It’s time for your yearly conversational health checkup. When was the last time you had a real conversation with someone other than a family member? (Or with a family member, for that matter.) You’re not sure? Maybe it’s because you’ve forgotten what a real conversation sounds and feels like. Here’s a brief reminder.
“Conversation” implies that two (sometimes three) people are exchanging ideas. They are listening and talking in approximately equal shares, exchanging the roles of talker and listener smoothly. They are looking at each other, not devices. (Yes, yes – I realize I’ve just lost half my audience – who DOES that any more?) The two conversation partners are thinking about what the other person is saying and replying with thoughtful and honest feedback.
Does any of that feel familiar? If not, you’re not alone. A recent Wall Street Journal article cited research from Harvard Business School: Listeners estimate that they tune out during conversations about 30 percent of the time. It’s easy to blame the listener, but writer Elizabeth Bernstein says that talkers may also be part of the problem. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a talker who doesn’t seem to need – or want – our input. They don’t check in to see if their listener is engaged. They don’t allow others to get a word in. They ignore distracted or unhappy body language.
If you’d like more meaningful conversations in your life, here are some ways to become a better partner. First, check in to see if this is a good time to talk. Just because you have a need to talk doesn’t guarantee your partner is ready and willing to engage with you. Starting a conversation when the other party is distracted, busy, or tired dooms it to failure. Especially if the topic is important or requires close attention, ask before you launch.
Honor the answer you get. If the other party just doesn’t have the time or the energy right now, agree to talk at a better time. Better yet, offer to listen or help if they need it right now.
If they do have the time to talk, Elizabeth Bernstein suggests it’s helpful to give them a cue as to the nature of the conversation,. “I’ve got some great news to share.” “I’m feeling stressed and wanted to get your advice on what I should do.” “I’m feeling bad about the way we left things last night. Can we talk about it?” Sending signals about the kind of conversation this will be helps your partner focus attention. They can also prepare to engage with the appropriate level of intensity.
Even (especially) if you’re anxious or upset, stay tuned in to the other person’s body language and expressions. Watch for signals that they’re losing interest or have something to say. Stop talking every once in a while to check in. And breathe.
Even if you’ve done your best to prepare the way for a conversation, your partner can become distracted or tune out at some point. This may be behavior left over from previous experience with you. Perhaps they’ve found it’s easier to agree to talk and then find something else to occupy their time while you ramble. Maybe they’re not used to giving their undivided attention. Whatever the reason they’re tuning out, acknowledge it and ask if you should postpone the conversation or pick it up later. Again, honor the answer you get. This is a time to employ the Golden Rule: treat your conversation partner as you’d want to be treated.
You don’t want to become this person (courtesy of George Bernard Shaw): “She had lost the art of conversation but not, unfortunately, the power of speech.”