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5 ways to improve your ability to have meaningful conversations

Many people are feeling more disconnected these days, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

5 ways to improve your ability to have meaningful conversations
[Source photo: barbol88/iStock]
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Today, many of us feel disconnected from each other. The pandemic has created a world where we talk to each other via Zoom, wave at our neighbors from a distance, and rarely interact with new people.

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It’s not just COVID-19 that has created this distance. Families are smaller, marriages are fewer, and more people live alone. As a result studies indicate that many people feel more lonely than ever.

I recently interviewed Riaz Meghji, a human connection expert and author of the recently published book, Every Conversation Counts. He believes that conversations can be a great source of the connectedness we humans crave.

Here are five ways to increase your ability to have meaningful conversations:

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1. Listen without distraction

Listening is hard work—and we’ve gotten somewhat lazy about it. But if you listen well you can build that emotional connection with others. The average person speaks at the rate of 125 words per minute, but people can take in 400-500 words a minute. This means that 75% of the time we seem to be listening we could be (and often are) distracted.

If you want to build a human connection with the person you’re talking to, Meghji advises us to focus completely on the other person. “Listen to what isn’t being said. Listen for tone and watch their body language for clues about how they’re feeling.”

And take note of repeated word patterns, Meghji says. “If someone keeps saying ‘my ex’ you know that individual is struggling with a break-up. Ask about that, show you’ve heard.” Doing so will deepen the connection you have with them.

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2. Make your small talk bigger

The second way Meghji advises us to deepen our relationship with those we’re talking to is to go “big” with our small talk. We often engage in chitchat that doesn’t build a connection. So abandon tired old questions like “Hey, how are you doing?” and “What’s up?”

Such conversational chatter is, according to Meghji, “a defense mechanism to keep us from getting emotional in front of another person.” Instead, he advises that we should show genuine curiosity by replacing stock phrases with more pointed expressions of interest. Instead of generic questions like “How are you?” be more specific. Ask, “How are you taking care of yourself during this pandemic?”

If you’re in a meeting and someone on your team delivers a presentation, Meghji advises that you show curiosity by asking the presenter, “How did you feel about it?” rather than putting forward your own judgment. Sincere curiosity drives the conversation to a deeper level by eliciting true feelings from others.

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3. Don’t try to be perfect

A third way to deepen the connection with those you’re talking to is to give up trying to be perfect, says Meghji. Social media encourages us to look “camera ready,” visually perfect, engaged in enviable activities, wearing the best outfits, showing perfect bodies.

This pressure means “it’s tough to open up and show vulnerability, especially for millennials,” he says. “They worry that ‘if I share my truth I might say the wrong thing, and alienate myself from my community.'”

Conversations provide a perfect context for breaking from the “perfection” trap. Suppose a new group of recruits joins a company, and on their first day they are nervous and scared. The leader has a great opportunity to show that they don’t have to feel perfect. He might say, ‘Welcome, I know first days can be scary; I remember I felt that way when I joined. But we’re here for you, and glad to have you aboard.'” Meghji suggests that such leadership gives team members the permission to “share their feelings of vulnerability.” By being honest ourselves, we encourage that in others.

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In sharing vulnerability, though, Meghji advises that you “make sure your audience is ready to receive it.” Your audience has to believe in your strengths before you’ll want to discuss your vulnerabilities.

4. Be empathetic

A fourth way to build rapport is to show empathy. “Don’t just put yourself in the shoes of a friend or a close colleague,” Meghji says, but “challenge yourself to realize the perspective of someone who’s really different from you.”

You can also practice being empathetic even when you don’t agree with the other person. How? “Be less quick to take issue with that person,” says Meghji. Instead probe. Ask someone whose idea seems far-fetched: “What would it take to make that work?'”

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Meghji explains that “the power of questions is a big component of empathy. It’s so easy to jump to judgment, so suspending that judgment is an act of empathy.” The conversation becomes “us together, rather than me versus you.”

5. Make people feel valued

The fifth way to build deeper relationships through conversation is to make people feel you value them. “Everybody needs a champion in their corner,” says Meghji. “Think about how you can reach out to a peer, a client, or a customer and say, ‘Hey, I really recognize what you’re doing.”

“Practicing this power of appreciation requires specificity,” he explains. So instead of saying “Great job,” say “Thanks for giving this project the time it deserved. I know you spent night and day getting it done.” Or instead of saying, “Good presentation,” sit down with your team member and say “Nice work! Here are the things I really liked about your talk.”

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And Meghji encourages us to praise people publicly when we can. At a meeting, say, “Jeanne was a great help with this project. Her research really made our conclusion fact-based.” Or “Hey, did you know Ralph is now delivering food to those in need throughout our city? Hats off to this big-hearted guy!”