How to have a good conversation

We do this every day.  It is one of the most important skills in life as it is the key to relationships and well-being and yet we never think about it.  If you have been divorced, conversation was nearly inevitably involved in your breakup.  Have you ever thought how well you did? I bet you thought about how they did!

It is National Conversation Week and so it is a great time to pause and take stock of how we have conversations and look at some science behind this art so that you can expand to topic beyond the classic Brit favourite……the weather!

In this article I make a point of staying away from the tips such as how long you should maintain eye contact for, how far you should stand and repeating back the last three words etc that if you were to do all of these, you would not be able to have a conversation as you would be too busy focusing on other things.  Secondly, you would never enjoy socialising if youvwere to go about doing it this way.

So assuming you have the very basics, (i.e. you are standing at a good distance from someone, do not have bad breath, are looking at the other person and are not texting etc), here is some of the best advice I have found.

Tip 1:  Approach the conversation like an interviewer – LISTEN

Conversation expert, journalist/broadcaster Celeste Headlee suggests that you approach a conversation as an interviewer.  You must be aim to really learn something about that person and to achieve this, you must set aside all your preconceptions and focus your full attention on them.  You are really listening so that you can find out about that person’s passions, where their sense of identity comes and what they have learnt from life.

Tip 2:  Go with the flow

Headlee also gives the advice “go with the flow”.   By this, she means, just follow the direction the conversation is going rather than trying to bring it back to a point you might like to make.  This enables the speaker to feel satisfied that they have fully expressed themselves.  Furthermore, by focusing on where the conversation is flowing, it will enables you to go back to Tip 1 which is to think about getting to know the other person and not yourself.

Tip 3:  Ask open ended questions

The best way to get people talking enough so that you can get a flow and get to know them is by asking open ended questions.  These invite more long and meaningful answers.  Closed questions are often responded to with single word answers.

Open-ended questions often begin with words such as “Why?” and “How”.  They can also be more phrases than questions such as “Tell me” or “What do you think about…..”.

Tip 4:  Let the other person get to know you

Just as you are trying to get to know the other speaker in your conversation, they are trying to do the same with you.  So do talk in ways that you can meaningfully share something about yourself.  Do not get bogged down in details such as dates, names etc,.  Do not repeat yourself.  Instead express why something mattered to you.

Some people worry about oversharing.  My rule of thumb here is to meet the other person at the level that they are at, and that you feel comfortable.  If you never feel comfortable sharing, this will mean that it will always be difficult for you to have connections and you may need to get help from a therapist.  However, you can still be liked by being a good listener….(See Tip 1)

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Tip 5:  Make people feel good – EMPATHISE

Another conversation expert, Dale Carnegie and some research shows that people prefer likeable people to competent people.  This does not necessarily mean that you have to only be positive, what it means is that you must try and make people feel that they matter to you.  The easiest way to do this is to empathise and in order to be able to do this, you will have to……Listen (See Tip 1 AGAIN).

When you are listening to people, try and really follow where the emotion is coming from and explore this.  If the topic is not positive, then try to say something kind that might help make the person feel better, or at least the you care.

Although it is best to go with the emotional flow of the conversation, people do want to feel good so it is useful if you can start the conversation with a positive opener, from, “I like what you are wearing, are you into fashion” to “What kind of parties do you enjoy”?

Tip 6:  Conversation starters

The School of Life run a popular course aimed at teaching people to have more meaningful conversations.  They advocate that you be brave and really go for some meaningful conversation openers in order to have real conversation that goes beyond the small talk of the weather or what people do for a job.  They argue that if you ask the formulaic questions, you will get the standard auto-pilot response which they are not engaging with.  However, going beyond these socially acceptable/boring questions does require you to be brave and for you to reciprocate in the conversation, you also have to be brave as you are sharing something of yourself.

Here are some of their suggestions:

Does the price of art ever reflect how good it is?

What makes a good travel companion?

Are you where you wanted to be in this stage of your life

OR The slightly more accessible:  Did anything surprise you last weekend?

If you do want to ask what someone does for a job, explore WHY people came to that career?  Is it something they always wanted to do?  If no, what does drive them?

If you do want to ask why someone is at an event or party, explore, how they met that person, what drew them to that person/event? why they were searching for that kind of event?

Meaningful conversations are tiring but rewarding

This article shows how hard it is to really have a deep conversation.  It takes effort to listen deeply, follow the emotion and empathise.  It also takes effort to be brave and share something of yourself which could be open to judgement.   When you are married, it is easy to stop putting in the effort as you multi-task to get the admin done or respond to the kids.  If you don’t have meaningful conversations, you will lose that special connection you once had.

So get out there and practice conversations, enjoy them and make deeper friendships in practicing this essential life skill.

Dr Isabelle Hung

Dr Isabelle Hung is a co-founder of divorceclub.com and clinical psychologist. Having got through her own divorce just three years ago, she is now remarried and happy to report that divorce really is an opportunity for growth and positive change.

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