When you fall into a man's conversation, the first thing you should consider is, whether he has a greater inclination to hear you, or that you should hear him.
—Sir Richard Steele (The Spectator, no. 49)
In conversation, are you just waiting for your turn to talk? Or are you paying undivided attention by listening without interrupting? Do you allow your cell phone to interrupt your conversations, thereby trying to have two conversations at once, both in person and on the phone?
By looking too disinterested in your audience or turning your attention away from the dialogue, you risk offending or losing an audience of any size from one to one thousand. Attention and engagement, more than content, set the tone of a conversation. Paying undivided attention is not about talking, it's about listening without interrupting to talk about yourself.
When you ask a question, make sure it's something you really want to know.
Of President Bill Clinton, it's often been said that "he makes you feel as though you are the only person in the room." He does that with eye contact and a total focus on what you are saying.
Too often, we don't have the courage to "just say no" to a conversation we don't have time for or interest in. So, we are half-listening or just waiting for our turn to talk. That's not fair to others or even ourselves.
In order to be authentic, make sure that every conversation you engage in has some value for you. If it isn't obvious, look for it. Perhaps you are learning something or taking the next step in a process or being a sounding board for another person. Just make sure that you make the choice to spend this time in this way and then commit yourself to it, totally.
Every conversation has a process, which begins with an attention-getter or greeting. In a phone call, it can be a "hello" or simply saying the recipient's name in a voice that's recognizable as you. Then there's the courtship where you establish the relationship that will build the comfort to continue. Here is where you clarify the value for the audience to (1) speak about himself, his ideas, experiences, problems or (2) learn something of value from you. Asking whether this is a convenient time before you launch into your agenda is polite but can be counterproductive by stopping the conversation before you've had an opportunity to show value to the one you've called. Listen carefully to the voice on the other end, though. You'll know soon enough whether you have chosen the wrong time. The rapport-building can range from a "How are you?" to an inquiry into a recent event or it may only be a half sentence to bring the recipient up to speed.
Bridging to the point of the contact happens in the middle quickly or eventually, depending on the context and the time available. Establishing rapport takes intention, a plan, patience, and follow-through to accomplish, but it is building the groundwork for this and future conversations. More of this so-called small talk is required when the speakers are strangers trying to find common ground. But reestablish it as much as necessary every time, even when you know the person well, because situations, moods, and facts may have changed since the last time you spoke.
In the art of conversation, the listener is in the power position. It's not just words that command attention.
It's facial expression, body language, gestures, reactions — all the currency of paying attention. The most important thing in any conversation is that each participant knows that she or he is being heard. Listening communicates value to the speaker.
As in the film My Dinner With Andre, the listener can do more to direct the conversation than even the speaker. Because, as Roger Ebert points out in the Chicago Sun-Times (1999), what the film exploits is the well-known ability of the mind to picture a story as it is being told. As the listener, encourage the speaker with a smile, body language, and intelligent questions. Compliment other people in your conversation to avoid seeming critical or putting anyone on the defensive.
Speaking before an audience of any size is really having simultaneous one-on-one conversations. It's a very efficient way to communicate.
Conversations must be a friendly version of an argument. Otherwise, they are just baby pictures on an airplane. If you are just waiting your turn to speak about your pictures, it is two interspersed monologues. Each participant must be willing not only to share what's familiar to them, but to break new ground.
Take the opportunity to explore things you have never considered or felt before. It's an opportunity to stretch. The response will be a mystery. Within that uncertainty lies possibility... something thought about but not yet discussed. Dreamed about but not yet realized.
A really good conversation can be the first step in realizing something entirely new in your life. Tell your new experiences to others in exciting ways. My jumping off place is that I don't know something, yet.
Conversation provides a way to learn from each other. All too often, parents, bosses, and teachers conduct monologues and lectures rather than assigning value to the perspective of an offspring, employee, or student and benefiting from it.
The biggest block to a conversation and hearing what the other person is saying is "Yes, but." Instead, try, "Yes, and."
Here are some other rules to enhance the communication of your next conversation:
The best conversations seem to be ones where we don't debate or strive to impress, but are open to learning and pursuing mutual problem-solving. A problem to solve is better than a complaint over a chronic condition of life.