What's the secret to talking?
Developing the art of talking in a meaningful conversation and how to mean what you say gracefully
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes struggle with keeping myself in check when I’m passionate about a topic. My enthusiasm can get the better of my listening skills. When we are engaging in a deep and meaningful conversation where you have a strong point of view, the key is learning to say what you have to say in a measured manner and to let the other person(s) speak without interruption. Model the behaviour you’d like the other to have with you. Balancing passion and patience is vital to a successful conversation. Remembering that it’s not about winning over but learning with the other.
To the extent you have a genuine intention to engage in a meaningful two-way conversation on a sensitive topic, it’s easy for the good intentions to evaporate as your passions get the best of you. To hold a meaningful conversation necessarily means you contribute; you have something to share. You can’t just be a fly on the wall, applying great listening skills the whole way through. To be sure, many people are more than capable of just talking your ear off and, if you sit back, they’ll motor on. Some will realize at the conversation’s end, more or less embarrassed, that it is only they who have spoken. This is not what I consider a meaningful conversation. It’s more like therapy for one (speaker) and practicing empathy for the other (listener). For sure, there is a dearth of listening going on and people are desperate to feel heard. That’s all well and dandy, but it’s not bringing the divisive world together. At the end of such one-way monologues, it’s not uncommon for the speaker to think that they really appreciate the other and that they feel connected (especially if the other person is listening actively). However, the listener may or may not feel the same intensity of bond. So, what are the things to think about when you’re wishing to talk in the process of crafting a meaningful conversation? Let’s look at some of the secret sauces that go into the recipe for transformative conversation.
Self-awareness is essential
Being self-aware is easier said than done, but it’s is an essential piece of the pie. The greater self-knowledge you have, the more likely you’re going to be a good steward in the conversation. Not only does it take work to delve into yourself in order to understand yourself better, but it’s also an ever-ending process that is rarely, if ever, complete. As Michele Nevarez said to me in a podcast I recorded with her earlier this year: “it takes more than a lifetime to get to know yourself.” Among other notions and questions to ask yourself, this will mean being aware of the size of your ego. How introspective are you truly? Are you more introverted or extroverted? When does or can that change? What topics are you most passionate about? What types of words or subjects will stimulate a reaction (negative or positive)? What types of personalities irritate you (and, by the way, how much do you see the same within yourself)? What are your three strongest values and how much do you pay attention to them? Do your beliefs and values allow for rigorous debate and admitting you might be wrong and/or have things to learn from others… especially with alternative viewpoints? Are your expectations open to different end results? Overall, what’s important to you? To the extent you are looking at this topic of meaningful conversation as an important goal for society at large, it makes sense to work on yourself first.
Expectations, openness and generosity
One of the keys to engaging in a meaningful conversation that becomes transformative is to avoid having an expectation. It’s better neither to expect depth nor anticipate the outcome. Instead you want to be open, not just to the other person’s ideas, but to the process. Creating a powerful conversation needs to be a two-way dance, where both people feel their way into it. As the exchange carries on, we’re always looking for signs and cues. Being courteous is a sine qua non. Being generous and gracious is the way to open the doors of perception, as Huxley would say.
Keeping the flow and to & fro’
It’s more than likely that you will hold some subjects more dearly than others. Despite being self-aware, your passion for a topic may lead you to get carried away. But that’s hardly a bad thing in itself. I think it’s a blessing to feel passionate about something. Yet, does one need to know deeply why you hold that subject so dear. In a world where feelings dominate and facts or context are often unclear, one of the key exercises is to work out why you are passionate about such and such a topic. What is it that personally connects you into it? With that self-knowledge, it becomes easier to keep a meta eye on one’s emotions, how we’re expressing oneself and how we’re allowing the other person to receive one’s enthusiasm. The more we are passionate, the more we need to lean in with patience and generosity of spirit to listen to the other side. Without this attitude – on both sides – it becomes difficult to avoid descending into a battle to ‘win’ the argument, rather than grow together.
A meaningful conversation has a flow and involves a fluid exchange, such that in the end, it’s a one plus one equals three.
Be the guardian of the Conversation
Engaging in a meaningful conversation where the two (or more) individuals don’t share the same point of view means that both people need to actively hold the space in which to have a fruitful dialogue. According to the context and the divide, it can be useful to pre-establish guidelines. But the more forced the guidelines are, there is always a risk of the exchange being too staid or of ‘breaking’ the rules. In either case, the power of the conversation will be constrained. I’m a fan of being a custodian or guardian of the conversation, which implies be responsible. When both parties are responsible, there is a much better chance that the conversation becomes richer. And if one person is monopolizing the flow, there should be a mutual respect where one can graciously allow the baton to switch hands. The most effective manner, when you find yourself being constantly talked at, is to start by raising your hand and saying that you need to reformulate what’s being said. According to the flow and time allowed, you will find the time to express yourself. And, conversely, if you find yourself talking too much (assuming you remain self-aware), then you should find a way to pause and ask the other person to weigh in. Asking questions, especially open ones, is a vital part of the to and fro.
The seven-minute rule?
Sometimes, meaningful conversations appear out of nowhere. It’s my observation that most conversations don’t convert in large part because of a lack of time, a lack of desire to listen/exchange and, to make it worse, a certain impatience, if not intolerance to other perspectives. Not everyone even wants to engage in a meaningful conversation, since it requires a certain attention and a commitment. In today’s smartphone-infused days, we’re only too quick to whip out the mobile and/or to switch off our attention. In Sherry Turkle’s book, Reclaiming Conversation, she recounts how a college student applied a seven-minute rule to her conversations, whereby she would wait seven minutes to see whether or not the discussion would turn into a more meaningful exchange. Specifically, she used this rule to refrain from looking at her phone during this “trial” period. I think it’s an interesting principle that intuitively makes sense, although I don’t believe there’s any science to back it up. In principle, you do need to allow the conversation to ramp up.
Time and context count
Reality is that it depends on many things to get to have a meaningful conversation, including of course who is participating. But there are two other phenomenally important elements: time and context. How much time do you have for the conversation? The more open-ended the amount of time, the more chances the conversation will develop. Rather than needing to “fit it in”, the parties have the time to listen, reflect and finish thoughts. The shorter the time and the more definitive the end, the harder it is to allow for the conversation to deepen and enter uncovered ground. Context is also important. For example, is the conversation happening in a noisy or crowded place, where listening is difficult, or others can overhear? What has happened immediately before the conversation to either party and/or what is expected in the immediate aftermath? An ideal situation is when there is no hard cut off in terms of timing and to hold the conversation in a space that is comfortable for both parties, where intimate thoughts can be shared. That doesn’t entirely preclude having meaningful conversations in front of an audience. I have attended several events where individuals engage in a powerful conversation out in the open. I include, for example, the moderated conversation between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson at the O2 in London, where some 8000 people were on hand to listen to them talk to and debate one another for over two hours. Since the majority of attendees were below 30 years old, it’s proof that attention spans and willingness to engage in meaningful debate is not dead.
Showing vulnerability early
When you willingly engage on a path toward meaningful conversation, it’s been my observation that showing vulnerability, especially early on, will often change the nature of the conversation. When I host my Empathy Circles, with 3 to 5 other individuals, I like to make it a point of principle in my introduction to open up with something personal. It might be to express my emotional state right before joining the call or it might be some personal – if not intimate – information that is relevant to the topic we’ve chosen to discuss. In my experience, what happens is that this initial vulnerability (whether by me or someone else) creates a space that invites others to do the same. I think of it like a karmic act in that, it’s neither explicit nor obligatory that others must follow. Showing your vulnerability exposes your imperfection. However, it doesn’t make you any weaker. In fact, it will enable the others to connect more strongly into you and opens the path for them to be vulnerable too.
While meditation may or may not be for you, breathing remains a tremendous tool in the heat of a deep conversation. If you sense your emotions rising, it’s useful to breathe into them. When you feel your heartbeat rising, you can help calm yourself by focusing on your breathing. When people are talking quickly, often they will forget to breathe normally, and the pitch of their voice will rise. Having a voice that is agreeable to listen to can’t be a bad thing. Granted not everyone’s voice is naturally melodic but having good breathing skills can be very useful.
Perspective, experience, stories, and facts
As one gets into the thick of a conversation, there are different facets that can help to make your point of view heard. If you provide context to your perspective and explain your experience and feelings, that can help the other person to understand you better. Telling stories that illustrate your point can be useful, and, when well told, create engagement. Finally, it’s important to use facts and refer to sources when you know them. Not that we should encourage resorting to Google and fact-checking in mid flow, but it’s good to use clean and verifiable sources. If they’re hearsay, we should avoid them. I myself was caught out recently quoting a civil servant who was telling me something about the law and, without verifying it, was quizzed by a smart friend on its veracity. When I finally went to check, I found no substantiation. Zero. I was embarrassed. No one is immune from mistakes, for sure. At other times, especially as you enter into new grounds in a conversation, you can find yourself sort of road-testing an idea or exploring how you wish to express it. Finally, in terms of semantics, it’s appropriate to avoid expressions that debase your credibility. Here are a few:
To tell you the truth…
In all seriousness…
But I’m sure you can come up with a variety more!?
Fair, firm and gracious
One of my mentors taught me that great leaders know how to be fair and firm. I think it’s a reasonable model for having meaningful conversation as well. The notion of fairness, in my understanding, is to have the generosity of spirit and time to listen, without immediate judgment. It means graciously accepting and recognizing when you may be wrong. It means being grateful when you have heard something interesting. When it comes to expressing yourself, to the extent you are clear about what you believe and how this is congruent with who you are, you can be firm in your position. That means holding your line, but not to the point of dogmatism or in an unrelenting manner. Only the stupidest of people never believe they can ever be wrong. There is research that demonstrates how smart people make stupid mistakes through a lack of common sense (BBC report source / Dr Travis Bradberry’s article, 8 Ways Smart People Act Stupid). There are also biases in higher education, among individuals and academics with masters and doctorate degrees, such as positivity bias, confirmation bias, and unconscious bias. But there’s also a self-righteous bias whereby the diplomas are thought to confer a higher power, where self-doubt and over-confidence come into play. No one is immune to error. And, just as the Model of Finitude (see here) suggests, we must embrace and accept our imperfections and learn from our mistakes. To the extent we continue to wish to learn and to be open to the opinions of others, we will improve. In so doing, we’ll create spaces and opportunities for building bridges and growing together.
Let’s get talking
When I refer to talking, you can be expressing or explaining your point of view. But, there’s also talking as part of active listening. As we’ll explore next, when it comes to listening, a good portion of your talking should come in the form of reformulating what you’re hearing. You should think of part of your role (and responsibility) as reflecting back to the other what you heard and understood about the other.
So, with this roadmap, are you ready to get talking more meaningfully? Have any of these ideas been useful or novel? I’d love to hear about other ideas on how to talk more graciously in the spirit of fostering more meaningful conversation.
When we are engaging in a deep and meaningful conversation where you have a strong point of view, the key is learning to say what you have to say in a measured manner and to let the other person(s) speak without interruption. Model the behaviour you’d like the other to have with you. Balancing passion and patience is vital to a successful conversation. Remembering that it’s not about winning over but learning with the other.
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Wonderful post. Can't wait for many more meaningful conversations and would cherish an evening to deepen the departures we've had so far. Are you passing by Bordeaux this year?