Awkward tension, long pauses, and nothing to talk about? Here’s how to have a good conversation with just about anybody.
The IT, engineering and science disciplines cop it a lot when it comes to being the subject of comedy. The majority of the laughs in these shows pertain to the social ineptitude of the leading characters. The nerd can’t talk to girls, the geek is always fighting with his mum, the spaced out goofy girl has no clue when it comes to relationships in her life. Being one in IT, I would have to say that a large majority of the material in these shows can be pretty accurate. People ask me if I watch The Big Bang Theory. I tell them that that isn’t a show for me – that’s what my lunch break looks like. I know all those guys in real life, and it’s more than likely that I am actually one of them.
But I’ve found over the years that the nerds aren’t the only ones who sometimes have troubles relating to others.
The humble conversation is the bread and butter of all relationships. You literally can’t do anything with another person unless a conversation is involved somehow. Whether it’s buying something at the shop, making a friend, or going further with the opposite sex – most human interaction is dependent on repeated use of words and time together.
A lot of us actually struggle to do this part of life well. We often leave conversations with others feeling bored or weirded out, and when we’re in them, we’re often trying our hardest to move on to the next thing. Sometimes we find people draining or difficult. It can be hard to relate to different types of people we encounter.
So I’d like to put forward some handy tips to making your next bouts of talking much more enjoyable. Here’s how to have a great conversation with just about anybody.
Ask lots of questions
Questions are the foundation of good conversation. You’ll find that your conversation with someone ends when both of you stop asking about the other person.
Usually we’re not asking cause usually we’re honestly all that interested in the other person. And that’s okay when it’s a few people – you don’t have to necessarily relate with absolutely everybody. But it’s an attitude that can very quickly spread to everyone you encounter. Conversation becomes dull and shortlived.
I make it a habit whenever I meet a new person to find out as much as I can about them. What are they interested in, what do they do, why do they do it, what did they do on the weekend, where are they going tonight, what’s the plan for the week, have they seen any good movies lately, are they reading a book. I’ve also learnt I need to do exactly the same with people I know very well. There are so many things you can find out about someone, so don’t be afraid to go for it.
Quit the surface responses
Another conversation killer are empty, short responses. These are notoriously the name of the game in the business world.
“How was your weekend?”
“Oh yeah, busy. Bit of this, bit of that. Did some things, still had more I wanted to do. Back to the old grind”.
Guess how much you actually now know about that person after those corridor exchanges?
And guess how much they know about you?
About the same.
And guess how many of our conversations are like that?
Almost all of them.
Honestly, it is really just bad habit to give people the stock standard routine answers that literally everyone else is giving. You may take people by surprise and help free your conversation if you’re a bit more real in your answers.
Establish common interest
They say opposites attract, but it’s our similarities that keep us together. When people get married or start dating, they enter into a number of exercises to try to find out what they have in common. As the relationship progresses, there is intentionality in exploring how to make some of the interests of the other person your own. Friendships are the same. Even business is the same.
A shared foundation gives great strength to a relationship. Everyone’s got one.
Something that helps me when I’m talking to people to this end is really the first point of asking questions. If you keep asking enough questions, you will eventually find something you have in common. Perhaps you’ll find you went to the same school. Maybe you have some mutual friends. Maybe you like the same movies. Maybe you share the same faith. Maybe you have similar backgrounds. Maybe you’ve been to the same countries. Maybe you…
You get the point. There are so many potential commonalities you could share with people. If you’re willing to look, I believe you can find common ground with absolutely anyone you meet.
Here’s a practical one. If you are looking one way, and a person is not sitting or standing in your line of sight, it is likely they don’t feel like you’re talking to them. Whenever you meet a new client or potential client, or any other scenario where you want to make a good first impression, you give them a firm handshake and look them in the eye.
Eye contact is a powerful form of non-verbal communication. It sends the messaging that the other person has your attention. That you see them. That you’re focused on them. And sure, you don’t have to lock yourself in and just stare at them awkwardly for the whole chat, but if your eyes never land on them, they’re going to think that the conversation isn’t very important to you.
Stop watching your phone
In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, a lot of social commentators would talk about how the family room moved from being framed around the dining table to being framed around the TV. Rather than the people in the family being the focus of the room, it was the information being broadcast by the big magic box in the room.
Fast forward to today and we now bring a similar problem with us every single place we go, and into every conversation we have. The smartphone.
You know, it is so easy to make your phone your whole life. I recently purchased a Galaxy S4 which has the moniker of “life companion”. I didn’t know that the phone was advertising itself to hold the same position as a wife or a husband.
The people in our world are the ones who should receive the moniker of our life companions. It’s very hard to develop a relationship with the person across from you if you are constantly using your phone to spy on or talk to people who you aren’t currently with. Sure, you can have your phone on you. Sure, you can check it every now and again. Always polite to ask first.
But so often we hide behind our phone in the name of “connectivity”. So much for connectivity if we can’t even connect with the people we are currently in the room with.
The inside matters
Jesus said that “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks”. What’s in your heart?
Sometimes we can hold all sorts of weird things in our hearts. We can hold bitterness or the memory of something that annoyed us about someone. We can be upset about something random that happened this morning, or 5 months ago, or 20 years ago. We can hold frustration or weariness or anger inside of us.
And as much as we think we can sugarcoat it and act like everything is okay, eventually the inside will come out.
In fact, it probably already is.
A lot of the points above talk about sending the message to the other person that you aren’t interested in the conversation. The reality is probably because you aren’t actually interested in the conversation. The inside is coming out.
We need to address our attitudes when it comes to our friendships and relationships. If we don’t value or place importance on them, we shouldn’t be surprised when people get that sense when they talk to us.
And the problem is that it is such an isolating attitude. And after a few months or years living at that level, you wake up wondering where your true friends have gone and why you don’t have anyone you can talk to.
The heart matters. Let’s take ours seriously.
Pastor John and Helen Burns say that one of the greatest ways to continue to build any relationship, whether friends, dating, married, or otherwise, is to stay amazed.
Man, we can so easily take the people around us for granted, especially the ones we’ve known for a long time. We start to presume and assume on their behaviour. We know that we can pout and whinge with them cause they’ve always done that. We start to get familiar with people who are usually around, and start to think we always know what’s going on. And hey, maybe we do.
But it’s amazing what is sometimes lurking behind a deeper conversation.
One of my favourite TV shows ever is The Office (US). And one of my favourite scenes is when two of the office workers go on a work trip to try to make some sales. The business task aside, the scenario enables them to explore and open up areas of their lives they had never known about each other. And one of them so accurately says:
“I had to travel halfway across the world to get to know someone who works 10 feet away from me”.
I wonder who in your world and in my world are those people who we are taking for granted? Who do we think have all worked out? Whose kindness to we continue to presume on? Who have we stopped exploring and getting to know? It could be your wife. It could be your husband. It could be your friend. It could be a uni or work colleague. It could be even one of your best friends.
This person is a gift in your life. Whoever they are, and whatever capacity they exist in your life, they are a unique and special blessing to this world. Never lose sight of that.
Let’s stay amazed.
What are some other ways to have great conversations with people? What have you found work? And what are some of the things you’ve found haven’t worked?