Not about office gossip or recaps of your favorite shows, small talk does have its place, but the kind of conversation that makes you lose all track of time. The kind that leaves you somewhat exhausted and yet a bit euphoric. That makes you feel like you are seeing something or someone, perhaps even yourself, from a whole new perspective. One that leaves you feeling all out of words but then also strangely just getting started and ready for more once you’ve had a bathroom break and something to eat. Those are the really good ones and culturally we don’t have nearly enough of them.
That doesn’t mean every conversation we have has to end up examining and challenging the deepest truths of the human soul but between device driven seclusion, the ADHD of the attention economy machine, and excessive pushing of social niceties as some form of cultural cure-all we’re not only losing the capacity for genuine conversation we’re at risk of not even noticing until the ability has completely atrophied. Comments, like buttons, and emojis are no substitute for genuine, meaningful conversation. Not even close.
One of our most fundamental needs is to be seen, heard, and understood. Our ability to have meaningful conversations is an essential part of how we achieve that. Declaring our presence or proclaiming our manifesto can garner attention but being noticed is not the same as being truly seen. In order to be understood we must also understand and in order to do either we need to genuinely engage with people.
Virtual connections can be powerful and meaningful but as we start to rely more and more on social media, and the devices they operate on, we become shackled by the limitations of those platforms. Genuine interactions require presence, focus, and the absence of character maximums. And while there is wisdom in avoiding charged topics such as politics or religion in certain situations, not every circumstance is the right time or place, if we don’t ever talk about those kinds of topics we will lose the ability to actually talk about them at all. Or perhaps never develop the ability in the first place.
Our ability to connect, understand, and be understood is not simply some academic existential exercise it is absolutely crucial to our wellbeing. Building, cultivating, and sustaining any and all kinds of relationships depends on our ability to communicate with one another. From the small and mundane things to the massive and life changing issues we need to be able to hear and be heard.
So here are six key principles to having genuine, meaningful, enriching conversations.
1) Face To Face
Our various and evolving technologies enable us to communicate in an ever expanding number of ways but there is so much to genuine connection which is non-verbal and physically energetic. Each step back from actual physical presence loses more and more meaning and connection from the exchange.
Facetime video chatting isn’t too bad. It’s live, visual, and auditory but it lacks the base energy that grounds us and makes us feel fully present. Instant messaging or texting can be live but is absent of all the non-verbal cues and nuance making it ‘a brilliant way to miscommunicate how you feel, and misinterpret what other people mean’. And if it isn’t a live exchange then it has only the shadowy echo of actual presence and leaves our sense of personal relevance at the mercy of convenience.
To feel seen and heard we need to feel present to others and have others feel present to us. The real thing will always be more powerful than a substitute. Sometimes our circumstances restrict us and we are left with the substitutes as our own only recourse but whenever possible we need to aim for as close to the real thing as we can get.
Get physically into a shared space and engage with each other face to face.
Genuine connection isn’t simply a matter of paying attention it requires the undivided concentration of it. An offshoot complication of the instant gratification entertainment model governing pretty much all media platforms is the struggle to develop and maintain the ability to focus our attention.
Thanks to our technological advancements we can simultaneously have multiple text conversations on the go, a dozen or more tabs open in our browsers, music playing, and videos running with subtitles so as not to compete with the music. A remarkable seeming feat of multi-tasking but it makes genuine connection all but impossible. The simple image of trying to say something important to someone who won’t look up from their phone is the perfect visceral illustration.
The need to be seen and heard is rooted the need to feel valued and important, to feel that our presence and existence matters. If we are being forced to share someone’s attention with their text notices, newsfeed, and the latest tweet from their favorite celebrity we feel more invisible and less important than if we weren’t interacting with that person at all.
Peel the eyes off the screens, set aside the devices, and share your undivided attention. It will be infinitely more rewarding for everyone involved.
3) Ask Questions
Few things make us feel more noticed and appreciated than being asked questions about our thoughts and ideas. It demonstrates the person we are interacting with is paying attention, they are hearing what we are saying, and they are interested and invested in us and want to know more. Being asked questions gives us a feeling of acknowledgement, of encouragement, and that our thoughts and opinions have value.
Conversely the only way we gain knowledge and understanding is by seeking it, asking questions is essential to gaining greater understanding. Other people will always come up with questions we would never have thought of ourselves and the greatest way to move an idea forward is to expose it to different minds, perspectives, and sets of experience.
Obviously there are good ways and bad ways to ask questions. Constantly interrupting someone with questions or asking obviously leading or judgemental questions both demonstrate an absence of listening and attention. A conversation without questions, however, isn’t much of a conversation. It’s more like monologuing done in turns.
If you encounter an idea which interests you or which you don’t understand ask questions, the more open-ended and free of preconceived conclusions the better.
The comment section of social media platforms is very much the ‘just waiting for our turn to talk’ paradigm gone berserk. The highest possible numbers of views, clicks, shares, likes, and all such nods of attention are eagerly sought but attempts at actual replies and responses most often quickly devolve into argumentative personal attacks, leaving the initial topic far behind in favor of name calling and posturing.
A great deal of the responsibility for that rests on the limitations of the platform, as much or more than the people using it. Horrendously over-simplifying our interactions is just a recipe for trouble. Listening seems like it should be a simple thing to do but at times it can be difficult. It requires time and quieting our own inner voices to focus on someone else’s. It can also sometimes mean hearing things we might not be familiar or comfortable with.
New and different ideas won’t always mesh easily with our current thinking or always be easy to understand. Sometimes we will encounter perspectives which seem impossibly different from our own but that doesn’t make them wrong, evil, any less deserving of being heard, or deserving of instant attack. Hatred and cruelty aren’t worthy of encouragement and shouldn’t be tolerated. Different doesn’t mean lesser, it just means different.
So when you’re listening check on yourself. Are you actually hearing what the person is saying or are you preparing what you plan to say next? Are you letting them finish their thought or are you assuming you already know where they are headed? Are you staying open minded and receptive or have you already made up your mind and are tuning them out? Are you offering them the ear you would like offered to you?
If we aren’t willing to listen to others why should they be willing to listen to us?
5) Share, Don’t Conquer
A genuine conversation, even about a charged and difficult topic, is at its heart an exchange of ideas and perspectives. It’s not a contest. The ideal is certainly a search for understanding and consensus but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes the ideas and concepts will just be too different and disparate to wrap our minds around or match up harmoniously.
A genuine conversation can be one of disagreement, they aren’t mutually exclusive concepts, we just have to remember that exchanges happen through shared common ground. It can always be found, even if sometimes we have to work hard to find it. Obviously the more charged and passionately felt the topic the more heated the possible disagreement but any exchange which begins based on the premise that only one side can, and must, emerge as the ‘winner’ is already doomed. Nothing fires up our defenses, and shuts down our ears and minds, faster than someone talking at us in a way which broadcasts their unwavering belief in their opinion as the solely correct one.
We all immediately bristle at the notion but are we feeling attacked by the unfair and judgemental intolerance of the approach or is it because we feel they are failing to acknowledge that our opinion is actually the correct one? Bullies are obvious villains but obstinate closedmindedness is simply a reactive version of the same approach.
Genuine conversations aren’t just about seeking to understand ideas they’re about seeking to understand one another and neither of those things can happen if all we’re interested in is declaring a winner.
6) Don’t Let Fear Hold You Hostage
Genuine conversations can be wonderful, enriching, bonding experiences but sometimes they can also be heavy, difficult, uncomfortable, and scary. The skillsets are the same for both, much easier in the former and more desperately necessary in the latter. The more complex the society the more difficult the conversations can become.
The most daunting conversations will always be the ones about things which are unfamiliar, uncertain, and unknown. As the click-bait driven model of ‘head-line only’ thinking takes more and more hold of our cultural discourse those difficult, and incredibly necessary, conversations are being made more difficult not less. Both because it becomes harder and harder to find space for them and because without practice we risk losing the ability to even engage in them in the first place.
If we wish to grow and evolve we need to seek out those difficult conversations and make them easier to have, not harder. Understanding is the only way to banish fear. When faced with a daunting or difficult conversation take a deep breath and remind yourself that the goal is to exchange and understand ideas. Not to determine answers, solutions, or winners.
Understanding has to come first and is what we truly need the most.
So, the moral of the story?
We need to take every chance we can to sit down with people, set aside the devices, focus in and truly listen to one another, and do our absolute best to keep the idea of winning or losing out of the equation.
At a time when willful bullying is not only being permissively tolerated but idolized and rewarded it is all the more crucial we do everything we can to keep one another talking and listening and helping each other be truly seen, heard, and understood.