Friday, November 28, 2014


She  “always create[s] intelligent conversation,”  commented a friend of mine, in conversation about someone she knows.  What does it take, I started to wonder, to create conversation, first of all, and intelligent conversation, after that.

1.  Remember that conversation is about the person I am talking to, not about me.  My goal in conversation has to be to draw the other person out, to
a.  find out what is going on in that individual’s life;
b.  communicate sincere interest in those events and their related feelings;
c.  give him or her the opportunity to share. 

2.  Ask questions to invite the individual to delve into details.   People feel affirmed when others are interested in their experiences and perspectives.  Follow-up questions, indicate a sincere desire to know more.  A single question, on the other hand, seems perfunctory, a question posed out of duty.   If that question is followed up with a personal experience, especially one that changes the subject, the conversation has been hijacked.  It’s become a personal forum.  Compare these illustrations of a parallel conversation, the first an other-centered conversation (top), and the second, what that conversation might look like hi-jacked into self-promotion (bottom).

1  Hi, Linda, how are you?
2  I’m fine, thank you.  And you?
1  Well, thank you for asking.  When  did you get back from your trip?
2  Last week.  On Tuesday.
1  You look so tanned and refreshed. I’ll bet you had a great time.  What’s one highlight for you?
2  Well, let’s see.  The entire trip was fantastic, so it’s hard to pinpoint one thing.
1  Still, something must stand out.
2  You know, I did go ziplining for the first time.  It was exhilarating.  I’m proud of myself that I overcame my fears. . .

1  Hi, Linda, how are you?
2  I’m fine, thank you.  And you?
1  Well, thank you for asking.  When did you get back from your trip?
2  Last week.  On Tuesday.
1  We just returned ourselves from a cruise last month.  We had such a wonderful time.  The weather co-operated, and the food was amazing.  We met so many interesting people.
2   How long were you gone?
1    Ten days this time.
2    How did that work for you?
1    It was just right.  We felt we had short-circuited winter just a bit.
2    Good for you! . . .

I’ve been on the receiving end of both of those types of conversations.  Life-giving in the first instance, draining in the second.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, I have also been the perpetrator of more than a few hijacked conversations (bottom), where I have been more focused on myself than the person to whom I am speaking.  To be fair, I do congratulate myself when I do manage to do it right, to fan a conversation from its embers into a flickering, radiant warmth. 

3.  Use active listening.   I am most successful in conversation when I focus on the other person’s feelings.  Did the individual experience satisfaction? joy? excitement? apprehension? sorrow?  These feelings are a lead into follow-up quesions or statements.  If I can paraphrase those feelings, my partner is likely to add rich detail and some reflection to what he or she has already said.

3.  Ask permission to share stories, experiences, or knowledge.  During a course in Cognitive Coaching I took last year, I learned that asking permission to share experience or knowledge, especially in professional circles,  shows respect for my conversation mate’s own abilities and management skills.  Of course.  Why had that never occurred to me before?  If, in personal conversation, asking permission could seem awkward,  I can at least wait for an opportune moment to interject, once I’ve maintained the focus on my mate for a good long time, and even then, just open the door a smidgen with a general statement first.  

4.  Maintain receptive body language.  Eye contact, leaning forward, nodding in agreement or anticipation, smiling, all these tried and true techniques encourage people to continue talking.

5.  Steer away from discussion of other people.  The conversation can’t be “intelligent” when it’s centered on analysis of people’s habits or foibles.

6.  Learn to tell stories concisely and effectively.  Scott Adams, author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (2013), includes the art of conversation in the list of skills everyone needs a working knowledge of (along with pubic speaking, psychology, business writing, accounting, basic design, overcoming shyness, a second language, golf, proper grammar, persuasion, hobby level technology and proper voice technique, just in case you’re curious).  He recommends dusting off the structure of a story you learned in school, and applying it to experiences you want to relate.  If you can make them funny, so much the better.

When conversation works, it’s magical.  You are caught in the moment, oblivious to anything else going on around you.  You don’t want to look away, or move a muscle lest you disturb the mood and send an inadvertent message that the conversation needs to end.  “Intelligent” conversation is even more powerful—other-centered, inclusive, generous, peppered with memorable snippets and noted for its sweet, lasting aftertaste.

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