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A Few Simple Steps Can Lead to More-Rewarding Conversations

Everyone has endured bad conversations — the ones with awkward pauses, poor communication or the failure to make a personal connection. Though such problems are most pronounced when meeting new people, they can be surprisingly common among friends, co-workers and even family members. In fact, having rewarding conversations — in which you not only convey your thoughts and feelings but listen to other people and absorb theirs — can be challenging.

There are several reasons for this, including the intrusion of technology in daily life and the hardening of political discourse in society. But many of the problems stem from the fact that most of us don’t think we need to improve our interpersonal skills. Studies show that people rate their communication abilities as better than they really are and tend to blame others for conversational potholes.

“Having conversations and listening are not things we were born knowing how to do,” says Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter.

Fortunately, a handful of strategies can bring about moremeaningful and rewarding interactions, Headlee says. Below, she outlines some of her recommended techniques.

Put away your smartphone, don’t multitask and really listen.

A fundamental component of any conversation is the willingness to actually have one. Cell phones are often deployed to sidestep interactions rather than enhance communication. It’s common to fiddle with devices while waiting in checkout lines, sitting in cabs or standing in elevators (even for a split second). By doing so, we forgo chance encounters and deprive ourselves of the personal interactions that human beings need. The solution isn’t to ditch our smartphones, Headlee says, but to avoid the knee-jerk temptation to summon them from our pockets at every free moment.

In the same vein, don’t multitask. The human brain can’t focus on two things simultaneously. Try as you might, it’s impossible to read email and talk to someone at the same time. Devote your full attention to conversations, and be present in the moment. That involves listening. Really listening.

Most of us are conditioned to speak, not just to verbalize our thoughts but to burnish our egos, Headlee believes. Have you ever missed what someone said because you were trying to hatch a witty response to demonstrate your smarts? Listening requires an open mind, she argues, and a recognition that the goal of a conversation isn’t to win; it’s to exchange thoughts, feelings and experiences. Enter every dialogue assuming that you might learn something. This is especially necessary in today’s politically splintered world where like-minded people tend to cluster into groups, with limited exposure to countervailing views, Headlee says.

“The fact that we’re not listening to people who disagree with us means we’re not hearing anything but that which we agree with,” Headlee observes. “That is a very dangerous thing.”

Break with conventional wisdom, and vary your conversational techniques.

There is no shortage of generic advice that purports to improve communication. These age-old pointers include exhortations to maintain eye contact, nod your head to demonstrate involvement or rehearse topics ahead of time to fall back on if the dialogue falters. In reality, Headlee shares, these measures are ineffective and can even come across as disingenuous. After all, there’s no need to feign interest if you’re actually paying attention to what someone is saying.

Of course, everyone has endured strained conversations with strangers. Headlee suggests breaking through the initial discomfort by using open-ended queries to draw out the other person. Ask broad questions using words such as “who,” “what,” “why,” “when” or “how.” They can elicit substantive responses that lead to engaging interactions. Follow up with equally broad responses — “What was that like?” or “How did that feel?” — that require detailed answers rather than a conversation-smothering “yes” or “no.”

Take a different tack when a close friend or family member discloses a sensitive issue, such as the death of a loved one or a personal setback. The natural urge is to offer details about our own experiences, thinking we’re showing empathy by relating our recovery from a job loss or broken romance. But emotional reactions vary from one person to the next, and people often need us to listen rather than tilt the discussion toward ourselves, Headlee explains.

A few other suggestions: Don’t repeat yourself when striving to make a point. Reiterating the same thing with slightly altered phrasing is not only condescending but will cause others to tune you out. Brevity is usually the best course. People want to connect through shared experiences, not an avalanche of facts. If you don’t know something, acknowledge that. Admitting you’re not an expert on a topic builds trust and credibility.

Through it all, remember to take a deep breath and listen. And don’t worry that your voice won’t be heard, Headlee advises.

“You’re going to talk and you’ll probably talk plenty,” she says. “We’re aiming for a balance.”

The above article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.