Updated: Jun 18, 2018
Since I was a little girl I have loved good, heart-felt, intimate conversations. I enjoy thinking up good soul-searching questions and talking about topics that are personal and relational.
Yet, after all these years of practice in listening and talking, a good conversation remains a challenge because it needs constant work and practice. Each conversation is unique and requires emotional intelligence, presence, self-awareness, language, confidence, cultural knowledge, improvisation skills, empathy, inter-relational skills and so much more! I have at least one conversation every day that leaves me thinking, “Wow, that did not go the way it was supposed to,” whether it is with a co-worker, a student, a family member, neighbor or a passer-by on the street.
Whether you would call yourself a “relationalist” or “conversationalist” on any personality type scale, we cannot get away from conversations. Not only does the quality of our relationships depend on our conversation skills, but so does also our quality of life.
Susan Scott, the author of Fierce Conversations, writes:
“Our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time. …. The conversation is the relationship. If the conversation stops, all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller and all of the possibilities for the individuals in the relationship become smaller…”
“If we compromise at work or at home; if we lower the standards about how often we talk, what we talk about, and, most important, what degree of authenticity we bring to our conversations--it's a slow and deadly slide."
Since conversations are so important for our daily functioning and satisfaction in life, I want to offer a few tips that have helped me to gain more out of conversations.
1. Be Present
Sounds simple but is not. First off, put down the phone, book or whatever else it is that you are giving your partial attention to. You can’t listen well, read the other person’s non-verbal cues, let alone make them feel that they are worth your time and attention if you are visibly browsing through your phone while having a conversation. Can you feel when you are on a phone with someone, whether they are simultaneously also glancing through their email?
Check yourself where your thoughts are while she or he is talking. In my experience, the external distractions are the easiest to turn off. Internal distractions are at first glance invisible to the other, but also become soon evident.
Some of the internal distractions are: allowing your mind to wonder to past or future events and plans, eagerly thinking about the next thing you are going to say, insecurity or being self-absorbed, losing interest in the conversation, or getting swallowed up by one of your internal triggers and losing focus of the person in front of you.
You show affection for the other person by being genuinely interested to learn more about them and by being curious and caring about how they are truly doing. When you notice that you are not fully present to the other, simply return without judgment.
2. Take the Risk of Vulnerability
Relationships tend to only go as deep as you feel comfortable taking them. We typically can set the tone for this by taking the plunge first ourselves and most people will follow. In the end, humans yearn for deep connection.
A simple exercise is to not just answer with a simple, “Not too bad” or “I am well” when you are asked how you are doing. Instead, share something that is real about your life. It is a small change, but can start a new friendship at a workplace or create a meaningful, although short, check-in point with your family member. (At first, you might need to follow up with a “what made it a good day?” or “tell me more about that”.)
It can be hard to share our true passions, talk about our secret dreams and things that we are thankful for, but to talk about our struggles, fears, and weaknesses is definitely hard. However the gift of knowing we are not alone in our pain and brokenness is one the most healing gifts that we can give to another human being.
Maybe – suffering doesn’t have to torch life purpose, but can ultimately achieve the true purpose of life – intimacy. Where suffering is shared, communion is tasted. And maybe the fellowship of the broken – koinonia in the brokenness – begins to mitigate that suffering.
– Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way
3. Practice Asking Questions
We all love to talk about ourselves, and questions give us permission to do that. When you get to know the person, you learn what they enjoy talking about. This will guide what kinds of questions gets them going.
If you desire closeness, ask about their emotions. When we talk about our emotions, we talk about our desires and things that move us. This often moves us to action and creates intimacy in the relationship. If you desire to cultivate spiritual depth in your relationships, ask about it. Ask how they are experiencing God in their daily lives, what is helping them to grow, what it is like for them to pray, what practices help them to reflect, when they feel alive, safe and loved…
4. Do Not Say…
There are a few things that I have learned that are not very helpful at all in a conversation.
“Your presentation was great, but I wish you would have made a few points more clear.”
“But” tends to work like a delete button. Everything that we said before “but” gets erased in the listeners mind and all they remember is what you said after that. I have tried to learn to replace my “buts” with “and”. It requires some reworking of the way you talk.
“Your presentation was great, and I wonder if you would like to hear some of my thoughts about it.”
“You JUST need to…”
This is my pet-peeve response phrase. When someone takes the risk of being real and vulnerable we should not assume they come to us for our life wisdom and advice on how to fix it in one simple step!
“I know how you feel…” (when you really don’t!)
Ability to empathize is such a gift, and we all should cultivate it. However, it is not helpful to say that you know how someone feels when you really have no idea.
Honestly, most of the time, I have no idea how it feels like to experience some of the life's deep sorrows that my friends share with me. And even if I had gone through the same experience as someone else, the way it impacted me was likely very different from them. I have found that it is more respectful to simply acknowledge their experience by saying, “I am sorry” and then inviting them to share more by asking them something like, “tell me more about what that is like for you”.
5.Check-in with Yourself After a Conversation
Susan Scott proposes that we ask ourselves the following questions after a conversation:
Was I genuinely curious about this person and their reality?
Did I work to understand reality from where he/she stands?
Did feelings get expressed?
What parts of me failed to show up?
Who did most of the talking?
Of course this won’t be possible after every single conversation, but it is helpful to do this even just once or twice in order to start keeping these things in mind.
Growing in our conversation skills also makes us grow in prayer. Much like any human relationship, we build our relationship with God one conversation at a time. When we learn to be more honest, vulnerable, and present with the people around us, we grow in our ability to be that way with God too.
Resources: Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, Susan Scott
The Broken Way, Ann Voskamp,
Reclaiming Conversation – The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle
Seeking God Together, an Introduction to Group Spiritual Direction, Alice Fryling