How to have good conversations
“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.” – William Hazlitt
Conversation should be fun.
One of the very best rules of conversation is to never, say anything which any of the company wish had been left unsaid. – Jonathan Swift
Conversation is supposed to be an opportunity to meet someone new, bond over shared interests – feel the spark of connection. It’s supposed to feel natural and flowing, where the right thing to say comes effortlessly. It’s supposed to be anxiety free, where you can focus on connecting with the other person instead of worrying about how you’re coming across. Unfortunately, for many people, conversation isn’t much fun.
Maybe that includes you. Maybe you feel anxious and stressed during conversations that others seem to enjoy. Maybe your conversations tend to sputter out prematurely, and you’re not sure how to keep them going. Or maybe you want more meaningful connections with others, but you’re not sure how to take your conversations beyond small talk and into that deeper level.
The secret of conversation flow
Never talk for half a minute without pausing and giving others a chance to join in. – Sydney Smith
Sometimes, conversation flow seems to happen automatically. You and your conversation partner hit it off, and the conversation feels really smooth and comfortable. That’s great when it happens, but what do you do when conversations don’t flow?
That’s where the principle of invitation and inspiration comes in. Invitation and inspiration are the key ingredients of smooth, comfortable conversation.
An invitation is when you say something that explicitly lets your partner know it is their turn to speak.
An inspiration is when you say something that makes your partner want to speak unbidden.
Invitation: How to ask good questions
One of your primary tools for helping conversations flow is the idea of invitation. An invitation is something you say that:
- communicates very clearly that it is now your partner’s turn to talk
- gives a strong suggestion for what your partner should talk about.
For instance, “What did you do today?” is an invitation. It’s obvious that you are inviting your partner to speak, and you are giving a clear idea for what they should talk about (their day!). Not all questions are good invitations. For a question to be a good invitation, it needs to it also needs to be open-ended.
By “open-ended question”, I mean an invitation that allows your partner to talk at length, instead of being limited to a short answer. When you ask a closed-ended question like “Did you have a good weekend?” your partner will likely answer “Yes” or “No.” Since you’re looking for smooth, flowing conversation, a one-word response is not ideal.
But if you ask the same question in an open-ended way, you will give your partner a much better invitation. When you ask “What did you do this weekend?”, your partner is free to tell you the full story of their weekend. You’re still asking about their weekend, but you’re asking it in a way that invites them to share.
When you invite your partner to share in this way, something powerful happens. Not only does inviting your partner to share help the conversation to flow, but it also gives you an opportunity to show your partner that you are interested in them.
When you ask your partner insightful questions about themselves, it tells them that you want to get to know them better.
Inspiration – the heartbeat of good conversation.
When conversations flow smoothly, people feel comfortable sharing even without an invitation. They’ll chime in whenever they have something they want to share and feel encouraged to share it.
This means that in order to create conversational flow, you should:
- Make your partner comfortable
- Inspire your partner to want to share
Making your partner comfortable is pretty straightforward. Be friendly, pay attention to their body language, and give good invitations so they know you really want to know them better.
When you and your partner inspire each other to share, the conversation flows smoothly and you feel closer one to one another
In a nutshell, you inspire me when something that you share makes me want to share something, too. Notice the word “want” in that definition. Inspiration does not make your partner feel obligated to share. It makes them want to share. When you inspire your partner, you create a welcoming space where they are encouraged to share but not required to. Inspiration also gives your partner much more freedom in how they respond. When you weave inspiration into your conversations, you can free yourself from the responsibility of knowing what to say next.
Inspiration in Practice
It’s simple and easy to apply inspiration in your conversations. When you want to inspire your partner, be deliberate to share something that might inspire them to share their curiosity, their thoughts, or their story. To inspire your partner to share their curiosity, share something they want to know more about. Use your knowledge of the other person to guide you as you craft great inspirations. When you share your thoughts, it encourages your partner to share their own. Thoughts can be your opinions, your speculations, or a topic that you’re curious about.
Inspire Them To Share Their Story. The best way to inspire your partner to share their story is to share your own story. Tell them about your years in high school, and they will probably answer with a story from their school days.
Invitation And Inspiration In Harmony
Great conversations need both invitation and inspiration. A conversation based entirely around invitations can sound like an interview: nothing but questions and answers. And conversations based entirely around inspirations are hard to do, because what happens when you attempt to inspire your partner and they don’t respond?
If you could move smoothly between invitation and inspiration, it would be ideal. Invitations add guidance and structure to a conversation, and inspirations add intimacy and flexibility.
This means you should start conversations with mostly invitations, and use more inspirations as the conversation progresses. If you find the person is not responding to your inspirations, or the conversation has an awkward pause, then return to using more invitations until the conversation is moving again.
You should use invitations more frequently:
- When the conversation begins
- When you don’t know the other person very well
- When your partner doesn’t seem to know what to say next.
And you should use inspiration more frequently:
- After your partner has shared something personal with you
- After your partner has asked you a personal question
- After you’ve gotten to know your partner better.
You want to start conversations with mostly invitations and then move to mostly inspirations, because this starts with the focus on your partner, not on you.
If you begin your conversation with inspirations, then you’re putting the focus first on you. You haven’t given your partner any reason to believe that you care about their thoughts, so they’re unlikely to respond to your inspiration. Plus, because you’ve only talked about yourself, your partner might assume that you are self-centered—an outcome best avoided.
But when you start with invitations, the focus is clearly on your partner. Your questions reassure your partner that you are interested in them and want to hear their thoughts, so your partner will feel comfortable chiming in when you eventually give them an inspiration.