Do you know how to have a conversation? Surprisingly, a lot of people don’t.
I mean, we grow up talking to people every day, but still, there are many adults who never really progress beyond the conversational skill of a 3-year-old. Sure, their vocabulary increases and they’re more polite, but linguistics politeness aside, they are the same.
I heard a term the other day that describes how 3-year-old’s talk when in a group: they have a Collective Monologue. And you know what, a lot of adults do this as well.
What is a collective monologue?
A collective monologue describes the behaviour of everyone in the group talking expecting everyone else to listen. In short, they just wait until the other person is done so that they can make their speech. And while they are talking, everyone else is doing the same. No one is really listening. They’re just waiting to get to their own speech again.
Now, adults have more skill at this than children. They think they’re having a conversation because the monologues seem to flow. They learn not to speak too long, or else other people get left out. They half-listen so that they can find an opportunity to segue back into their own speech without the switch in monologues being too jarring. This is not being skilled at conversation. This is skill at collective monologue.
How to have a conversation
Having a conversation is really very simple.
Step 0: Open with pleasantries – It’s considered rude to just jump into a conversation. In order to make a polite entry, start with the usual “Hello”, “Hi”, “Good morning”, adjusting for time of day of course.
Step 1: Ask a question – Ask anything you like. It could be you entered this conversation for a reason, to get an answer to a specific question, or just because you want to renew a relationship. If you have a question you want to have answered, ask it. If not, ask something else. It typically doesn’t matter too much what you ask. It could be as simple as “How are you doing?”
Step 2: Listen to the answer – I mean really listen. Don’t just listen for an opportunity to show what you know, or listen because that’s what’s polite. Listen because you have an interest in what they are saying, or who they are.
Step 3: Answer their question – If they’ve asked a question after their response, then give them your answer. They asked, so we’ll assume they actually want to know.
Step 4: Ask another question – To hand the conversation back, ask them another question. Again, something you are interested in knowing, because, after all, you’re going to have to listen again.
That’s it. That’s how you have a conversation. Ask a question, listen, answer, ask a question in return. In this way, you can keep a conversation going where you are actually learning something about the topic in question, or about the person you are talking to. Ideally both. Depending on the relationship, your answers could be on any of the 5 levels of communication, and the higher the level of communication, the more intimate and relationship building the conversation.
So, are you a skilled conversationalist, or a skilled collective monologuer?
5 thoughts on “How to have a conversation”
It is true that often we listen only long enough to get an opening. Then we give our points, not really being interested in what the other says. (I should use the first person singular.)
I had to read this one a second time, for many of the same reasons you mention – that many of us have conversational skills not much better than polite-yet-preschool-ish. We don’t listen nearly enough. This is vitally important in every facet of life, from our sexuality to our witness to the political arena (I know, right? Ouch!).
I’ve been blessed with a wife who not only listens but hears what’s being said BEHIND the words that are being used. It’s really a powerful gift of discernment. I’m gratified that she frequently compliments me on being a good listener, but she also won’t hesitate to point out when I’m doing what you describe – waiting for the other person to finish in order to respond, rather than hearing what it is they’re really saying. It’s really nothing more than hypocrisy – and I’ve done it plenty of times. It’s something we can all get better at. If we want a better love life, we must. If we want a better witness, we must.
In the early years of our marriage we would sometimes have conversations that would go late into the night. I miss that, we’ve reached a point where we know each other so deeply that it’s hard to find questions to ask that we don’t already know the answer to. Mostly we talk about things that are recent events or things we’ve recently come across. Still, it’s nice to know and be known at that level.
I used to think this was the extent of conversations, however have recently gone through a “Crucial Conversations” workshop at work (from the Crucial Conversations book / vitalsmarts.com) realized I was sorely lacking in my conversation skills and also why conversations with my wife always seemed to go into this downward spiral.
Wow, what an eye opener. I still haven’t actually read the book yet, but know friends that are reading the book and have good things to say. The workshop had video clips showing the different examples of good and bad conversations which for myself was probably more powerful than just reading a book would have been.
The above is still a good reminder for just striking up polite conversations (especially for introverts that don’t like striking up conversation with others).
Oh, I agree, this is certainly now the end all and be all of conversation. Just how to start one ?