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A Failed Conversation

Conversation is a master life skill. Yet most of us give it little thought. We blunder along, thinking we are good at it, but my research does not support this conclusion. (My research consists primarily in situating myself so I can to overhear and record other people’s conversations. Very rude, I know, but it’s all in the interest of social science.)  Here’s an example of the kind of typical conversation I hear, too often:

She: I ran into my mother at the grocery store today. I’ve never seen her look so undone. Like she’d been out all night in a blizzard. I’m worried. I don’t know what’s going on.

He: After the release of the quarterly report today, my whole team at work looked like they’d been out all night in a blizzard too. We weren’t ready for news like that. After the announcement at 8:30, the day was a total waste. No one could settle down.

She: I just wonder if she’s having more pain with her back. Or something. She wouldn’t talk about it.

This is an example of  a conversational mode I call, Serial Monologue. It’s a serial monologue because there’s no real dialogue at all. She says something that’s important to her. He basically ignores what she said, and responds with a grabbing response, that asserts a new topic (his day at work) and a new speaker (himself). She responds to him, with the same kind of grabbing response, trying to take the conversation back to what she wants to talk about. No one is heard; no one gets to explore their topic; both speakers are talking fundamentally to themselves. No connection.

This conversation, and millions like it every day, fail. Participants go away feeling isolated and frustrated, though they may not know exactly why.

So what makes for a Successful Conversation?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering. Perhaps it’s easier to define failure than success, but I’m coming to some preliminary conclusions.  A really great conversation, for me, is driven by four fundamental values or principles, that make up the acronym, C.A.R.E.

C is for curiosity. The participants strive to understand one another, deeply. Rather than responding with their own stories, judgment or advice, they ask probing questions. They listen deeply, and reflect back what they hear. When curiosity is present, we end up feeling enriched. We learn and grow. Absent curiosity, we are more likely to feel diminshed.

A is for authenticity. We speak our own truth, as openly and honestly as we can. We don’t have to reveal our deepest secrets, but we talk about subjects that are important to us, and talk to reveal our real self, not to prove that we are smarter, stronger, more funny, more worldly, more spiritual etc. When authenticity is present, we are emboldened to be our best selves. When authenticity is absent, we are more likely to come from shame. We compare ourselves to some ideal, and either fall short or invest our energy in trying to be something that we are not.

R is for Respect. Whether we agree or disagree with others, we listen and respect who they are and what they are saying. We don’t interrupt, or put them down. When respect is present in the conversation we feel safe. When it is not, we are more likely feel insecure.

E if for Empathy, a popular word these days, because it is so foundational. When another empathizes with us, they enter into our world, and we feel heard.  We are not alone. Empathy is basis of connection. When empathy is absent, we end up feeling ignored or misunderstood at best.

A Challenge

There you have it. My brief description of the difference between a great conversation and a failed one. Of course, there are layers of attitudes and skills and hopes and fears below all of this, but I hope these four values can be a starting place to discuss what defines a “Great Conversation”. I’d welcome any comments, agreements or other opinions. I invite you to think about great conversations and failed conversations that you’ve had. What distinguishes them?  Look for the answer within yourself, rather than in someone else. There’s obviously no one right answer. It’s all in the dialogue. So be curious. Ask, explore, write. And most of all, go for it. Great Conversation, that is, however you define it.