7 Ways to Start Having Conversations that Matter


Kyle Sellnow recently wrote "4 Steps to Creating Community That Matters". If you have not already read it, I suggest you do. The first step was "Have conversations that matter." This is my continuation: 7 Ways to Start Having Conversations that Matter.

Small talk is essential! "What?" you might say. I get it, you may have complained before, and I definitely have, that small talk is so boring! I used to blame everyone else for boring conversation; it was their fault the conversation wasn't better. The reality is, it was mostly my fault. I wasn’t good at small talk. Every conversation with someone new has to start somewhere. If a conversation is only about the weather and where you are from, it will be boring and painful for both parties. However, you generally can't jump right into a conversation discussing the merits of a theological interpretation of Taylor Swift's lyrics in light of Plato's Ethics. Launching into such a deep topic without knowing if your counterpart loves or hates T-Swift’s music or if they have read Plato’s Ethics is a recipe for disaster. Small talk is the building block of conversation and it is from small talk that you are able to find threads of common interest for deeper topics to follow. Don’t fear small talk.

You can't expect the other person to be intriguing and passionate about a conversation if you ask boring questions. The trick here is to ask broad and basic questions in a more intriguing and open-ended way. Instead of asking, "Where are you from?" (A question that can be answered in one word), ask "Where have you lived prior to moving to Colorado and what brought you here?" This can be answered with their journey from childhood in Virginia to their college days at LSU. They can talk about their job, or their love of the mountains that brought them to Colorado. By giving more ways to respond, you allow the answer to be steered toward something your counterpart wants to talk about, and better conversations happen when people want to talk. If all else fails ask something intriguing and outlandish like, “If you had the choice, would you rather ride a unicorn or a grizzly bear into a battle?” Who knows where that conversation will go but it’s already interesting!

This is a lot like the second step but reversed. If your counterpart asks you a simple generic question, instead of answering with one word answer creatively and leave multiple topics open for your counterpart to pick from for a follow up question.

In any conversation there needs to be a balance of speaking and listening, as a general rule try to listen more than you speak. We all like to talk about ourselves, so when we try to listen more than we speak we will probably speak about equally. Don’t be afraid of silence. If you ask a question and someone gives a brief answer and you think there is more to tell, let the silence sit, people naturally want to fill silence and they will typically extrapolate their own answer and further the conversation.

This is a simple trick but it is very helpful. It helps you remember the other person's name and it engages the other person on a personal level, it shows your interest in them and their story. It is a subconscious reaction, but simply using a name can go a long way in building trust and deepening the conversation.

Community depends on people, so we need to engage people, as people. Therefore, when you are speaking to someone, be present to them! All of us have found ourselves wishing we were talking with someone other than the person we are talking to, but nobody likes to feel like a filler conversation while you wait to talk to the person you keep eyeing. Focus your attention toward your current conversation, don't dart your eyes around looking for an out and turn your body to block the conversation. To build community we need to treat people like people, the conversation doesn't need to be long, and you can excuse yourself nicely, but when you are speaking with someone, remember they are a person and they deserve your respect. This brings us to our final step.

Whether it was a wonderful conversation and you have made a new friend with similar interests, you met someone “totally dateable,” or the conversation was difficult, you should always strive to end the conversation well. If the conversation is through but you want to continue the conversation at a later date make that clear. End by saying, "It was so great talking to you about Taylor Swift’s Red Album, I'd love to hear more about your music taste soon. Can I get your number so we can set up a time to get coffee?" or "Jeff, it was great hearing about your trip, I'd love to go rock climbing with you soon, I'll call you to schedule something." (Be sure to follow up if you say something like this). If the conversation isn’t ended by an interruption or some other factor out of your control, thank the other person for their time and mention something you enjoyed from the conversation. This will go a long way in making another person feel heard and valued. That will build community! Finally, if you want to excuse yourself from a conversation to go speak with that old friend, that cute guy or that pretty girl, do so, but be friendly about it. While being attentive to the person you are talking with, wait for a natural break in the conversation and then politely excuse yourself. Don't be deceitful, but give yourself a reason to step away from the conversation. If someone is excusing themselves from your conversation, be polite and let them exit. For conversations to thrive people need to feel comfortable, feeling trapped in a conversation is never comfortable, so let the conversation end well.

That being said, I've really enjoyed this one-sided conversation, thank you for listening and letting me talk so much. I'd love to continue this conversation at the next Denver CBC, so come and find me if you are there. For now please excuse me I want to go talk to that gorgeous girl over there, I wonder if she secretly likes Taylor Swift too. Thanks for understanding!