4 Ways to Be a Better Conversation Partner
There’s nothing more satisfying than a good conversation with someone who is excellent at hearing and responding to what you have to say.
As an introvert myself, I’ve spent much of my life observing people, standing on the rim of conversation circles. I’ve witnessed gregarious talkers, shy talkers, punch-line talkers (you know, those who always complete the joke), laughers, and those who choose not to participate in conversations at all. It’s interesting to note how people share stories, and how they give and receive information. I’ve found over the years that a good listener, regardless of how loud or quiet they come off, is always a pleasure to talk to.
Being a listener is good for you, too. It pushes you to develop fresh insights, take in new information, and helps us to “examine and challenge the information we hear in order to improve its quality and quantity, and thereby improve our decision making,” according to Sherrie Bourg Carter in Psychology Today. While it’s important to learn how to communicate your views, it’s equally important to learn how to take other views in.
Let’s take a dive into a few ways we can be better listeners and conversation partners:
1. Respond with awe
Be surprised! Treat your friend’s story as if it’s the best thing you’ve heard all day. Of course, we want our responses to be genuine, and we don’t want to give canned laughter after everything they say. But there is something to be said about a person who is truly enjoying your story and what you have to share. I once heard (from a very smart person who’s name I’m forgetting), that during conversations we should consider the needs of the talker. We should ask ourselves, what are they needing from me at this moment, while they share this particular story? When we hold off on thinking about ourselves and that one intelligent thing we feel we need say, when we hold off on interrupting, the conversation actually becomes a conversation instead of a lecture. Be engaged. Ask open ended questions. I admit, this one I’m guilty of forgetting. I sometimes get so wrapped up in the moment or what’s happening around me — oh look at that cute dog! — that I neglect to ask my friends better questions. Make it a point to learn more about your partner and their story.
2. Don’t give advice, just don’t even ask
The minute you even ask, I already know you didn’t hear me, you were developing your advice in your head and hoping I’d want to take it. The other day I wanted to vent to my friend about my exhausting afternoon at work. While my friend remained quiet and allowed me to share, a few seconds later she asked if she could give me advice. I immediately knew that instead of empathizing, she was waiting for the right time to fix the situation. And according to Mark Murphy in Forbes, “When you give advice, in essence, you’re telling somebody else what to do. This implies you have all the answers about what works and what doesn’t. But how could you? Chances are you don’t have all the background information on the situation, nor do you understand the other person’s emotions and what makes them tick.” Don’t assume your way of fixing something will work for everyone’s situation. Instead, try acknowledging first what your partner has shared. Let them feel heard. If you don’t know what to say, silence is fine too. Sometimes it just feels good to have someone there, listening.
3. Be wrong
It’s okay to not know. You don’t have to prove that you already know what I’m talking about, like the books by the author I’m describing, or the band I’ve mentioned. I get it, it feels good to your ego to know everything, but it actually makes you look rigid. There is nothing sexier than a person who can admit they’re unfamiliar with something and want to hear more. In fact, being wrong is part of our everyday stories, it’s a way to connect. In Kathryn Schulze’s Ted Talk, On Being Wrong, she says that, “We need moments of surprise and reversal and wrongness to make our stories work...and our stories are like this because our lives are like this.” It’s all about a rediscovery of wonder, “to step out of that tiny terrified space of rightness and look around at each other, and look out at the…mystery of the universe and be able to say, Wow, I don’t know.” In other words, being wrong is part of being human. And what’s more enjoyable that sharing a conversation with someone who isn’t afraid to be human?
4. Get personal
Avoid one way conversations. Participating in a conversation is like throwing a ball back and forth. One person shares one thing and they “throw you the ball.” You acknowledge them and then it’s your turn to share something before you throw the ball back. One word responses are difficult to connect to. Humans are hungry for the personal, for others to reveal their true selves so we, too, can feel a little less alone in this world. Of course, it’s scary to share parts of ourselves with others. What if they laugh or reject us? Rejection is a part of life, but the reward for a sharing your story is so worth the risk.
Before the pandemic hit, I used to take improv classes. We’d kick off every class by going around the circle and sharing something from our week. I found that the most well-received stories (the stories that got laughs and compassionate ohhs and awws) where those from people who weren’t afraid to share one specific detail from their lives, whether it be the joy over their new shoes, or the sadness over cake they baked that fell onto the floor. Whatever the details, we all felt a little more connected after getting a glimpse into their world.
To Wrap it up
Good conversations require us to listen, to set our egos aside and reveal our vulnerabilities. They force us to show emotion, forgo our own advice, admit we don’t know everything and share from our hearts. In other words, they require us to let our guards down. If you’re someone like me, who has trouble doing this from time to time, I close my eyes and physically imagine my heart opening, ready to receive information and let someone else in. This is when the best conversations begin to flow, when we’re ready to accept others and allow them to truly see us for who we are.