Figuring out what to say was one of the hardest things I had to learn about how to have a conversation. I learned pretty quickly that there is a right and a wrong. Conversations aren’t random and there is a distinct pattern and progression that must be followed.
I spent very many years experimenting with saying more and saying less. I tried talking about myself. I tried asking questions of the other person. I tried sharing entertaining stories. I tried saying nothing and just listening. I just couldn’t get the balance right. Eventually I realised that what I need to say depends completely on what the other person wants. This presented an even tougher question. What do people want from a conversation?
Most people answer this question by thinking something like ‘what do I want from a conversation?’ and then projecting that onto others. The problem is that for me, a conversation has NEVER been about what I want! I always do it for other people. Most of the time, I only indulge others in conversation because it’s polite. It’s easier to just do what I know will be accepted, than to try to deal with the consequences of acting outside the norm.
For me, stereotypical conversations are a burden. Imagine if attending a social function required writing a 2000 word essay. How enticing would that be? No one is going to tell you what to write about, that’s up to you. But just remember that it is vitally important that everyone else thinks it’s interesting, otherwise they won’t read it. Poor quality essays result in a reduced number of friends and failure to hand one in at all would mean exclusion from all future events. Oh, and did I mention that English is your second language? You could, of course, opt out of writing one. People are not unreasonable. Just write a 3000 word persuasive piece explaining why you don’t want to write one and it won’t be a problem. Just to put things into perspective, 2000 words is the equivalent of about 10 minutes of talking (i.e. 20 mins of conversation).
Now, I don’t mean to say that I don’t like talking to people. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s just that my interest in conversations is inversely proportional to the amount of talking I do. That is, I’m not particularly interested in what I have to say. I can talk to myself whenever I like. I’m much more interested in what you have to say.
So how do I handle this? Well it takes quite a bit of energy, but nowadays my general strategy is to try and get into a listening role as soon as possible. That way I don’t have to say anything, or at least very little. The difficulty is that people keep asking about me and it’s very difficult to both answer their question satisfactorily and deflect attention away from myself at the same time. It’s a vicious cycle. Focussing my attention on answering the question (i.e. figuring out what they want) takes a lot of my mental energy, which means that when I’m finished, they are likely to ask me another question before I have the chance to interject. Ironically, I’m so good at answering questions with interesting information that I often get stuck speaking about myself. It’s entertaining for others and I guess that’s fine, but it means that I don’t get to have an interesting conversation.
My best strategy to overcome this is to first share something about myself, the kind of thing that others don’t normally share. This is usually interesting for the other person and it gives me a way out of the question answer cycle because when I’m done I can very easily ask ‘What about you?’ This works pretty well because it doesn’t require any time to think. I can throw it in as soon as I feel I have adequately answered the original question. With any luck, inspired by my interesting answer, they may volunteer and interesting answer of their own, and, now that I’m in the far less cognitively demanding listening role, I have time to think of a follow up question. Successful execution results in finding out interesting things about another person. Emotionally it works really well too. Most people are unaccustomed to having these types of ‘atypical’ conversations, which leads them to tell me things they haven’t told anyone else. This builds a quick sense of connection since the person feels listened to and validated. Can’t go wrong really. It just requires breaking out of the cycle that leads me to always talk about myself. And I think we can all agree, the less I talk about myself the better, right? 😛