As I was growing up, conversations around our family dinner table could span anything from Star Wars to the-Christmas-three-years-earlier with only two segues. “We have conversation ADD,” my dad explained to any guests who tried to keep up with all our rabbit trails.
Given how many conversations humans have in a typical day, we might assume that talking to each other comes naturally. But talking is not the same as mastering the art of conversation.
In an episode of one of my favorite shows, a character in an argument crossed her arms and insisted, “I’m listening.” The other character replied, “No, you’re reloading.” The fact is, too many of our “conversations” are really two monologues where we aren’t listening to each other, but waiting for silence so we can continue voicing our thoughts.
We’ve all had conversations with the know-it-alls, the long-winded and the one-uppers. We’ve probably been those conversation-crushers at some point, too. Or we’ve made embarrassing conversational faux pas or seen a conversation go anywhere but where we intended.
Build each other up
There is a simple way to make our conversations easier and more natural — a conversation hack, if you will. Before we get to that, it helps to remember why we even have conversations in the first place.
Basically, the point of conversations is to either share information or deepen a relationship. Nearly every conversation I can think of fits into one of these two categories.
Information-sharing is straightforward, but deepening relationships (of any kind) can be trickier. Paul suggested we “count others more significant than [our]selves” (Philippians 2:1-11) and encourage one another by “build[ing] each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
The simplest way to improve nearly any conversation is simple.
Just ask a question.
See? Very simple. If you want to get to know someone better, ask questions more than you share stories from your own life. If you feel like the conversation has become a tennis match of monologues, ask a question to jump-start a deeper conversation.
When the perfect moment comes up for a comeback or story you want to share, try swallowing it and instead ask a question.
Questions are powerful. Not only do they show your interest in someone’s life, but they give you a glimpse into who the other person really is. Sometimes your questions will even help that person see things in their own life they may have missed before. Talk about deepening relationships!
Don’t be too quick to talk about you. Give the other person a chance to see your interest in them — to see that you’re actually listening and not just reloading.
List of questions
I’m sure there are countless categories of questions out there, but I came up with three to fit our purposes: basic, imaginative and probing.
Basic questions (for those you’ve just met or don’t know well):
- Where did you go to school? What did you study? What was your favorite subject?
- Where are you from? What is your favorite thing about your hometown?
- What do you do? Is that what you had always planned to do? How did you choose your field of study or career?
Imaginative questions (to encourage deeper thought):
- If you could invent an ice cream flavor (or a holiday), what would you create?
- If you had to go on a quest with a Disney princess (or Star Wars character or Avengers superhero), who would you pick?
- What is one of your favorite vacations you’ve taken — or a favorite vacation memory?
Probing questions (to really dig into deeper topics):
- If you could give a message to everyone in the world right now (or to world leaders, or to our leaders), what would you want to tell them?
- What do you think is the most important thing anyone ever told you when you were a kid?
- If you could meet one person alive today, who would you choose? Why?
Obviously, if whoever you are talking with doesn’t seem interested in sharing, or the question comes across as too personal, move back to a basic one. Or tell a (short) story of your own first so they see you’re not some creepy person fishing for personal information.
Go ask some questions
Pick a question or three. Come up with a few more of your own. Next time you are in a conversation with someone — anyone! — ask one of your questions. Give them time to think, and thoughtfully listen to their answer without rushing to reply.
You’ll go a long way in mastering the art of conversation.
Copyright 2019 Lauren Dunn. All rights reserved.