Great conversations are at the heart of great relationships (see my last post on that). Improve your conversations and improve your relationships.
And great conversations are a lot like playing friendly volleyball. I’ve been watching the 2012 Summer Olympics and I just saw indoor and beach volleyball. Those competitive teams are trying to stump the other team–spike the ball so it can’t be returned–that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking more about a game of trying to keep the ball up in the air as long as possible. I’m talking about the ball going back and forth in a smooth creative volleys, maybe for hours.
With that metaphor in mind, here are the 5 elements of a great conversation:
- Ask Back
This first step is probably the most crucial–and probably the most overlooked. The single most powerful thing most people could do to improve their conversations is to ask more and better questions.
It’s not about you. Stephen Covey said (in his amazing book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” You earn the right to share your thoughts by first asking for the thoughts of the other person.
Remember our friendly volleyball metaphor? If you want them to stay on the court with you (stay in the conversation) you have to hit the ball to them. If you’re just going to hit it up and down yourself, they’re probably not going to stay any longer to watch your solo show than they have to.
Want to talk about something–don’t just share your thoughts. Begin by asking them about it. And then…
I don’t just mean allow them to say words, while waiting for your chance to say what you want. I don’t mean think about what you’re going to say, or look for an opening. I mean really listen. Care about what they’re saying.
Curiosity is the key to being able to really listen. You have to actually want to know. You have to care enough about the other person to really listen. That probably means you’ll end up asking more questions as they start talking–you’ll be curious to hear more about what they’re saying. And then…
Don’t just collect their information. Make the other person feel safe and appreciated. Let them know you still think well of them. Even in the most stable of relationships, like marriage or lifelong best friends, people still want regular reminders that they are valued and understood.
To refer to Covey again, the goal is not merely to understand, but to make them feel understood. You want them to share more? Then encourage them for what they have already shared.
You can disagree with them–this doesn’t mean you have to be fake. That will ruin the relationship in the long term. You can disagree with their content while enjoying them as a person and encouraging their honesty. Then, it’s their turn to…
There are many people who don’t get this part of the conversation. Are you one of them?
If someone’s asked you something, after answering you should ask them back. Every time. Maybe the question needs to be rephrased, if it was specifically about your life (i.e. they ask about your kids and they don’t have any kids). But you can find a way to ask something similar back (i.e. ask them about their dating life or their weekend activities). Always ask something back.
It’s like volleyball again–you’ve got to hit the ball back over if you want to keep the game going.
And when it’s your turn, you need to…
This might sounds obvious to say, but I know more than one highly intelligent, highly trained conversationalist who does such a great job asking other people great questions–listening and encouraging all the while–and who rarely reveals much about themselves.
You could take the first part of this post to heart and become the best question-asker in the world. You could listen and encourage so that others feel so understood and valued. But if you don’t share about your life you will stunt all your relationships.
It would be like blocking every attempt to pass the ball over the net, in our volleyball metaphor, keeping the ball on their side of the net every time. Keeping the ball (the focus of the conversation) on either side of the net makes for a poor conversation (and a weak relationship).
Besides, the most powerful thing you could to make someone feel safe opening up to you is to take the risk first and reveal your thoughts and feelings. You need to be brave (and secure) enough to truly share what’s going on in your mind and heart and life if you want a great relationship.
And then, after sharing, you start the cycle again and ask them something else. Keep the ball going back and forth–with a few hits on each side and then sending to the other side for a few hits. Back and forth, mixing up the hits, but never keeping the ball on one side or the other.
Rate yourself 1-5 (with 5 as habitually awesome) on each area (Ask, Listen, Encourage, Ask Back, Share).
What’s your best area?
What’s your weakest area?
What one thing will you try differently in your next conversation?