What makes a conversation work?
Analysing the building block of relationships
I never used to pay attention to conversations. They were things that happened, an activity not requiring conscious thought, a filler.
Then I was tasked to refresh a course called “Social Connection” in my boss’ Premium Subscription. It had the tagline: “Learn how to connect more deeply with the people in your life, one conversation at a time.”Five lessons out of 11 were dedicated to conversation—from improvising and storytelling to relating to conversation partners at a deeper level. As obtuse as I can sometimes be, I noticed.
Maybe there is something to conversation. My boss says it’s through conversation that we forge connections. And I usually agree with what he says.So I started paying attention. And the more mind I paid to each conversation I was having, the more truth I saw in his words.
Connection through conversation
Of course, conversation isn’t the only way we connect. Many of us rely on the written word—messages, emails, Instagram comments—to forge new connections and deepen old ones. More than 95% of the communication at my work takes place on our messaging app, through words and emojis and GIFs.
There is also the nod, the wave, the hand on the shoulder, the knowing smile. These wordless gestures say much, and I’ve developed many a connection through them. The nod, smile, and wave I exchange with the security guard at my building on my morning walks to the gym. That glint in my partner’s eyes that speaks a thousand words.
But I don’t think it’s controversial to say that conversation remains the most basic and effective way to connect—whether face-to-face, on the phone, or in a Zoom call. We can begin to know another person, make a new best friend, end a relationship in as little as five minutes of verbal exchange.
We’ve all experienced that click with a stranger mid-conversation that tells us the new might become the familiar. We’ve felt the joy of settling into an intimate conversation with a dear friend. We’ve heard the silence that foretells the end of a relationship, when nothing more could be said.
Conversation is key to making, and ending, connections. But how often have we stopped to ask what makes a conversation work?
What makes a conversation work
I’ve asked myself this question often in recent years. I’d arrive home after a coffee, a lunch, a dinner where conversation never took off, and wonder what went wrong. The culprits I’ve named so far: a dearth of questions, a lack of space, and incompatible humour.
Ask my partner, and he’ll tell you the kind of person who frustrates me the most is the one who doesn’t ask questions. I fervently believe that all conversation should be driven by questions, specifically questions about the other person. What is the point of having a conversation with someone if you’re not the least bit curious about them?
Conversations without questions end up being one-sided—one person dominates while the other disengages. I’ve yet to form a solid relationship with someone who never asks me questions. Invariably, I lose interest. And the other side was probably never interested in the first place.
The second necessary ingredient for a conversation to work, I find, is space. You’ve probably been in conversations where you have to start talking before the other finishes to get a word in, then half-way into your thoughts someone else cuts you off and you never get to finish your piece.
Conversation without space turns into a race of who can formulate their thoughts fastest and speak up first. It’s mentally exhausting. And if, like me, you’re not adept at cutting people off, you’re condemned to the role of the silent observer. And that makes for a frustrating conversation, if it could be called one at all.
Last but not least, humour. Many times I’ve come home from a meet-up I thoroughly didn’t enjoy, then realised I didn’t laugh once in the course of the hours-long conversation. A conversation can be replete with questions, filled with space to think and speak, yet remain lifeless.
You finish regaling the other person with a story that makes you laugh until you cry, and they stare blankly at you, still waiting for the punchline. Then they tell you a story they find hilarious, and you can only summon a weak chuckle. Nothing kills a conversation faster than incompatible humour.
What do you think?
There you have it: my three candidates for what makes a conversation work. Now it’s your turn to do the thinking.
What makes a conversation work?
Think back to all those times when you hit it off with someone, and when you didn’t. What’s different? Send a reply, leave a comment, share this with someone you’d like to have a conversation about this with.
Until next Friday… Stay thoughtful,
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
I can neither confirm nor deny that I wrote this tagline, and I’m not being coy. I might have written it when I refreshed the course, or copied it from an older version. The identity of this tagline’s author will forever remain shrouded in mystery.
Our philosophies and outlooks on life are very well aligned, which—as you might imagine—makes our working relationship a breeze.
I’m not quite sure what makes a conversation work for me. From my experiences, I will loose my appetite to continue the conversation when people cut others off before they end what they want to say. I don’t want to be in the conversation if one of the members do somethings that mean they don’t focus on the conversation e.g. talking the one next to them about nothing relates to the conversation. If I’m not speaking, I feel bad when see people doing that. If I’m speaking, I feel upset and don’t want to continue. I cannot handle these kind of thing, especially if it’s in the workplace, meeting time, or training time. 🤣🤣 It looks like I show my weakness in your newsletter, but this is my sincerity to speak out. Attention and respect are the keys to make a conversation work for me.