The Secret to Great Conversations

I write for a living.

This year, after some coaching advice, I’ve further refined my writing niche—what work do I love and find that I’m good at that pays. Turns out it’s writing for foundations that support hospitals or universities. 

Because of that realization, I follow the fundraising topic on LinkedIn. This week a post on how to raise more funds caught my eye. The author, Rhea Wong, says the secret to fundraising is simple:

Know how to have a great conversation. 

I think that’s true for way more than fundraising. It works for friend-raising, client-raising, church-member-raising, and neighbor-raising.

So how do we have a great conversation?
What’s the secret?

Listen—Wong says, “When we focus less on ourselves and our needs (organizational and otherwise) and focus instead on what our donors [friends, clients, church members, neighbors] want to achieve and how a gift makes that possible, we unlock potential.” How well are we listening to what those around us want to achieve and to what “gifts” they bring to the table?

  • What does this potential friend want to achieve, in life but also in potential friendships?
  • What does this client want to achieve in their business and what strengths do they already possess to do so?
  • What does that potential church member want to see their church achieve and what gifts and talents could they contribute to see the task succeed?
  • What does my neighbor want to achieve and how are they equipped to do so?

When we understand their desires, we know better if they are a good fit and if we are people who can help them achieve those desires. Not everyone is a fit for every other person or organization.

Don’t plan your reply—When we listen, we have to train ourselves to listen. It’s hard to do. Our minds are whirring as they talk. We may disagree with them and our rebuttal forms in our brain. Or we feel empathy and camaraderie that responds, “Me, too!” and begins to plan how to share our similar story. Maybe I hear their problem and have a solution, some advice (Like Tom Hanks, “I’m great at advice.” Just tonight I frustrated my husband exceedingly by jumping in with solutions to his issues.) But as soon as our minds engage on our response, we stop listening. 

Have a stable of questions—Sometimes it’s hard to get a conversation going, so develop your own stable of questions you’re comfortable asking. (Ask your hair stylist how she does this. I’m always amazed how stylists can have conversations with such diverse clients.) 

Don’t ask questions that can be answered by yes or no. I love some of the quirky questions found on this list that’s added to weekly, questions like :

  • “If you could rename yourself, what new name would you choose, and why?“
  • “Without using the title of your job, tell me what you do?”

As people talk with you, add elements of the answers to a stable of questions for next time you converse (How is your daughter Suzie’s college experience going? How did that weird project at work turn out?)

Remember a conversation is not a debate—It’s hard to remember in our polarized society that people are allowed to have opinions that differ from our own. A short time ago I explained to a friend that I like my birthday to be work-free and to actually celebrate on my day. She expressed that she is fine as long as it is celebrated sometime around her birthday. That’s a conversation. But what she went on to say made me feel like she was trying to convince me of why her way was the “right” one and I should be fine with it. That entered debate territory! We can allow people to have their own opinions, and we don’t have to agree with them. We can even ask questions about why they have that opinion but not just so we can gain ammunition to form our rebuttal. (Trust me, I’m preaching to myself here—I love a good debate, and I want to win. But perhaps I can learn to ask for permission to debate the topic with someone rather than just insist by my actions that it become one.)

Listen (again)—Yes, I’ve already said that. But as Wong reminded me at the end of her post: “In other words, it’s not about you. You have two ears and one mouth. Use accordingly.”

Whether you’re talking to donors who you hope will donate millions to your capital campaign or to your teenager, the big secret of a conversation is to listen. And as we listen, we look to learn, so fueling future conversations.

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