were fascinated by Frank’s tales of life on the road as a trombone player.
We talked and laughed for hours and could have carried on the conversation even longer. But at some point, you know, the waitstaff is ready for diners to depart.
What made for such a fabulous, fun evening?
Everybody at the table talked. And everybody at the table listened.
Laurie Guest and I are professional speakers; we know how to tell a story and how to draw people into it.
As Laurie put it, “Our dinner conversation went so well (4 hours’ worth) because everyone took turns with an audience who were constantly leaning in.”
On the other hand …
I’m developing relationships with folks in a networking group, scheduling a few get-to-know-you phone calls. So far, I’m hearing a lot about their work. And their backgrounds. And their plans. And…well, you get the idea.
I listened to one guy for 15 minutes straight before I finally had the chance to say anything about my own work, or my hopes for this group, or anything else. (That chance didn’t last very long.)
Which kind of conversation would you rather have?
Frank tells the story of the celebrity singer and the back-up musician having an off-stage chat. After going into excruciating detail about his career and his love-life and that great gig he has coming up, the singer finally says, “But that’s enough about me, man. Let’s talk about you. What do you think about my singing?”
That me-me-me-I-I-I thing isn’t limited to famous vocalists, is it? Plenty of people seem to think the whole world is fascinated with every detail of their life, while they show precious little interest in the rest of us.
Maybe you recognize someone you know in that description. You might even be getting the uncomfortable feeling that you have, on occasion, done a little too much self-ing.
Here’s how to step up your conversational game.
- Ask questions
Yes, “What do you do?” is a question. Maybe you could come up with a question that has a little more juice.
Here are a few I like to use when I meet someone new, or when I run into someone I already know:
“What’s the best thing you’re working on now?”
“What have you learned lately?
“Tell me about your favorite client…”
I often ask, “What’s your story, (First and Last Name)? It’s open-ended; it gives a person a chance to say anything they want me to know about them. Using their name helps me remember it. And people respond to the sound of their own name; their brains literally light up when they hear it. (I love the idea of lighting up someone’s brain!)
- Listen to the answers
That means really listen, focusing your attention on the person talking. Not looking over their shoulder at someone else you want to meet, or at the door to see who just showed up.
Yes, listening can be a challenge; I think it’s way more difficult than talking. You’ll find some strategies for better listening here.
- Tell a (short) story
When somebody asks me what I do, I like to tell a story about a speaking gig or a coaching engagement or a special client. It’s usually a story in three parts, which is to say three sentences or not much more than that.
Think of your what-I-do story as an appetizer for a conversation; it should make them want more. A well-told story is way more engaging than a label or a description of the process I follow in my work.
You’ve had a chance to tell someone about yourself. Or your business. Or your support for that cause or candidate. You’ve held forth.
Before you even think about going on to another subject. Before you wait for their follow-up question. Before you add another story to the one you just told…offer reciprocity.
The easiest way to do that is with a tag question. You say what you have to say, then tag it with a question like “And what about you?” “Maybe your experience is different?” “How do you see that issue?”
You toss the conversational ball back to them, so they’re really in the game; they’re not just serving as a backdrop for you.
The tag question is inclusive. And when everybody has a chance to play, the game is a much richer experience for all. If you want deeper, fuller conversations, you’d be smart to make tag questions a habit.
- Remember what conversation really means
The word conversation comes from Latin by way of Middle English. It meant “living among, familiarity, or intimacy.”
So, the very word implies a real connection among the people involved. We can’t just spew our stuff at someone and call it a conversation.
Last word from Laurie Guest: “The art of conversation starts and ends with authentic interest in the other person.”
You know I’m always interested in conversation with you, even when it’s not in person.
Post a comment below about sparkling conversations. (Or the other kind.)
Thanks for your thoughts on “conversation”. You, again, raised an issue worthy of consideration or should I say conversation.
I like your explanation of the word. Convers ation. As 2 words, the definitions clearly explain.
My take is, the nature of email and online posts is not conversation. Emails and FB posts are, at best, a series of one way spews (your word).
Worse, FB posts last a long time and are hard to remove. Posted thoughts have capacity to be damaging. Probably, more relationships have been destroyed than created by FB rants. I would like to see a market research study on that.
Glad you found this useful, Jim! I think it’s possible to have real conversations on Facebook and LinkedIn.
What takes it from a rant to a conversation is, of course, engagement. I post a story or opinion, someone comments with their own take, and then I respond to their comment. And others may jump into it as well. People have told me they read my Facebook feed, just for the multiplicity of feelings and viewpoints.
If we think of social media as a conference call rather than a megaphone, it changes everything.
Jeez, I will never again think of some words as a single word.
Oh, stop me.
Great article. People need to treat conversation of any level as the art of information exchange. I’ve noticed more and more in business meetings that people have a tendency to talk over one another to the point that nobody is hearing anyone’s input. The ironic thing is they believe they all came to a solution that they all agreed with. At the end of it all I asked the question of “so what are we doing going forward?” and received three different responses.
That’s funny, Tom. And sad at the same time. It really does seem that the interrupting and talking over is getting more prevalent. If everybody’s talking and nobody’s listening, it’s no wonder they wind up with three different plans.
Very timely article for me. My wife and I were at a neighborhood dinner party last night and engaged with one of our neighbors. All she did was talk about herself and her husband and her kids and their trips and blah blah blah. Every time we tried to get a word in edgewise, she would find a way to take over the conversation again.
If “Everybody at the table talked. And everybody at the table listened” it would have been a much more pleasant night.
She’s a nice person, but we will avoid her in the future.
How do you deal with people like that? (if at all possible)
“Avoiding them in the future” is not a bad way to deal, Greg. I also don’t stick around for the blahblah unless there’s a good reason to do so; I excuse myself and find someone else to talk with. You might offer a definite change of subject. “I wonder if you’re curious about our kids too?” “We had a similar experience on our last trip.” “I can relate to that story about your husband. Here’s what happened to me…”
Your neighbor may think of herself as “nice.” I’d argue that nice (“pleasing, agreeable, delightful”) people don’t hog the conversational ball. They share.
Very interesting article Catherine !
Thanks, Francine! So good to hear from you.
Great post, Catherine! I traveled over here from your other blog post! Super helpful.
Thanks, Matthew. Glad you’re here!