At the weekend I was teaching a class on The Art of Conversation and it was such an enlightening experience.
Firstly, the topic intrigued me because I wondered who wanted to learn – and I soon found out that the group was a complete mix of people. Some wanted improved networking for work and some wanted to make new friends and others who found it hard to keep a conversation going.
Marketers and sales folks all use conversation in our daily work. Step back and take a read of the insights below and challenge yourself to improve or work out solutions to these situations.
How Conversations are Structured
Conversations are unique – but they are all underpinned with a framework which can be easily learned. The 4 Fs which give ideas about how to ask initial easy questions around four themed topics.
Because I like to balance teaching theory with practice we spent time face-to-face with each other trying out the techniques – a bit like speed dating! Then we moved into practicing “branching” which is when the topic of conversation can move to adjacent topics.
As a tutor, I delight in the unique learning experience every class has and so the second day began with feedback from overnight practice of “The Conversation Game”. The students had chatted with parents, relatives, people at the bus stop and supermarket. Each was a special and individual insight into their new confidence gained by practicing the framework.
Our final task was to learn how to disagree. This is difficult because many think an argument is not a conversation. I think learning how to respectfully disagree is an art form and a useful skill to balance with listening and really hearing the message in a conversation.
What our conversations lack
In researching the topic I asked the crowd what they thought was lacking in good conversation and the top picks were:
- balance in exchanges – time speaking
- listening deeply
- ensuring the next topic is related to the previous one
- bringing in spectators to the dialogue
- interpreting body language successfully
- don’t propose a hypothesis – ask a question
- know how to conclude a conversation graciously
- listening to understand, rather than listening to respond
Some good insights on conversations [forgive me if I don’t attribute]
Dialogue is like a good game of ping pong or a satisfying volley. Full of questions, quick 2 sentence exchanges, more questions. Good conversation is Not about serving aces, or hogging the ball (pontificating). That’s boring for both players as well as anyone watching.
In Howard’s End E.M.Forster has that great phrase ‘only connect’ which can be read many ways, but the art of conversation (rather than the art of debate) is about connecting and listening, and making your contribution to a conversation relevant to those of others. It is about connecting with their point of view or description or anecdote, being appreciative of what someone is sharing with you and listening, even if you don’t agree, and even committing it to memory – even if only as an exercise in concentration.
In the Steve Martin film, LA Story, he’s at a trendy dinner party and says to the woman next to him, “I hear you’ve just finished your masters in conversation”. She says “Yes” and then just sits there.
Reframing can be helpful or follow up questions to check what they really mean. In a group of more than two, take care that it doesn’t become a spectator sport for the rest. Ask the third person if they can describe a similar experience to draw them in.
Indicate that you are committed to spending some time in this conversation and talk about random stuff. Never ask a woman what her husband does for a living or show other gender discriminating assumptions. Ask a lot of ‘what made you..’ ‘how did you manage to..’. Ask for opinions and advice from the field of strength of your conversation partner. Go a bit crazy and don’t be predictable. Make the person feel accepted and belonging, not patronised or alienated.
Some of my correspondents play games during their conversations – especially if they think the dialogue is not balanced
Sometimes I have even stopped mid sentence just to see if they noticed and they don’t they simply use to gap to jump in as that’s all they were waiting for. I see this a lot at work and especially in meetings. If I call them out on it gently we laugh and it resets the exchange. Most don’t even know they do it.
Others presented situations which are worthy of our thoughts and so put your insights in the comments.
I particularly notice that many men do not ask open questions, and if they do, they are significantly less likely to actually listen to the answers. Of course #notallmen, but there is a strong correlation. They often just expect to be interviewed about how brilliant they are, and the idea of putting in effort to develop a conversation seems alien to them. I honestly think that there are plenty of men out there to whom it has never occurred that this might be a specific responsibility to be shared equally.
Here’s a problem that I don’t know how to solve: providing honest feedback has about zero if not less than zero benefit to the person providing the feedback. And so most feedback is dishonest – either superficial or irrelevant or in what may be the most misleading and useless cases, inaccurate. What to do?