I love conversations; at least good ones. In fact, it may be my favorite past time.
What makes a good conversation? I am so glad you asked, since I am eager to write about the Five Rules of Good Conversation. If you are wondering why you never heard of these Five Rules, it’s because I made them up; just now. But, I still think you might like them; or at least of some of them. At minimum, I am hoping they will at least be a source of conversation.
So, here goes.
Rule 1: Pass the ball around
Sorry for the sports metaphor, but I think you get the point. Don’t hog the ball, or in this case, the conversation. No matter how interesting you think you might be, let someone else jump in once in a while. Even if you had to stop before making your big point, if they pass the ball back to you, it will all be more interesting for everyone. How long is too long? Generally, I am thinking 60-90 seconds. I know, you are thinking there are some remarkable stories, or some exceptional story tellers, that warrant much more time. That may be true. But unless you are the next Mark Twain or just got off the Titanic, I would err on the side of caution here.
Rule 2: If you don’t know what to say, know what to ask
Okay, I confess, I got this one from a recent novel, The Story of Ove, but I think it is okay to pass it along, with attribution. Too often we think we have to be really witty or smart to be a valued contributor to the conversation pool. While those skills can help (or hurt it overplayed), they really aren’t that necessary. You can be a valuable conversationalist just by showing an interest in someone else. Of course, if you are going to go this route, it will help a lot if you care about the answer. When my wife and I drive home from a party we often talk about the person who went on about themselves for an eternity and did not ask a single question about us (or anyone else). You have talked about those people too. It makes for good conversation.
Rule 3: Go deep
Sorry, another sports metaphor, football this time. Conversations are always better if someone is willing to take it a little deeper. I am not talking about existential, “what is life really about” deep (although that can be fun too). I am thinking more along the lines of saying what you really think; something that makes you feel a little vulnerable. Sure, it’s a risk, but real friends will help you feel safe. As for the ones who get freaked by it, you aren’t losing much if they scamper over to the shallow side of the room. Life is just too short for small talk; let’s lay it out there.
Rule 4: Allow a pause once in a while
This is my most controversial rule. Many people I know (including one person I am married to) might think this rule belongs on the scrap pile. Pauses, especially for Minnesotans, can feel like the conversation is dying; even three seconds can feel like an hour. But I really think that pauses, if done with confidence, provide much needed room for new topics, or new speakers to chime in.
Rule 5: Size matters
The size of the conversational group, that is. Find the group size the fits your style and run with it. Truth be told, I am mostly a one-on-one guy. Most of my best conversations have had less than three people involved. You may be better with larger groups; nothing wrong with that. But the more people at the table, the more important it is to have trust (see above). Generally, the more people in the conversation, the more people feel the need to play it safe and the more likely you are to be rehashing the evening forecast.
So, that’s it. At least for now. I could go on a bit more, but I feel that rambling any further may be breaking some of my own rules, at least as far as leaving room for others to chime in. You want to weigh in? Let me know. Maybe, we’ll get together and have a conversation.