At an end-of-summer backyard party, I chatted with a few neighbors about grown children, grand kids, to downsize or not, local restaurants. Small talk. After the party, I thought about contacting two women to renew friendships that had gone fallow. One suggested that I tag along on her daily, five-mile walk (not sure about that) and the other was outgoing and knew all the local hot spots. However, I hesitated to make a date, unsure what we would talk about. How do you take a conversation beyond party chatter, perhaps even develop a friendship?
To find suggestions, I Googled a variety of terms about conversations and discovered a trove of advice, ranging from the Harvard Business Review to TED talks. I want to share some excellent advice on how to become a better conversationalist, which can lead to developing and deepening friendships.
How exactly do we begin a meaningful conversation? The experts warn that the standard “And what do you do?” doesn’t work, which is good because many potential friends have retired! And even if we share a work connection—past or present—that limits us to only one common denominator. For friendship to flourish, we need what sociologists call “multiplex ties,” notes David Burkus, a best-selling author, in the Harvard Business Review.
While his article, Eight Questions To Ask Other Than ‘What Do you Do?’, is aimed at business networking, some suggestions are great conversation starters for all of us including:
What’s the best thing that happened to you this year? I use this question to engage students at the beginning of every semester. It’s a quick way to find out some interesting tidbit that you can expand on.
What do you do for fun? Of course, if you’re living in a golf community this may be a no-brainer but what else? One neighbor asked another that question and the result was an 18-mile bike ride along the beach with a midpoint stop for a glass of wine. We might not only get an answer but an adventure too.
Where did you grow up? Burkus writes that this is less assertive than, “Where are you from?” Sometimes hearing about a person’s childhood can make a connection because of similar childhoods or a discovery of a fascinating culture.
What are you looking forward to? While this can backfire into a travelogue of upcoming trips, sometimes that can be a connection. One friend mentioned plans to visit Greece to a few people at a party and now has four new travelling companions. Beyond travel, what are people’s plans for winter and 2019?
Another expert, Celeste Headlee, has interviewed people from all walks of life as a host on Georgia Public Radio. She shared what she has learned in a Ted talk, with more than 12 million views. She expanded her talk into a book, We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter, in which she offers some excellent tips:
Ask open-ended questions. This is journalism school 101; avoid closed-ended questions, “Did you like the movie?” Instead ask an open-ended question that requires more than a yes or no: “What did you like about the movie?” That simple technique can turn conversations around.
Stay out of the weeds: Or as my daughter often reminds me, “Mom, the Cliffs Notes version, please!” No one really wants to hear every detail of a vacation or a family crisis or social encounter. Give a big picture for whatever story and keep it short. If a friend wants to know more, she’ll ask.
Don’t pontificate or, as Headlee, writes in her book, “Get off the soapbox.” In the current divisive political and social climate, we may sometimes steer clear of hot button issues. “But if an argument is coming, face it and try to make it a productive as possible,” she writes. Don’t make the argument personal, discuss solutions, not differences and be willing to let the other person win (or at least end gracefully).
Listen: For Headlee and other experts, listening, really listening–not thinking about what you are saying next–is the best way to understand people and strengthen ties. “Go out, talk to people, listen to people, and, most important, be prepared to be amazed,” she says in her talk.
Follow-up: The last tip comes from clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, author of The Friendship Fix. In a Huffington Post interview, she discussed how to strengthen friendships, noting that no matter how many times we talk with another person, the friendship can fizzle unless we follow up. The trick is to listen (!!) and to ask about a particular topic the next time we meet: “How was your doctor’s appointment?” or “How did the recipe come out?” or “Is your granddaughter feeling better?” Simple questions that showed we really listened can provide continuity and deepen friendship.
I’ll admit I haven’t followed up with those neighbors yet (the five miles still seems like a lot) but when I do I won’t worry about running out of conversation. In the meantime, I used some of the questions with a new acquaintance and we set a lunch date. You never know where you’ll find new friends. –by Mary W. Quigley
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