Having conversations is something most of us do daily. We’re so familiar with it we tend to believe we are effortlessly capable, with little need for improvement.
In truth, most of us could be better conversationalists. And there is one simple thing to help us achieve that worthy goal.
But first, what is a conversation?
A conversation is a verbal interaction between two or more people in which ideas are exchanged in a spirit of overall cordiality for a period of time sensed by all – in some indeterminate way – to be neither too short nor too long.
So far so good.
A quick rummage through the origins of the word ‘conversation’ however uncovers some additional fascinating and surprising definitions. These clues from the roots of the word suggest ways in which we could potentially be better conversationalists now.
From the fourteenth century on – go with me here – the word ‘conversation’ was used to refer to the place where you lived, your home, as well as the company you kept. It was also used as a euphemism for sex. Gosh!
Both of those alternative (and now obsolete) definitions hint enticingly at the same thing: intimacy. Conversation is about intimacy. Or to be slightly more restrained, connection.
Despite this heart-warming heritage, many of us will sadly have experienced innumerable conversations that are far from intimate, in the sense of close and personal, or feeling like being home or connected.
More often than not, conversations feel more like one person piling up a series of opinions while being vaguely interrupted by other people determinedly instilling their own opinions.
It’s the old observation that we often don’t so much converse as wait for breaks in sound so we can insert another of our own thoughts. It has to be said that men as especially guilty of this.
Conversations of this type feel to me like inconveniently happening upon a stranger walking up the street at the same speed. I feel them near me but there is no pleasant connection. In fact it’s slightly awkward and invariably results in me inventing some bogus excuse (like answering a phone that’s not actually ringing) in order to break out of the encounter.
So how do we have intimate, connected conversations that feel like coming home to the people we keep company with? Whether that’s partners, friends, family, colleagues or recent strangers.
One simple step to achieve this is to look into the eyes of the person or people you’re talking to. To truly look. Notice their eye colour or colours. Notice patterns in their irises. And move your gaze from one eye to the other. Left to right. Right to left. At appropriate intervals look away (no one wants to be stared at!). Then come back to their eyes and repeat.
While doing all this it’s also a splendid idea to close your mouth entirely and simply deeply listen to what they’re saying. Watch how your attentiveness makes them respond and observe how all this makes you feel too. Spoiler alert: it’ll make everyone feel good.
How is it that something as simple as looking into another person’s eyes can make you a better conversationalist?
Because looking into someone else’s eyes is intimate, personal, connected. Having a conversation in this way nurtures comfort and builds trust. It still allows for an exchange of ideas (and actually deepens and enriches that exchange, bringing new insights and observations). But it also makes us feel seen, like we’re home, in the company of others.
So simple. So powerful, and rather beautiful.
If you don’t believe me, give it a go. And let me know how you went!