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Five Reasons to Have Better Conversations – and How You Can Improve Yours

Conversation

Conversation is the bedrock of human communication and a crucial element of our emotional intelligence. The ability to articulate our ideas, share information, convey our thoughts — strategically or emotionally — and understand those of another person is crucial to building rapport, and never more so than in an age dominated by digital communication and soundbite social media. A ‘good conversation’ is one that promotes understanding and has immense power to improve our social and professional connections, creativity, brain function and perspective. If you need more encouragement, then we’ve listed five key reasons why a good chat could be the performance boost you’re looking for.

 

Conversation is richer than tech communication

Why is this important? While dashing off an email, text or social media post might give us instant communication and the illusion of connection, it’s real-life conversation that really connects us and gives us valuable social support. Talking to friends, colleagues and family members to share information, give or receive advice or just to get perspective helps to build rapport, foster a feeling of belonging and increases resilience — helping us to process things and avoid overwhelm. It is also a far better medium for conversations about complex topics, allowing for the nuances of language, tone and ‘meta-language’ such as body language to convey full meaning.

What gets in the way? Technology has made communication easier in some ways – speed and convenience notably – but depletes us of the subtle shades of true connection and understanding with another person. In her Ted Talk, Connected, but Alone?[1], Sherry Turkle, founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, underlines the fact that in age of technology we are together, but often not really ‘being together’, meaning that while people may be in the same space they are not actually actively communicating in real terms. Defaulting primarily to technology to establish our networks and exchange information creates a functional form of communication that often removes the important sense of being understood fully in interactions in favor of ‘information trading’.

Improve your skills Take the time to have conversations with the people in your life on a regular basis, whether expressing your ambitions to your line manager or just chewing over the day with your friends — something that becomes even more important in an age of hybrid working, where it’s easy to rely on email to impart all types of information. And try to readdress the balance in your tech-real life interactions; put phones down when you are in conversation and try to talk to colleagues instead of just emailing or Zooming them if you can (and they have the time). Even a short exchange or brief coffee can inspire more efficiency and productive thought than a hasty question on Slack or ‘braindump’ email.

 

Conversation reminds us that we can’t be right about everything all the time

Why is this important? In her TEDX talk, 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation[2], author Celeste Headlee notes, ‘If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth…write a blog’. Living in an ‘echo chamber of one’ is not beneficial or productive; it is only through discussion of new ideas and opinions with others —even ones that we disagree with — that we can get a deeper understanding of things, challenge our own biases, collaborate or receive validation.

What gets in the way? This is assuming, of course, that we are open to this dynamic conversational opportunity — the tech age has exacerbated the rigidity of the reactionary and the idea of right/wrong interaction, the result being that people will often try to avoid contentious conversations, in which opinions may differ. Learning to appreciate difference and be comfortable with it is crucial to emotional intelligence and could even become the greatest of 21st century skills — and it starts with conversation.

Improve your skills Headlee recommends entering each conversation assuming that you can learn something new, and that setting your opinions aside allows the speaker to sense acceptance, making them more likely to open up and speak fully. Staying open to the flow of information and realising that it’s okay to have our opinions and perspectives challenged or augmented, we retain perspective, and open the way for understanding and growth.

 

Smalltalk is good for your cognition

Why is this important? Conversation doesn’t have to be intense to do you good, so take some time to pass the time of day with your colleagues. A 2010 study[3] by the University of Michigan found that short-term social chat about the weather or other pleasantries can actually improve cognitive functions in the same way that brain-teaser exercises do. In contrast, interactions that involved a competitive goal, without allowing for interpersonal engagement, resulted in no boost to executive functions.

What gets in the way? Many people dread smalltalk, thinking it superficial, awkward and therefore a waste of time, but this kind of communication is phatic, meaning that it has a social and connective function rather than an informative one, and is in fact an incredibly important part of human interaction.  

Improve your skills The study showed that ruminating about the weather could be doing your brain as well as your relationships good, suggesting that people need to engage with others and take their perspective to realise a cognitive boost. It highlights how social functioning can enhance core mental capacities — and the great thing is that you don’t need to spend any special time trying to do it; smalltalk is a part of everyday life, so embrace it as brain exercise rather than superficial chatter to supercharge your daily communication.

 

You’ll learn if you listen

Why is this important? For both professional and personal growth, conversation is one of the most effective ways to learn, share information and achieve goals. But it is your ability to listen, not what you say, that determines how effective you are as a communicator— according to the International Listening Association, 85 percent of learning is derived from listening.

What gets in the way? As Headlee notes, ‘We would all rather talk. It gives us control, it gives us the centre of attention, it gives us the ability to bolster our own identity. Listening takes effort and energy and is crucial for a great conversation. If you can’t, then you’re simply just two people shouting out barely related sentences in the same place.’ However, active listening is a skill quickly lost in a world of digital distractions and information overload, and it’s easy to be there but not really present and not fully take in what people are saying.

Improve your skills Remember thathearing’ and ‘listening’ are two different things, and heed the words of author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey, who notes, ‘Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.’ Switching your focus to the other person in conversation and what they are really trying to say is one of the single most powerful ways to supercharge your communication. Shut out all other distractions, put your phone down, give the person your full attention — and try techniques such as mirroring, where you repeat back or paraphrase what you hear at points to ensure that you’ve listened correctly.

 

Conversation sparks ideas

Why is this important? Conversations act as crucibles for ideas and problem solving, helping you to flesh them out and build on them. Importantly, conversations also make you articulate and distil your thoughts – getting them out of your head to fully explore them. Talking to another person also forces us to address what’s been bouncing around our heads through a different set of beliefs and perceptions, a fundamental part of understanding, developing and expanding our ideas — and ourselves.

What gets in the way Creativity consultant and host of the podcast Conversations Worth Having, Amy Climer notes; ‘Conversation plays a big role in creativity. How someone reacts to other people’s ideas either elevates or kills creativity in the moment.’ Being critical, or broadcasting — talking at someone, without asking their opinion or thoughts — is going to quickly shut down opportunities for collaborative talk. Consider conversation as a less formal version of brainstorming, to help you overcome any impulse to ‘be right’ and allow the alchemy of two (or more minds) to create something bigger than the sum of its parts.

Improve your skills Climer notes that creativity requires people to be open to one another and feel safe in conversation, ‘You have to make room for divergent thinking before convergent thinking,’ she notes. She recommends going into a conversation with a ‘we’ attitude, in order to foster a feeling of common goal and collaboration and asking plenty of generative questions to encourage ideation and creativity, the ‘hows’, ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ that develop ideas and oil the wheels of imaginative conversation.

 

[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_connected_but_alone#t-151039

[2] https://www.ted.com/talks/celeste_headlee_10_ways_to_have_a_better_conversation#t-343497

[3] http://people.duke.edu/~rhoyle/teaching/psy117/example1.pdf