How to make more meaningful conversation.
Small talk, big talk and everything in between. Whether you’re a blabbermouth or a more succinct speaker, we could all be having a better conversation. Having more productive and meaningful conversations doesn’t mean having to discuss space, life and the universe at every opportunity, but instead changing some of our approaches and habits. Benefitting not only the way we communicate but what we take away from social interactions.
Before looking at the ways of finding meaningful conversation, let’s define what we mean when we say meaningful in this instance. The term is somewhat flexible to what kind of conversation you are having, and who it is with. In the broadest sense, a meaningful conversation strays away from small and empty talk. Topics and ideas that are bland and uncontroversial, made to fill time, uphold etiquette and establish a basic rapport between acquaintances. A meaningful conversation has something to say, it establishes a mutual interest between parties, or upholds a function.
In the professional world, this may be a contest of control, wits or bartering. Whereas in a more personal setting it could be the pursuit of an interesting topic, a learning experience between two people that can help them gain a better understanding of each other’s views and personalities, as well as offering an insight into their own. Meaningful conversation doesn’t have to be tied to the grand and complex, it can be varied and wide-ranging. Perhaps a simple defining factor of a meaningful conversation, is that during one you find yourself having a conversation, rather than looking for one. With more and more of our interactions moving into electronic spaces, it’s been shown time and time again that having meaningful conversations in the real world is paramount to a healthy mind and a productive life.
So how do we go about having them?
An obvious place to start is in recognising that a conversation is two sided. Obvious indeed, but it can be easy to overfocus on your own contribution. Speaking at the expense of listening. Good conversation is about an exchange, a back and forth, and it’s important to be flexible and reactive. It isn’t about two or more people delivering speeches to one another, it’s about finding shared meaning in language and ideas. Even in the professional world, wherein conversation focuses more around asserting influence and extracting value from another party, sticking to a rigid, preparatory style of speaking is not the way to influence people.
When important things need to be said, when you need to put a thought or feeling that you’ve been stewing on for a while into words, it can be tempting to prepare your speech in detail. However, a speech can easily become a screed. Listening to the way people speak can help you understand them better, and work out the most efficient way of conveying your own perspective to them. It’s less about contorting your viewpoint to suit their perspective and more about tailoring your delivery to their understanding. Be curious, and listen.
If you want to talk about something in particular or convince someone of something, it’s better to aim for an overall direction for the conversation rather than a point by point preparation. Even outside of the stresses and needs of professional life, it’s easy to fall into this trap. When talking to people we care about, about something we care about, excitement can leave us tripping over ourselves. Delivering thought after thought, and not really caring for the reaction but instead relishing in the act of telling. This is fine from time to time, but it lessens our connection to individuals. Don’t queue your thoughts, let the conversation flow.
That being said it's still possible to have a productive one-sided conversation. If someone wants to talk and express themselves and needs someone to listen, that’s okay. That’s healthy. Even still, as a listener you play a pivotal role. Ask questions that reflect your interest and attention. Don’t just nod and smile, listen and follow the lines of someone’s argument or thought. Ask intriguing questions, not just to sate your own curiosity but also to guide the speaker into examining their thoughts. It will help them to better express themselves.
To improve the content of our conversations it’s also important to look at character, that of ourselves and those we speak to. You can learn a lot from the way people talk rather than just what they talk about. Oddly enough, Quentin Tarantino can be a great teacher on this. The ways in which he writes dialogue emphasise form, and establishes character through the quirks of their conversation and how they approach seemingly inane subject matter. Pulp Fiction’s most defining scenes are characters talking about McDonalds and foot massages. It’s not the topic but the tone that defines these interactions. Keep an ear to how people speak and let that inform your interaction just as what they are saying does. With longtime friends and colleagues, it’s also important to compare the minor and the major. How are they talking to you today? How do they usually talk? If you’re more perceptive to people’s moods, you’ll have access to more avenues of conversation with them.
As with Tarantino and his royales with cheese, a topic doesn’t have to be profound or complex to be insightful. Meaningful conversation doesn’t have to focus on ‘deep’ subject matter. In fact, it can be its undoing. Asking someone ‘what do you think about life’ is a shallow way to get to the core of someone’s views of the world. I may be sounding like a parrot here, repeating my previous points, but I think it deserves consolidation. Our approaches to meaningful conversation don’t have to revolve around lengthy talks on difficult issues. It’s possible to have a meaningful conversation about a choice of breakfast cereal if approached correctly.
A key part of this, I feel, is how we ask questions and prompt conversation. We spend a lot of time asking about the hows, whens, and whats. How was your day? When is your test? What did you have for breakfast? This establishes information rather than meaning. A better question is why?
1. Why do you think you didn’t get anything done today?
2. Why are you revising so much for this test in particular?
3. Why did you have cornflakes over cheerios?
These sorts of questions draw insight and introspection out of even the most mundane of situations and circumstances. They don’t even have to be long form. As Shakespeare put it, ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’. Or, put less pretentiously, don’t waste people's time. A meaningful conversation doesn’t need to last three hours and it doesn’t need to be a discussion of Derrida’s critique of Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger as reciprocal destroyers and the rise of post-structuralism inherent in the authors seminal 1966 lecture at John Hopkins.
Above all though, the key to meaningful conversation is recognising people as people. They have all the same sorts of thoughts and introspections as you do, but they may express them and find them through different means. To have more meaningful conversations we have to look at how we approach conversation rather than just what we converse about. Brevity and levity is the key.
And remember, above all else. Don’t talk about the weather.