Skip small talk, make earnest conversations

The biggest impediment to conversation is our general inability to stay quiet. We'd rather be talking than listening.

By Shilpa Bhasin Mehra

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Published: Mon 30 Nov 2020, 6:38 PM

Just the way there is Value Added Tax (VAT), it would be wonderful if there was a tax that you’d have to pay if you did not make Value Added Conversation (VAC). This would put an end to all the useless conversations. Perhaps, small talk has its place. It offers a comfortable way to start a conversation with someone. And for everyone, who find silence uncomfortable, it offers a way to pass the time. But, it’s not a conversation. It doesn’t build connections or develop relationships. Would you listen to a podcast where the host and guest spoke about the weather and their commute the whole time? Then, why do we fill up so much of our own time with such meaningless talk? We’ve all had great conversations before. Those where we engaged and connected with another person. Times where we walked away energised and inspired. We all know the benefits. And yet, we seem to keep falling back into the relative safety of small talk. The good news is that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Enough study has been done on this and here are some pointers.

Learn to listen

The biggest impediment to conversation is our general inability to stay quiet. We’d rather be talking than listening. Steven Covey famously said, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” We need to quieten our minds so we can understand the other person; and not drift off trying to craft a counterargument. People notice the difference. People may forget our response. They’ll remember our presence.

Don’t make it about yourself

We all want to contribute to the conversation. So, when someone tells us about a struggle or a story, it’s tempting to jump in and relate it to a similar experience of our own. Maybe, it’s a mix between our need for constant upmanship or an earnest desire to relate. But no matter our motives, once we jump in with our own experiences, we start making the discussion about ourselves. And conversations are not opportunities to boost our own ego. Those who disagree with us, are typically knowledgeable of the same facts that we are. Hence, preaching the rationale behind our decisions isn’t nearly as enlightening as we believe it to be. More often than not, it’s condescending and surely boring for everyone involved. Good conversations aren’t one-sided. They require an open exchange of information.

Skip the details

No one cares about all of those extraneous details we’re trying so hard to perfectly remember. If you wouldn’t be interested to hear about a laborious description from someone else, chances are, they’re not too interested in hearing it from you.

Be honest

It is often refreshing to hear someone say flat out, “You know what, I’m not entirely sure of that answer. Let me think about that for a while.” Few things ruin someone’s credibility faster than preemptively taking a stand based on incomplete or inaccurate information. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. There’s no shame in it. And it will actually boost your credibility for those areas that you do know.

Stay interested

If we go into each conversation looking to be interested, we’ll rarely be disappointed. So above all, be interested. Just as with any relationship, we get out of our conversations what we put into them. Be in the moment and observe your surroundings. Open your eyes before you open your mouth. Find something to focus on in your surroundings, like the piece of art on the wall, or family picture on their desk. Suppose you noticed a row of empty boxes along the wall of the CEO’s office. You might start with the question, “How hard is it for you to leave this job?” This will lead to a much deeper and more emotionally revealing discussion, and it never would’ve happened had you not noticed those boxes.

Maintain eye contact

No matter what or how much you say, your tone of voice, facial expression and eye contact will broadcast more. In person, look at the other person when you speak, not at the conference table or the wall. On the phone, smile — it will make your voice sound warmer. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it, that will help others connect with you.

As we enter into the final month of 2020, let us value everything that we have and strive to make VAC (Value Added Conversation) a way of life.

Shilpa Bhasin Mehra is a legal consultant based in Dubai and the founder of Legal Connect.

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