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6 Tips For Having Productive Conversations

Ever walk away from an exchange feeling as though you didn't get anything out of it? Prevent that connectionless FOMO with these linguistic maneuvers.

If we want to get awesome ideas or awesome jobs, we need to be able to talk to people. But somewhere along the way we lost the subtle art of conversation. Which can lead to people—even superheroes—living in their own bubbles.

Thankfully Forbes contributor John Hall has assembled a collection of ways to have more meaningful conversations—let's talk over half a dozen of the most excellent ways.

1) Pay attention.

You have 150 billion bits of attention in a lifetime. Spending a few on the person you're talking to instead of fretting about what you're going to have for dinner is a worthwhile investment.

2) Let people sell themselves.

One of the first lessons in nonsleazy networking: They're just as scared of you as you are of them, just freaked out at making vulnerable what they're up to in life.

So let them share, Hall says, then give them your story.

"A lot of times, a person will self-identify a need right after you talk about what you do," he adds.

3) Summarize their viewpoint.

When someone restates your position to you, you start to trust them more. So we should be mindful about doing the same: This will validate their viewpoint, as philosopher-provocateur Dan Dennett has shown us, allowing you to disagree with them, if necessary, with an extra dose of graciousness.

4) Make eye contact, but not too much.

Not making enough eye contact signals that you're untrustworthy or unreliable, research has found. And as we've noted, there's such a thing as an ideal amount of eyeballing:

"The Goldilocks of eye contact comes in two flavors: If you're in a one-on-one setting, hold eye contact for 7 to 10 seconds; while if you're in a group, shorten that to 3 to 5 seconds.

5) Do your homework, but don't be a creep.

"There’s a thin line between properly preparing yourself for a conversation and being creepy," Hall notes. That line is different in every situation, we have to assume—but if you're trying to know as much about the other person as Facebook does, you're probably going too far.

Drop the barriers.

To paraphrase the Persian poet Rumi, your task is not to seek for conversation, but merely to seek and to find the barriers that you have built against it. Hall translates it into the office:

If you see an opportunity to joke around or personalize a conversation, take it—even if it’s early. It will decrease barriers from the start, and the shift will enable you to have a better conversation.

What have you learned about how to have a real-life conversation? Let us know in the comments.

Hat tip: Forbes

[Primitive Communication: Bikeriderlondon via Shutterstock]

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  • Ms Sofi

    My experience has revealed Number 3 is most powerful when combined with empathy.  For example,"'wow, I cant imagine how it must have felt to be caught in Kasmir during the lockdown or what they termed 'curfew.' You must be really brave and what a story you have to tell!!"
    That is both a summary and a dose of putting oneself in the other's shoes.  We all wish to feel heard AND understood.  Often people get caught up in jealousy or thinking how to sound as interesting or intelligent as the one sharing and they completely miss an opportunity for world travel through empathy with another.  If we set aside our competitive desires long enough to truly listen and BE with that person, we are giving them the greatest gift of all and in my experience it is much richer and memorable than anything we have done or any credentials we have.

  • CitizenWhy

    Point 3 is fun. I remember on my first trip to Paris in 1969 I could not find the address of my corresponding bank (I needed to cash a check), even though it had a Place Vendome address and I walked around the Place twice. I stopped a gentleman (expensively dressed) to ask for help. For confirmation, he repeated back to me what I had said. He made it clear at that point that I had to repeat what I had said, just so we could be sure. To make it short, we ended up as a group of six marching around the Place in search of my bank's address. Each time a Frenchmen (they were all men) stopped another, he summarized my situation, and then had me summarize it for confirmation, Then the new Frenchman summarized what I had said for confirmation. We all certainly knew what the mission was. Finally I noticed a man sharply dressed in an impressive uniform standing at the top of the steps of the Palais de Justice. He was clearly observing us. Perhaps our behavior seemed suspicious, or merely odd. Another of our party noticed him too and let us up the steps to ask him for help. He turned out to be a police major or colonel, I can't remember the rank, but the Frenchmen were impressed with its high status. At any rate we went through the summarization and confirmation routine again,. The officer then let us in procession into an elegant alley and into the lobby of the small, very private bank that was my corresponding bank. Then we all thanked the officer and then congratulated each other, with my adding thanks to each of them as well,  and my French escorts all left. The receptionist, very richly dressed, commented that I certainly made an impressive entry. I ten explained that I needed to cash a rather modest check (a few hundred dollars) and convert the dollars into francs. I told her that I was embarrassed by this humble need since this bank obviously catered only to the very wealthy. She assured me that my business was welcome and that she would be back instantly with my cash. I asked what the fee would be and she said, "Surely you know that this kind of bank charges no fee. And we guarantee the best exchange rate." She also congratulated me on being shrewd enough to bring this check with me when I did, since I must have known that the franc was being devalued. I told that is precisely why I waited until I got to Paris to make the exchange.

    That was my introduction to France, my first day there. I thought the summary and confirming re-summary routine was a marvelously wise way to behave among an argumentative people with strong opinions.

    I was, however, already used to a version of this way of communicating. In high school and college seminars we were expected to expand positively on what another student said, or disagree, in either case citing evidence. But before doing either we had to summarize what the other student said, and then get confirmation (or correction) that we had had understood properly. I certainly hope this continues to be a practice on seminar classes. But I have observed that many seminar classes are professor dominated, unlike ours, where the students had to present a specific topic and all the other students respond. The professor generally gave a summary at the end, after having one of us summarize the entire class. There the professor might have added something new. Otherwise he (they were all he's) would simply listen and observe. And given each of us a score in one of those old grade books.

    I have found this practice of summarizing and confirming to be very helpful, and often fun. It can break tension and cut off growing anger.

    P.S. I forgot to mention that I was dressed in a dark blue T shirt and blue jeans. Everyone else was very expensively dressed. I stayed at the apartment of an always on vacation cousin in the 18th, the red /left wing zone, and had marvelous encounters with all sorts of people in this non-tourist neighborhood (at that time). We spoke, listened, confirmed.

  • Ekanem Ebinne

    Communication really is over 80% visual.  Watching parents with their smallest conversation partners has taught me the truth of that. By simply decreasing vertical distance they increase eye contact (as mentioned in #4 above) and boost feelings of trust.  And I've observed how that 'extra dose of graciousness' can be as simple as waiting one more second before repeating a question, taking a couple of slower breaths in the meantime. Such small investments for such precious lifetime dividends!

  • Sebastián Lora

    I've learned that people love to be listened to, as it shows they're important, that you care.

  • Mariah Burton Nelson

    The single most powerful communication technique is #3 above: Summarize their viewpoint. I learned this in a Listening Skills class at Stanford many years ago, and since then it has saved and deepened many relationships, personal and professional. Especially when there is tension or disagreement, take a deep breath, put aside your own desire to be heard or be right, and say, "What you seem to be saying is..." then do your best to paraphrase. If you didn't quite get it right, allow them to refine and correct you until you really understand what they're saying, and they know it. This simple technique is deceptively powerful. Only when people feel heard can they can really start listening - and connecting - with you.