How to Have More Meaningful Conversations

How to Have More Meaningful Conversations

Think, for a moment, about who you would call if you were having a bad day. If you’d screwed up a deal at work, or gotten into an argument with your spouse, or were feeling frustrated and sick of it all: Who would you want to talk to? There’s probably someone you know will make you feel better, who can help you think through a thorny question, or share a moment of heartbreak or joy.

That person, for you, is what I like to call a “supercommunicator” (and odds are, for them, you are a supercommunicator, too.) All of us, at times, achieve moments of supercommunication. But there are some people who are supercommunicators much more consistently—they know how to connect with nearly anyone, to make conversations easier, to make us feel like we’ve really been heard. We all know supercommunicators: They’re the people everyone seems to know, the ones likely to be elected to positions of authority, the folks others turn to when they need to discuss something serious or ask for advice.

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Over the past three years, I’ve explored the research behind supercommunication, and encountered important lessons. Most notably, we’re not born knowing how to communicate effectively. Rather, communication is a set of skills that nearly anyone can learn. Supercommunicators aren’t inherently more charismatic or extroverted. Rather, they just think about communication a little bit harder, and have mastered the tools that allow them to connect.

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So what, exactly, are those supercommunicators doing that makes you feel so good?

There’s a number of skills they’ve mastered. Research shows that supercommunicators ask 10 to 20 times as many questions as the average person—but many of those questions (“What did you think about that?” “What did you say next?”) hardly register, except to make us feel like someone is listening. Other questions—what are known as “deep questions”—ask people to describe their beliefs, values, and experiences in ways that reveal something about themselves beyond the simple facts of their lives. (“How’d you decide to become a lawyer?” “What was it like growing up in a small town?”)

Supercommunicators are also good at reading the room: When a conversation gets stuck, they make it easy for everyone to take a quick break by bringing up a new topic or interrupting an awkward silence with a small joke.

What’s more, supercommunicators often engage in a process known as looping for understanding, which encourages everyone, including themselves, to listen more closely. Looping has three steps: Ask a question; repeat back what you heard in your own words; and then ask if you got it right. This is powerful because one of the strongest human impulses is social mimicry. If someone starts asking questions and looping their companions, everyone else becomes more likely to ask questions, listen closely, and loop in return.

All these skills have something important in common: they allow supercommunicators to show their companions they want to connect.

Take, for instance, laughter. Studies show that roughly 80% of the time, when we laugh, it is not in reaction to anything funny. Rather, we laugh in response to something banal—“Are we finally going to dinner?”in order to show that we want to connect with someone. And when they laugh back—the most natural reaction—they are showing us they want to connect with us, as well.

The same thing happens with other forms of non-linguistic communication. When someone frowns, or their voice goes quiet and intimate, we have an instinct to mimic them, to apply what is known within psychology as the Matching Principle of Communication. Supercommunicators listen to those instincts and nurture those urges, because they know that when we match someone, we show them we want to listen—and they, in return, become more willing to listen to, and trust, us.

The truth is, anyone can become a supercommunicator. We can all learn to hear more clearly, to speak so we’re easier to understand, to connect on a deeper level. And, today, learning to have meaningful conversations is, in some ways, more urgent than ever before. It’s no secret the world has become increasingly polarized, that we struggle to hear and be heard. If we know how to sit down together and listen, then, even if we can’t resolve every disagreement, we can find ways to coexist and thrive.

When we show each other that we want to connect—by asking questions, looping for understanding, and matching people when they become emotional, practical, or when the discussion goes in an unexpected direction—we usually find something we have in common, something we can build on to form a real relationship.

Every meaningful conversation is made up of countless small choices. There are fleeting moments when the right deep question, or a vulnerable admission, or a kind word can completely change a dialogue. A silent laugh, a barely audible sigh, a friendly expression during a tense moment: Some people have learned to spot these opportunities, to detect what kind of discussion is occurring, to understand what others really want. They have learned how to hear what’s unsaid and speak so others want to listen. And that’s important, because the right conversation, at the right moment, can change everything.

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