10 Ways To Have Stimulating Conversation, According To A Professional Interviewer

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After reading one of my favorite books The Most Human Human (which I highly recommend), I learned that there are two types of conversations:

  • Zero-sum conversations — Where one of the parties has to lose something for the other to gain something. Simply put — an argument. They have by definition a win-lose dynamic.
  • Non-zero-sum conversations — Where both parties stand to gain pleasure from the conversation. For instance any conversations with friends, partners, etc. that’s not an argument. These are win-win by nature.

And if Stephen Covey and Harvey Specter have taught us anything, it’s to always think win-win. It’s what effective people do. However, we’ve trained excessively for zero-sum conversations and not nearly as much for non-zero-sum conversations.

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Think about the high school debates you took part in. Or the political, noisy debates you’ve seen on the news where they speak with the only intent to destroy their opponents. Or, think about all the practice you’ve had arguing over silly things in bars and cafes.

Add to that our egoistic nature that has the power to turn every conversation into an argument the second we face even a slightly different opinion.

But life is not about arguments. It’s about non-zero-sum conversations with friends and family that enrich our souls. Have we trained nearly as much for those? My guess is no. Because of that, we’re growing further apart and depriving ourselves of the pleasure of having good conversations. 

Pew Research did a study of 10,000 Americans and found that at this moment, we are more polarised, more divided than ever.

But good conversations are everything! They’re literally why we live besides survival. We live to connect. We live to bond. We live to love. Suffice it to say, we need to learn how to have better conversations.

In this article, I want to discuss 10 ways you can have better conversations as shared by Celeste Headlee in her famous TED talk, featured in the video above. Celeste is a radio host. She talks to all kinds of people ranging from Noble prize winners to plumbers and truck drivers. It’s safe to assume she knows what it takes to have enriching conversations. Excited? Let's dive in!

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Here are 10 ways to have better conversation, according to a professional interviewer:

1. Don’t multitask

How often have you seen two people sitting in a cafe, both of them staring at their phones when in fact they should be talking to each other? Or have you ever entered a conversation where the other person is speaking and yet, you’re thinking about your argument with your boss?

We’ve all been there. We’ve all half-assed our way through several conversations.

But Celeste says that we shouldn’t be half in and half out. If at the moment we’re not able to be 100% in a conversation, she suggests that we should get out of it.

2. Don’t pontificate

"If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth, write a blog." 

She says that we shouldn't enter conversations with fixed mindsets. Instead, every conversation must be seen as an opportunity to learn something.

The famous therapist M. Scott Peck says that "True listening requires a setting aside of oneself." Hence, for the time being, suspend your personal opinions. Open up your inner recesses and allow other perspectives to enter within.

3. Use the correct questions

Celeste has a simple rule. If you ask simple questions, you get complex answers. If you ask complex questions, you get simple answers. Thus preserving the balance and preventing the earth from exploding.

Q: Were you afraid? (complex question)
A: Yes. (simple answer)

Q: How did you feel? (simple question)
A: I felt afraid; choked up. I didn’t know what to think or do. The world felt like it had stopped.

Simply put, avoid asking yes/no type of questions. Don’t assume their feelings. Let them describe it. Using open-ended questions brings more depth to the conversations. Start your questions with — who, what, where, when, and how.

4. Go with the flow

When we listen, our minds don’t stop working. Stories and ideas keep coming to our minds. And we’re determined to share them once the person in front of us stops speaking.

Which is why we often try to hold that story in while the other person is still speaking. This leads to us being poor listeners.

As the other person is speaking, we suddenly remember how we once saw Christian Bale at the airport. Since it’s a story worth sharing, we stop listening and focus on not letting our story go.

However, according to Celeste, it’s a big mistake. She says — "Stories and ideas are going to come to you, you need to let them come and go."

5. Show intellectual humility

We tend to find opportunities to show how knowledgeable we are. We’re afraid of saying "I don’t know" as if that makes us look stupid.

However, as David Burkus states in an article on Psychology Today, saying "I don’t know" conveys intellectual curiosity and intellectual humility.

I like to take it one step further and I try to say I don’t know even when I know. I have two reasons for this.

  • First — when a person begins to share something, they do so with excitement. And having told the other person something they didn’t know, feels nice. If I interrupt with an "I know," it kills their excitement. And that anticlimax is disappointing and uncomfortable. So, my suggestion is to say "I don’t know," even when you know, and let the other person have their moment.
  • Second — when a person begins to share something that I know, there’s a possibility that they might later add something that I didn’t know after all! And again, if I hit the brake with an "I know," I deprive myself of knowing something new.

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6. Resist equating

Again, it comes to letting people have their moments. If someone is talking about having lost a loved one, don’t start talking about the time you lost a family member. If they’re telling you how they feel lost in life, don’t start talking about how you feel the same.

It’s okay to let the other person know that they’re not alone. However, there’s a thin line between doing that and pushing them out of the spotlight altogether to talk about yourself. 

Celeste says — "All experiences are individual." Hence, we must be careful as to not equate our experiences with theirs.

7. Don’t be a broken record

My father has an annoying habit of repeating the same thing again and again. It’s really irritating. I’m like, "Yes, Dad, I heard you the first time." 

However, much to my surprise, one of my friends once told me that I too, keep repeating things over and over again.

There it was. The blind spot. I was doing the same thing that annoyed me.

Celeste says that we often tend to keep repeating things over and over again when we have an important point to convey. Parents do it with their kids. Bosses do it with their employees.

Yet, obviously, it’s very boring and condescending at the same time. Hence, if you sometimes act like a broken record, and worse, if like me, this annoying habit lies in your blind spot, try to be more aware and resist doing so.

8. Stay out of the weeds

"Uhmmm… let me recollect. It was 2017, I think. No wait. When was the Rio Olympics? No wait! Let me check my Whatsapp chats."

Rest assured, the person in front has lost interest in your story.

The point is, people, don’t care about the stupid details. They don’t care about the names of people they don’t know. They don’t care about the date. You don’t have to strain your brain to come up with these details. People can do without those.

They don’t care about stupid details. What they care about is you. They want to know what happened. They want to know how you felt. They want to know what you did. Hence, forget the stupid details. Leave them out.

9. Listen in the only manner you truly can

You may have heard a lot of tips to be a better listener: "Nod. Look into their eyes. Ask questions. Smile." 

Celeste says. "I want you to forget all of that. It’s all crap. There’s no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention, if you are in fact, paying attention."

There are two reasons we don’t listen:

  • First — we’d rather talk because then, we’re the center of attention. We are in control and we like it.
  • Second — we get distracted. The average person can speak at 125 words per minute but can process up to 800 words per minute. Hence, that gap is filled by our minds.

Listening, even though being a passive action, takes effort and energy. But if we can’t do that — as Celeste puts it — "You’re not in a conversation. You’re just two people shouting out barely related sentences in the same place." 

So forget about learning how to show you’re paying attention, and simply pay attention. The rest will take care of itself.

10. Be brief

We now have shorter attention spans than goldfish. However, if you did get to this point in the article, I’m sure your attention span is greater than that.

Either way, our attention spans have been dwarfed and you cannot expect people to listen to your stories if they’re excessively long. And in the interest of keeping it brief, I’ll sum up this point with a hilarious quote by Celeste’s sister —

"A good conversation is like a mini-skirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject."

Conversations are literally everything. Even if you have all the money and fame in the world, if you don’t know how to have good conversations, you won’t have meaningful relationships. And isn’t life without good relationships nothing but a hollow box — it may be pretty on the outside but is empty on the inside.

Hence, work on your conversation skills. Here’s a recap of 10 ways to do so:

  • Don’t multitask. Be 100% present.
  • Don’t pontificate. Enter conversations assuming you have something to learn.
  • Use open-ended questions. Let the person tell you what they want to do instead of guessing it for them.
  • Go with the flow. Ideas and stories will come to you. Let them come and let them go.
  • Be intellectually humble. Say I don’t know as much as you can.
  • Don’t equate your experiences to theirs. It’s not the same.
  • Don’t keep repeating yourself like a broken record.
  • Don’t strain your brain to recollect stupid details that no one cares about in the first place.
  • Forget about the tricks you’ve been told to show you’re paying attention. Simply pay attention and you won’t need to show it.
  • Nothing kills a good story like an excessive length. Be brief. Respect the goldfish-like attention spans of humanity.

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Akshad Singi, M.D. has been published in Better Humans, Mind Cafe, and more.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.