3 Steps to Start Having Genuine Conversations
Updated: Nov 15
Conversations are an essential component to every relationship. Through conversing, we're able to express our stories, how we feel about someone or something, and even what we're tasting or smelling. We have the ability to laugh, cry, grieve, celebrate, and hold space for people, all through communication. It's the most powerful tool we have, and it's the reason we either have healthy relationships with others, or we don't.
But lately, have you noticed a shift in people's overall ability to have a conversation? Maybe it's in your ability.
Maybe it's in the ability of someone you met with for coffee last week.
Maybe you're realizing that after someone starts talking for 8 seconds, you completely zone out.
Maybe you have a hard time retaining information.
Maybe someone told you you're a great listener, but deep down inside, you know you've mastered giving physical indicators that you're listening when internally, you're really not.
Maybe you listen to respond.
Maybe you feel like people who disagree with you politically no longer have a seat at your table, or maybe someone feels that way about you.
Wherever you are in your conversing abilities, the reality is that we all could use a tune up. Thanks to Celeste Headlee's work on conversations from her book We Need to Talk (2017), let's take a look at 3 steps you can take to start having genuine, intimate conversations with others, regardless of where we sit on the political or religious line.
Be There, Or Go Elsewhere
You may think that you have the ability to multitask, but that's scientifically not possible. Humans are unable to multitask. Period. We can't do two things at once, and that's because usually when we're doing two things at once, we're using the same side of the brain to do those two things. For example, talking to someone on the phone while scrolling Facebook requires the left side of our brain to be fully present for BOTH tasks. We can't be fully present for both. Our brains pick one.
You might find that the concept of multitasking feels enjoyable, and you would be correct! Our brains rapidly switching from one action to another creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop. This means that your brain is constantly being rewarded for losing focus and for searching for external stimulation, according to neuroscientist Daniel J. Levin.
To really help you be present in a conversation, the most effective method is to learn how to meditate. Meditation teaches you to be aware of your breathing, your body, and your thoughts. Meditation helps us be better listeners because it quiets our minds, allowing us to focus on what someone else is saying without being controlled by our own thoughts.
If we can't be fully present in a conversation, we can't have a conversation.
New to meditation? Loving-kindness meditation, also known as LKM, is a simple way to start:
Send compassionate thoughts to yourself
Send compassionate thoughts to someone you love
Send compassionate thoughts to a stranger
Send compassionate thoughts to someone you're in conflict with or dislike
Send compassionate thoughts to all living beings
Check Your Bias
According to the Oxford Dictionary, a bias is "prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair." Whether we see it or not, we're all biased. We come into conversations with our own biases, and these biases affect our ability to relate to others, see people for who they really are, and have genuine relationships and conversations.
Since the 2016 elections, each of us has been affected by someone's bias, and someone has been affected by ours. We unfriend people on social media who we disagree with politically, and we enter into heated debates online that cause us to completely devalue the humanity of others. We forget that humans are more than the political party and ideologies they identify with.
We can't hit the unfriend button in real life. Learning how to have conversations about topics you might not agree with in ways that are healthy and leave both people whole IS possible. Here are some ways you can do that:
Don't make it personal. Avoid pointing out their personal flaws.
Ask yourself what you hope to get out of the conversation. What do you want to happen at the end? How do you want to walk away from the person you're talking to?
You're probably not going to change their mind. Could the goal be for you to be enlightened by them?
Think about solutions instead of focusing on what made you upset.
Be willing to let the other person win. Finding a resolution doesn't mean affirming that you were right.
We would rather avoid politically heated conversations with people who disagree with us. We prefer being friends with people whose opinions align with ours. In fact, we actually seek out relationships with people who agree with us. But how can we actually understand people who think differently than we do if we avoid them? How can we solve complicated issues if we refuse to genuinely connect with the people in front of us?
According to therapist M. Scott Peck, true listening requires us to set ourselves aside. This means setting aside our opinions, biases, and beliefs.
If you want to have a conversation, set yourself to the side.
Hide Your Phone
Just by having our phones sitting on the table in front of us during a conversation causes us to be less present with the person we're talking to. When we see our phone light up because a text message came through, we may not physically check our phone in that moment, but it instantly causes us to lose focus on the conversation and the person in front of us. Our brains remember how much it loves that dopamine reward when attempting to do multiple things at once, and we start thinking about how we could maybe just see what the person said really quickly, send a fast response, and then get back into the conversation with the person in front of us. Just the mere presence of a cell phone can negatively impact the quality of the conversation.
When you're meeting with someone, set an alarm on your phone if you want or need to leave the conversation by a certain time. Let the person you're meeting with know you have an alarm set on your phone to let you know when you need to leave. Then, keep the phone in your pocket or your handbag, on silent.
The steps mentioned above take time to implement. Many of us are so used to conversing the way we do that maybe we haven't taken the time to think if the way we have conversations leaves other people feeling healthy and whole. We may never have realized how distracted we've become, or maybe we thought it was normal to avoid people online and in real life who don't believe, think, or have the same opinions we do.
Our inability to genuinely connect with the people in front of us is hurting us not just on a personal level, but on a national and global level, too.
If we're able to see the beauty that lies within the complexity of all human beings, including in their own opinions, thoughts, and beliefs, we're not just transforming ourselves; we're transforming the world.
Headlee, C. (2017). We need to talk: How to have conversations that matter. HarperCollins Publisher.
We view therapy as a way to reflect healthy conversations where you can explore your thoughts, opinions, and beliefs in a safe space. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, visit our therapists here.