“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
—Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
I was once praised by a mentor, a writer I admired, for my ability to draw out of people. The stories I turned in were full of colorful, insightful quotes and telling details.
In other words, people opened up to me.
But somewhere along the way, my conversation skills have fallen flat, and I have found myself more often than not in silence searching for topics of conversation.
I have a sneaking suspicion, though, I am not the only one who struggles with in-person or on-the-phone “real” conversation these days. With most of our time spent behind screens, there is time to craft the perfect response, to write the most Instagram-worthy caption for the most perfect picture that has been put through numerous edits and filters. But face-to-face conversation is just not as perfect.
There are silences, pauses, collections of thoughts.
There are nerves.
There is BEING TOO HARD ON YOURSELF.
A few weeks ago, I started praying for God (prayer should be the first tip!) to help me become more other-focused, more of that person I used to be in conversation, the type of person people opened up to, who was genuinely curious about others, who was good at asking questions and making people feel valued. And He is answering my prayers, step by step. Here are some things I’ve been learning.
- Be a “There you are!” not “Here I am!” person. Someone (I don’t know who) coined this popular tip, and I love it. And I’m going to be honest—I struggle with this sometimes. I have often found self-worth in my accomplishments, so I can find myself rattling off story after story of my own in an attempt not to brag but to be seen as worthy. My late father would share with you how often as a child I would pull on his arm for him to see what I did—“Look, Daddy, look. Look at what I DID!!!” Even today I find myself unintentionally “stealing the show,” so to speak. But just keeping the phrase “There you are!” in mind helps. The more you begin to approach each interaction with a “There you are!” attitude, the more rewarding they will become as people begin to open up to you like a flower to the light.
- Talk to yourself. Okay, wait, this is not as weird as it sounds! I’m putting this near the top of the list because a lot of times, it’s more nerves than anything else that causes us to flounder in conversations. Simply taking a deep breath and telling yourself to relax can do wonders. Breathe and remind yourself this is not a performance, just a conversation. Refocus your attention to breathing and listening to the other person. Doing this puts you back in the moment and takes the pressure off.
- Listen. Do you have a friend who is a good listener? Can we say what a GIFT this person is? In today’s noisy, selfie, me-me-me world, having someone take the time to truly listen to us is a gift. So yeah, maybe you don’t always know what to say, but you do know how to listen. And this makes a person feel valued. And truly listening without distraction—cell phones off or put away, the computer screen shut—naturally lends itself to questions regarding the topic at hand. Be curious about people. Seek to draw them out.
- Ask questions. Yes, actively listening to another can naturally bring up questions. But you can also come prepared. This is an especially great tip for early dating when you’re nervous or later dating (or marriage!) when you feel like you’re telling the same old stories. The other day I memorized three fun questions to ask when I went to a social event, and though I felt a little weird just throwing seemingly random questions into the mix, everyone around the campfire had fun with it! You can find lots of conversation starters by doing a quick Internet search, or you can buy a fun book of questions/conversation starters. The other day after dinner with my guy, I pulled out my question book. I was a little worried that he would think it unnatural or cheesy or sad even that our relationship had come to the point that we “needed” such a book: Couldn’t we just talk to one another? But I knew that the book was full of fun questions and that we’d learn a lot of new stuff about one another. So I pulled it out, and to my surprise, J. took more turns picking out questions to ask than I did!
- Hang out with others. It’s amazing what you learn about your partner when you add other people into the mix: family, friends, other couples. Conversations are richer and more varied, and I guarantee you will learn new things about your person. We are not meant to do life alone, and having community around our relationship not only enriches conversation but helps relationships stay healthy too (accountability, for instance).
These are just some general tips; maybe in a future post I’ll share some fun questions.
Have a wonderful week!!!
“When we fear what other people think about us, we are frequently more focused on ‘being interesting’ and less focused on ‘taking an interest.’ That’s why many people talk a great deal when they are anxious and why many people never feel heard. If both people and conversation are trying to be interesting, there is no one left to genuinely listen.”