We constantly text, post, tweet, like, share, and comment. We spend hours every day communicating through our screens – but we seldom engage in deep face-to-face conversations anymore.
Science is not entirely sure of why that is the case. Partly, this might be due to the fact that digital conversations are much easier to have. We can instantly engage in a conversation, and just as easily walk out on a conversation by claiming that our battery is low.
There is nothing wrong with digital conversations. They can be great, and allow friends and family to stay connected wherever they are in the world. But they differ from the kind of conversation where we felt truly understood. The best kind of conversation that opens your mind, or tears at your heart.
Some people argue that this is the case because digital conversation is more about sending than receiving, or about talking then listening.
Paradoxically, in our age of constant communication, the raw material of conversation seems to have disappeared: listening.
Here are three small suggestions of how to have great conversations again.
You don’t have to nod your head or smile or say “hmm” constantly. You don’t have to “act” like you are listening, you just have to listen. Genuine, real listening is a rare commodity and a great gift, because you are giving to the person you are listening to your most valuable asset: your attention. And don’t be mistaken; it takes a lot of energy to actually pay attention to someone.
There is a technique called “active listening” which was devised by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson in 1957, and is all about letting the other person know that you are listening to what they are saying.
A good way to learn this technique is to observe how it is not done: try to remember if you’ve ever been in a conversation where the other person was not really listening to what you were saying. What did that person do that gave you this feeling? Do the opposite of what they did.
Resist talking (about yourself)
Here is a great trick that radio host Celeste Headlee put forward: don’t equate your experience with your friend’s. Say someone tells you about his troubled marriage, don’t start talking about the time you had a fight with your partner. If someone talks about feeling low, resist mentioning how you feel. If someone complains about his boss, don’t talk about your workplace. It is tempting, but useless.
Try to keep the focus on the other person by taking the conversation back to their story: “earlier, you said that…” Or try to lead the person away from the smooth surface to deeper levels: “how was it for you, when you…” Or encourage the person to keep talking by simply asking: “and what happened next?”.
Be a friend, not a judge
Resist the impulse of judging or commenting on something a person has just opened up about. And, especially, don’t give the other person advice – unless they specifically ask for it.
Giving advice is something most people love to do, because it gives us a good feeling. Of course, great advice can be helpful, but more often than not it will tell you more about the person handing it out than it will help the person receiving it.
Alain de Botton put it brilliantly, “The most romantic gift: to listen to another’s anxieties for one hour, without judgement or ‘solutions’, as an analyst might.”