Friday, November 27, 2015

The Lost Art of Conversation

One of the best compliments I ever got was from my friend Jason Harrold.  He said “You really know how to TALK to people.”  

I was surprised to hear that. I’ve always been pathologically shy and I consider myself to be the archbishop of social awkwardness, but after that, I started hearing the same compliment from other people in my life.  I certainly don’t think I’m an expert in the art of conversation but, just in case it might be helpful, I figured I’d share some of the things I do when I talk to people.  


One of the main things modern culture is sorely lacking is a feeling of connection between human beings.   I don’t think it’s because of computers and cell phones.  I think the reason we feel awkward or bored, and we then turn to computers and cell phones, is because we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other.  Everyone is too busy, or too distracted by their own problems, or too socially fearful, to connect. 

My goal when I speak to anyone, whether it’s a coworker or a stranger or a homeless person, is to find a way of connecting with that person.  I try to find something we have in common.  I ask them how they are doing or feeling.  I try to put myself in their shoes and empathize with any feelings they might express.  My profound, petrifying shyness used to prevent me from looking into people’s eyes but I found that when I really force myself to do it, a much stronger and more trusting connection occurs.  I also find that if I can make someone laugh, the connection grows stronger.


I used to think it was rude to ask people questions about themselves but my intense curiosity got the better of me and I started to ask “Where are you from?” “What do you do for a living?” and “Do you enjoy your job?”  Those three questions have been the gateway to some of the most fascinating exchanges I’ve ever had.  People love to talk about themselves, and in today’s society they are rarely given the chance.  How many people do you work with every day, that you have no idea where they were born?  How many people do you know, but you don’t know whether they’re married or single, whether their parents immigrated from another country, or whether they have children?  I am absolutely fascinated by people’s stories.  The success of the “Humans of New York” series on Facebook leads me to believe that most people are also fascinated by the stories behind the faces of people they see.  Why are we reluctant to ask people for their stories?  Our stories are one of the deepest ways in which we connect, because in our stories we see what is beyond the surface.   We also recognize parts of other people’s stories in our own lives, and that deepens our connection.


I try very, very hard to never interrupt anyone who is speaking to me.  Sometimes this means that I get an earful from an overzealous talkaholic, but most of the time it means that I am appreciated for being a good listener.   The majority of people I’ve spoken to in my life feel that nobody really listens to them.  They try to express themselves and tell their stories, and nobody cares.  No wonder everybody feels so lonely these days.  They have nobody to talk to.  People go to work and talk about superficial things in very short bursts.  Nobody wants to hear about their feelings or their struggles.  Nobody has time.  Luckily I’m curious.  I collect stories and I am fascinated by psychology and spirituality.  Everybody has an amazing story to tell.


I’m not an expert at this one.  Sometimes I find myself going over my 30-second limit when telling a story or expressing a point.  Sometimes I find myself countering an interesting fact that someone has told me by trying to top it or compare it with something I did, instead of asking the person to tell me more about their experience.  When I’m being aware, though, I put the focus on the person I’m talking to.  This is not a completely altruistic act.  It helps them feel good, yes, but it also takes the pressure off me to be entertaining and come up with something to say.  If someone asks me about myself I’ll gladly contribute, but my main focus is in learning about the person I’m speaking to.


When I was managing people in the business world I tried very hard to never just walk up to someone and say “I need you to do this, this and this NOW.” and then just walk away.  I always tried to structure the request by first asking “Do you have time to do this, this and this by this deadline?” and I always tried to empathize with them by saying something like “Yes, I know it’s insane, and I think the client is a total jerk, but we have to do it.  Is there anything I can do to help make this happen?”  or “If you can’t do it with the workload you have, I can get somebody else to do it.”  I always tried to imagine how I’d feel if I was really busy and somebody dumped this request on me.  Some people called me a wimp or overly codependent for phrasing requests this way, but at the end of the day I felt better about myself than I would have if I’d been more aggressive.  There have been times in my life when I was so stressed or annoyed that I just blurted things out and didn’t take someone’s feelings into account, and I always regretted it.  I try to treat people like human beings, and not like annoyances or servants.  

Here are some things I do NOT do when I talk to people:


There is a time and a place for scholarly debate, and an everyday conversation is not that time.  Nobody cares how cleverly I can argue a political or religious point.  Nobody wants me to teach them or convert them.  Arguing with people and trying to filibuster them into believing the same way I believe is a losing game.  Nobody is going to think I’m just soooooooo smart if I argue with them.  They’re going to think I’m a jerk.


Correction, like debating, assumes a level of familiarity that is usually not present.  I can correct or disagree with people I know very, very well and whom I trust.  Everybody else can yammer away with all kinds of inaccuracy and I will not correct them.  It’s not my job.  I can politely listen to someone who says “supposably” all day because I want to connect with that person and I can’t connect if I turn into a scolding, condescending jerk.


You know these people.  They’re the ones that if you say “Hey the sky is so blue today!” they’ll say “Well actually it’s not.  It’s got a little bit of gray in it so it’s not blue, it’s gray.”  Some people just love to flip every statement around so that they look like the truth-teller, the dispenser of the wisdom of the ages.  These people wonder why nobody ever wants to talk to them.  It’s because they are jerks.


In everyday conversations in which I’m trying to connect with people, I assume that they know nothing about me.  They might go off about how all southerners are redneck idiots because they don’t know I’m from the south.  I don’t get all puffed up and indignant and erupt with  “Well I take great offense at that!!! I am a SOUTHERNER!!!!”  I figure if I’m never going to see them again, nobody’s the wiser and if I am going to see them again, they’ll eventually find out I’m southern and they can be mortified in private. I do not wish to witness their mortification.  Life’s too short.  Nobody’s going to change their beliefs because of my offended outrage.  They’ll only think I’m a jerk.


Some people, when they are interrupted by some poor conversationalist who is trying meekly and desperately to get a word in edgewise, just get louder and LOUDer and LOUDER and talk right over that person.  I am not one of those people.  If I try to say something and you keep talking over me, I will shut up. You will be allowed to have a long, loud, uninterrupted soliloquy until you wear yourself out, and I will think YOU are a jerk.

So - those are the things I try to do/not do in order to make connections.  I’m not perfect at it, but unlike most modern humans I do not feel a lack of connection in my life.  I experience a lot of deep and meaningful connections with other people and these connections give me strength.  They remind me that we are all connected, and that our little tiny, everyday, seemingly fleeting conversations are the building blocks of our life together.

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