We all have our favourite way of interacting with people, modifying it a little depending on whether we're talking to friends, family, strangers, colleagues, and how many people are there. But are we conscious of what we usually do, and how well does it work for us?
Don't forget, if you or your friends would like to view past tips, you can do so by clicking here. And if you'd like to forward these tips to a colleague or friend just click below.'Good conversation is as stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after.'
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author
There is game played by group facilitators called The Talking Stick. A group of people sit around a table and in the middle is a stick of some kind. The rule is that you can only speak while you are holding the stick and you can only pick up the stick a certain number of times. If you are unsure about your conversation style before, you will certainly know it by the end!
The most prominent feature of this game is the frustration of those who usually talk a lot. Words pile up in their mouths but they can't say them. They gesticulate their frustration, they shake their heads, they open their mouths often, sometimes a strangled sound is uttered, sometimes they just can't help but speak and then someone reminds them that they aren't holding the stick. They suffer badly.
The quieter people sigh with relief. They don't have to say anything, but if they do want to speak they will get a chance and they won't be interrupted. Bliss.
But a little way through the exercise things can start to go quiet. The talkative people can't speak, much as they'd like to, because they've used up all their turns with the stick. The quieter people feel awkward, on the spot, because they've said what they want to say and now they're thinking they look boring or lacking in contribution because they're not saying anything.
If you google the words conversation style you'll find that there is little consensus on the subject. One website talks about outspoken, facilitating and reserved styles. Another talks about different kinds of conversation - initiative, understanding, performance and closure, all of which are about talking rather than conversing. Others talk about gender differences in style - women tend to like one to one or small group conversations that are interactive and cooperative, they say, while men tend to like bigger groups where they can use talking to showcase their qualities. Another says there are only two types of conversation, purposeful or for its own sake.
To me there are three important facets of any conversation -
a) the balance between talking v listening
b) the content
c) the degree of engagement with the other(s)
I was out with a friend a couple of weeks ago. We don't know each other all that well and so we both settled for our usual (unconscious) strategies - she talked and I listened. At the end of it both of us were feeling uncomfortable. She apologized for talking so much and, although I didn't say so, I did feel a bit short-changed. But, when I thought back to how it had all happened I remembered that she had asked more than once whether it was ok for her to talk about certain things. I, naturally, had said yes. At times when she had stopped talking I filled the silence by asking her more questions. Which she had been happy to answer. When she asked me about one particular thing I changed the subject as it wasn't something I wanted to talk about. So while I had felt a bit over-whelmed at being talked at for so long, I sadly had to admit that I had done everything I could to make it happen that way. I realized too that that was how I conducted many conversations - it is not by accident that I became a therapist and coach!
On another occasion I was at a friend's house for dinner. She had invited a couple of other people who I'd not previously met. As the evening went on I noticed that one of them, a woman, seemed to be gently driving the conversation in quite a purposeful way. First she asked somebody about their work, then she asked the same question to someone else, and then someone else. Then she moved on to schools - what kind of schooling had everyone had? This last one developed into the most interesting discussion and it was very inclusive as of course everyone has been to school.
And then there was the dinner party I went to a little while back. As so often happens, the men and women were seated alternately (who ever thought that was a good idea?), and the men took it in turns to tell funny stories while the women, isolated between them, said almost nothing. It was just awful. At one point, desperate for an actual conversation, I turned to the man next to me and asked him some questions about his life. He was clearly petrified! As soon as politesse permitted, he returned to the group story-telling.
One thing that becomes very clear when you start analyzing this most common of daily activities, on the whole we are unconscious in our conversation style. I hadn't realized how I regularly contrive to listen rather than talk. Although I do sometimes bring up conversations in company, the woman in the second story was clearly well-practiced in this. And the poor man in the last story - I don't suppose he is conscious of how little personal engagement it takes for him to feel uncomfortable.
As a result of our unconsciousness it rarely occurs to us that we might be able to choose how we converse, that the quality of a conversation might depend, not on luck or the other person, but on how we operate within it.
1. What patterns do you notice in the conversations you have with people? Do you tend to come out of conversations feeling you've talked too much or too little? Do you aim to facilitate conversations between people, or are you more concerned with performing? Do you feel more satisfied when you think you have entertained someone, or when you've been able to make a connection with someone? What pressures do you put yourself under in conversations? Do you see it as your job to fill any silences, or do you see that as someone else's job? Are you more comfortable talking about yourself or listening to others talk about themselves? Do you prefer impersonal topics, or personal ones? Do you like safe topics or controversial ones? What makes you relax in a conversation, what makes you feel anxious or awkward?
2. What kinds of conversations do you most hate? It may be ones where another person dominates, or ones where you have to make all the effort; or conversations about topics you don't like talking about; boring conversations you can't escape, conversations with people who always turn the topic back to themselves, ones where people get too personal or ones where they are too banal. Perhaps you find people stand too close to you, or they don't listen when you talk.
What do you do that enables these 'bad' conversations to take place? Are you too passive or too domineering? Do you complain about people being boring but fail to introduce subjects you enjoy? Do you spend time with the wrong people for you, or in the wrong social situations? Do you spend too much time projecting yourself, or too little? Do you hate it when people aren't interested in you, but take no interest in them?
3. What could you do differently?
Here are some ideas:
- talk more (or less) than you usually do
- before a social event, read the papers or other sources for topics you might enjoy introducing
- decide to facilitate a conversation between people
- remove yourself from conversations you are not enjoying
- get really curious about the other person and see what happens
Have a conversation-conscious week!
'The ability to talk well can be cultivated'
The Art of Conversation by Milton Wright 1936