Conversation is a dying art form. This isn’t a whinge about social media. I mean that actual face-to-face conversations are losing their way. People probably talk as much as they ever have, but does anyone stop to think why they’re talking?
A lot of what’s said is to fill awkward silence. To share an opinion. To make someone laugh. To be liked, respected, admired. This is good social etiquette, and it’s better than making someone dangle in said awkward silence, or cry, or hate you.
But conversations built on this stuff (at least in my experience) don’t result in significant relationships. They just result in more conversations. Or sometimes, less.
I’m spoilt by many deep friendships with incredible people. Some are from other sides of the planet, and some now live on other sides of the planet. I could do better at staying in touch with those far away, and I could do with extra days in the week to give those nearby the quality time they merit.
I’ve been in the trenches with each of them. But that didn’t happen by chance. We got there because somewhere along the way, we talked. And not in the way I described above.
We didn’t talk to be heard, but to listen. To understand each other. To care. To bring out the best in each other, to get close enough to hear how the other person ticks.
So what do such conversations look like? At the risk of sounding like a list of instructions on how to suck eggs, here are some ideas on reviving the lost art of conversation.
Ask how they’re doing, and mean it. In Australia, we don’t say “Hello”. We say “How are you going?” Even to the person at the checkout. But we rarely care for a serious answer, and we’d be surprised and uncomfortable if we got one.
Whether talking to someone randomly at the shop, or someone you know well, if you want to cut through this cultural baggage, rephrase the question. What’s your week been like? How’s your shift going? And then actually listen. Ask follow-up questions about the answers they give. It’s not hard. It just involves pausing your inner dialogue long enough to care about them.
Get inside their skin. They say we’re a feelings generation. Let’s use that to our advantage. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person who’s sharing these things with you. If their week was tiring, picture when you last felt exhausted. If their day has been the best they’ve had in ages, think back to the last time you felt that way. Experience their emotions from the inside. There’s no point asking someone how they’re going if you don’t actually care.
Connect your story to theirs. Only a few minutes into a conversation you will have already found—if you’re looking for them—points of connection between their life and yours. It might be the life stage you’re in, a current world issue you’re both drawn to, a struggle you’re facing, your mutual love (slash hate) of certain activities, seasons, famous people, or parts of the world.
Find common ground. If they let slip a social, political or religious view that you don’t share, stay on your mission of connecting your stories together. If you’re feeling brave, use that courage not to voice your own opposing view, but ask them more about theirs. Maybe they’ll return the favour.
Track with them over time. Someone you met once must have actually cared about you if they remembered your name. Even more so if they remembered details of that conversation. So do the same for others. How is their vegetable garden going? Did they get the job they applied for? How did their son find his first week of school?
Too much of this and soon you’ll have a friend. Do this with your friends and you may have friends for life, comrades who fight for you in the trenches.
Don’t kick your conversations like a can down the road. When you talk to people, talk with the express intention of caring about them. Listen in on your own conversations and see what needs to change.
Everyone loves talking about themself. So stop doing that, and let others. Putting other people first might be counter-intuitive, but it’s exactly what genuine love looks like. And right now the world needs a bit more of that.
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