Conversation is a dying art in our culture. Eyes are unfocused, words are undisciplined, and attentive engagement is often non-existent. The majority of our conversations are hidden under screens of constant social media and shallow treatment of life and community. Our ability to see each other in thorough and delightful conversation lies buried under the mask of self-image and projected self-worth. So, what are we to do? How do we have good conversations that engage with the community while simultaneously freeing us from the constraints of social media? Here are a few simple practices to have a good conversation.
- Put your leash (phone) away. Most of us have a phone that tethers us to a fictional world. If you want to have a good conversation, you need to put this leash away. Set your phone to airplane mode when you begin a conversation or at least turn the volume off. Anything that is definitely in need of your attention will still be there when you turn it back on. Most things do not need your immediate attention. So, take the leash off for a bit and enjoy the moment. The better thing to do is to leave the leash at home. Let yourself run in conversation and let your mind race in response to boredom! You’ll find yourself enjoying people a little more and being a little less anxious.
- Listen to others and assume they bring some value to life. Stop trying to be the smartest person in the room. Most of us enter a conversation for what we can contribute. Instead of listening well and considering the ideas of our conversation, we plot the next thing we are going to say. In order to overcome this tremendous gulf, we must assume that the other person has something to contribute. Recognize that everyone has a unique experience that can contribute to your own life in some way.
- Overlook the ideological and tribal affiliations in favor of honest discussion. Honest self-reflection is in short supply these days. We are tribal people who determine our worth and value by those to whom we find a connection. Often our discussions are stifled because we connect ourselves or others with a tribe of people and therefore all the ideological nuances assumed about that affiliation. However, people are not numeric collections of data. They are individuals with unique thoughts and individual ideas that may or may not be informed by their particular tribe. Assume they are individuals who come by their ideological affinity honestly and strive to investigate those points with integrity.
- Talk about ideas, not people. It has been said that great people talk about ideas. Try to focus your conversation around deep thoughts and ideas. Stay away from talking about other people. I am a pastor and spend a great deal of time counseling with people. Often it is my goal in these sessions to get the person to move from identifying people to identifying the deeper root issues. I will ask questions that will attempt to lead the other person to identify the “why” of a feeling and this can lead to some incredibly constructive conversation about ideas and ideology. In like manner, when you are having a conversation with someone, try to press past the “who” and get to the deeper more philosophical questions. This will lead to a deeper and more productive conversation.
- Ask unassuming questions. For example: ask, “how are you doing?” and not “are you ok?” Ask, “what’s one thing you’re excited for this year?” rather than “what have you been doing?” Ask questions that allow others to talk about themselves with a broad spectrum of specificity. Avoid questions that assume something negative about the person or are narrow in scope. “Are you feeling ok” is not a good question unless you think the person is sick. “What are you reading?” is a great question, if the person reads or if you have a book you’re wanting to talk about. Better questions are ones that engage the person’s mind and are open enough to allow for variation. Some conversation questions I like to ask are: “What is your favorite Jesus story?” “What is one thing you’re excited about this year?” “What is one of your most prized possessions and why?” and “what is your favorite activity for relaxation and why?”
- Finally, try to see the other person. Your goal in conversation is to reveal the person to whom you are speaking. Try to SEE them. Try to know their condition. I have some friends who are really skilled at doing this. I will call them on the phone and before I know it, they have asked questions that have revealed my personal struggles and thoughts and I have spoken for about an hour. They have worked hard to see me and know me. Often these conversations end with me saying something like, “Man! I talked the whole time! Next time I want to hear about how you are doing!” This is refreshing and uplifting to me, so I want to do it to others.