I’m a talker. So, working as a reporter for many years was a natural career choice for me. Soon enough though you learned that asking probing questions was only half the job. Ernest Hemingway described the second, more elusive requirement. “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
Indeed. There is an art to good communication.
The do’s and the don’ts, if you will, of successful verbal interactions.
I remember conducting an in-studio interview with a movie star once and did exactly what Hemingway accused so many of us of doing. I was only half-listening-rather than “listening completely”- to this actor’s responses as I prepared for the next question and ended up repeating myself.
“You already asked me that,” he chided. “Pay attention,” he ordered.
Our exchange was “live” and it was embarrassing. But we learn more from criticism than we do from flattery, I told myself and that helped to soothe the humiliation somewhat.
It is one of the most basic tenants of skillful conversation. Nonetheless, even after many decades of practice, many of us still can’t get it right.
A recurring behavior that challenges me is the widespread practice of interrupting a speaker simply because one is not observational enough.
“May I tell you the specials?” a hard working member of a restaurant waitstaff inquired once whilst I was just about to deliver a much anticipated punchline to a group of friends.
“Not this minute,” I said politely. “I am mid story,” I explained. Now, I am fully aware that it is his job to interact with customers but perhaps he could have just waited for a natural pause in the conversation before announcing that the stone crabs-priced insanely high at $85.00 a claw-were the special offering of the evening.
Something that an acquaintance of mine failed to do as she excitedly approached me and someone she didn’t know who was just revealing news about a traumatic loss in her life.
“Whatcha talking about?” the newcomer cheerfully inquired. How had she missed the tears in the woman’s eyes? The bowed heads? The somber mood? So then we were burdened with the unwanted responsibility of explaining to this stranger the woman’s sorrowful details really meant only for an intimate’s ears. Read the room, or the table, is all I am suggesting and gauge your launch into someone else’s conversation.
“Unwelcome interrupting” also happens in the most innocent of ways when an enthusiastic listener goes rogue, relinquishes their passive listening status in favor of hijacking your story by telling one of their own. All in good time, mate, okay?
“What have you been doing lately?” A person might ask. And thinking they actually wanted an answer to your question you might divulge that you had just returned from a SPACE X Mission to Mars.
“OMG, me too!” she might shriek enthusiastically before you can even get a second sentence out. Now ejected from your position as story teller to story listener she bangs on about the subject that you had actually introduced but am now prevented from exploring as her story clearly trumps yours. Involuntary admissions can be welcomed when well placed but your story is not there to simply provide a platform for hers. That is not an interesting verbal exchange. That is one upmanship.
I understand the kind of enthusiasm that conversation creates. But why ask a question if you actually don’t want to hear the answer?
I was recently chatting with the lovely boyfriend of a friend of mine when I embarked on a short story about a subject he had asked me about. I had barely uttered a few words when he gleefully interrupted with a tangential story of his own.
“I’m almost done,” I promised him before he could go any further, which I thought was a nifty way of letting me finish my story first but still communicating that I valued whatever he had to say as well. When we verbally cut someone off we are also communicating that whatever they have to say is simply not as interesting as what he or she has to say. To be fair, that may be the case sometimes, but it is still bad form. To his credit he burst out laughing and the conversation continued on quite smoothly with ample amounts of give and take.
DON’T EQUATE YOUR EXPERIENCES WITH OTHERS
“It’s not the same,” said Celeste Headlee, who wrote, 10 Ways to have a better conversation. “It is never the same. All experiences are individual. And, more importantly, it is not about you.”
Case in point, I had been listening to a family in mourning as they discussed the last days of their loved one’s life when a well meaning friend started talking about the illness of her -still living- relative. The mourners remarked later that although they understood the speaker was just trying to make a connection there was just no comparison between their dead family member and her sick, but still living one.
Headlee adds, “When someone feels vulnerable enough to share their feelings or experiences with you, be respectful of that. Just because your conversation partner is sharing their story doesn’t mean they want to hear about yours.”
INTERESTED EQUALS INTERESTING
A final note on conversational etiquette. Be interested and you will be interesting. I had a date once with a man who never asked a question. ALERT – he’s just not that into you. Surprisingly, after dinner he told me what a fabulous time he had had. That our conversation had been riveting and dynamic. “What conversation?” I thought. In the absence of any querying from him I had spent the entire evening virtually interviewing him. RED FLAG. If you walk away from a conversation where he knows no more about you than when you first met him you can be assured that he lacks curiosity or is simply disinterested. Or, at the very least, is self absorbed. Now, if the speaker is deliciously interesting, I don’t mind a monologue over a dialogue, but that is a rarity.
Effectively exchanging information is all about respect on a cellular level. It’s a skill. One that can be developed by exhibiting, in equal parts, the practice of listening, sharing and restraint.
Good conversation does have such rewards. It’s educational, for instance, as we learn from each other when we speak to each other. But, more importantly, conversation is the best form of free, rich entertainment available to all of us. Which was how the author Jane Austen saw it as well. “My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.” And Belgium songwriter Brian Molko goes one step further when describing the value of verbal exchanges when he said, “Good conversation turns me on. A connection between two people, a mental one first.” And only good things can come from that beginning.