A few weeks ago, I attended an event where I sat with strangers. As I attempted to make conversation and it went nowhere, I realized again that we’ve lost the art of conversation. My husband Les is an amazing conversationalist, and so I asked him to write a guest post on how to be better at conversation. Enjoy. And then start a conversation about it!
Carol is ever so slightly concerned whenever she leaves me unattended, especially when we are on a date and she waltzes off to powder her nose. It’s not that I would order something she wouldn’t eat. (Okay, I might!) It’s not that I would get in trouble or even wander away. (I have.) It’s more the wondering if the date will be compromised or complicated by the addition of new “friends” along for the journey.
The problem? I talk with people. I talk with anyone who will entertain my verbal advances, my invitation to talk with me. It happens often. It happens in almost any context. It happens on purpose, and it sometimes just happens without effort on my part. Well, mostly no effort on my part.
This problem is useful. Carol uses me, and my developing skill, when she needs to connect quickly with new people. I have been her wingman at business mixers. I mingle, start conversations, introduce Carol into the mix, and wander away. My job is done. Until I make the next connection. My concern in all of this is that she is ready to move on by the time I am ready to pass off a new “friend.”
Let’s shift gears before I lose you. “Why,” you ask, am I telling you this?
I have observed that we, almost everyone I know, maybe you and almost everyone you know, are bad at conversation. We don’t seem to know how to start one. We definitely don’t know how to keep one going. And we are rapidly losing what skills we might have had.
There are many reasons for this. Let’s consider just a few:
- No one taught us. I think we all assume we can converse with other people. It seems natural. We have lips and ears – that should be enough.
- We’re too busy and too hurried to talk. Usually slightly late for whatever is next, we rush by other people. At best, we toss out a “Hi. How are you?” as we rush by.
- We are distracted. Whether being self-absorbed, chasing the entertainment du jour, or wondering what we just did and why are we where we are, we are unable to connect with another being capable of intellectual interaction. The best many of us can do is pet the dog.
- We may have forgotten, in a somewhat practical manner, that there are other real people in our lives. That is one of the curses of walking around with our eyes glued to a 2-by-2 inch screen. In the end, we are ultimately alone in our own little world.
All is not lost, my friend. There is hope, even for the most distracted among us.
My journey started as a rather quiet, awkward, and intentionally distanced-from-others approach to the people in my life. I was shy. Introverted. A painfully nerdy nerd. The later may still be true, but I have long ago set aside the other aspects of my design that stymied conversation. I am certain that you also can achieve what I have begun to embrace as a new way to be with other people.
Notice I did not say “be around other people.” Even the loneliest people are around other people. The problem is that “around” is not the same as “with” other people. Conversation makes the difference. Real conversation, using whole words, not letters and emojis, enables us to shift from around other people to with other people.
I have embraced a four-step process . . .
Eye contact. I assume eye contact means I can say “Hello.” Or some other verbal bridge out of the silence that existed. One date night was jazzed up (my opinion, not Carol’s) when a sigh by the man at the table next to me was answered by my, “Tell me what you’re eating. I may have just ordered the wrong dish.” We were immediately best friends.
Keep talking. If the other person doesn’t brush you off or turn away, keep talking. This is a problem if “Hi. How are you?” is your only game. To keep talking means you have to pay attention. I try to stick with what’s going on around us at the moment. The collection of items in the grocery cart. The rain we just escaped under the same awning. “Does that blouse come with batteries” once netted a contact for Carol at a mixer.
Take a deep breath. There’s more.
Steer the conversation. Beyond eye contact and chatter, the next step is leading the conversation someplace new. But where? I go for what I am comfortable talking about. Food. The weather. Jesus. Did I mention I’m a pastor? Be ready to shift quickly to another topic if the other person starts to get antsy. Worst case scenario? Start over.
Repeat as often as possible. I know, you’re exhausted just thinking about all of this. Relax. Walk for a while staring at the ground. Take a deep breath, look up, and start again. “Hello.”
One other thing; not really a step. Slow down. Nothing will happen at the speed most of us move through life. Actually, for most of us, people are a blur we catch with our peripheral vision as they slide out of sight. Carol says my head is mounted on a swivel. Maybe. I just don’t want to miss anything – a rumbling Camaro, a hawk snatching lunch beside the road, a new restaurant or my next conversation.
The challenge? Start a conversation as often as possible. You will discover that your anxiety will be replaced by naturally flowing conversations.