What makes a good conversation? Three things I learned by asking this question

In 2012 I traveled to Australia and New Zealand for a couple of months. It was such a highlight. As a fresh Masters graduate, I wanted to experience being away from home for a prolonged period and to travel to a place I had never been before. So I bought my tickets, found a couple of places to stay (friends of friends and hostels) and went on my way. I had traveled alone before, but that was just two weeks to Israel. This was my first big trip alone, without friends or family.

The trip was one of my personal highlights. I had experiences I had never had before, met and spent time with people I otherwise would never have and saw views like never before. There was one thing that struck me though, after being there for a bit over two weeks: I started to feel really lonely. To be honest, this really came out of the blue. I met interesting people and I definitely was not alone; but somehow I did feel lonely. I remember missing the depth of conversations and relationships I had back home and the comfort of having people around me that really know me. Especially when I was backpacking and when I was on the move: I had the same conversations over and over again.

Now for me it was just a long holiday, but many people experience loneliness in the place they live. This is especially an issue in larger cities (see these articles by Vice and CBRE for example). Chronic loneliness can lead to mental and even physical health issues. So it’s great that all kinds of initiatives are takento battle loneliness in cities. In New York initiatives of connecting strangers are happening, in Amsterdam The Music Salon organizes dance events for lonely elderly and my church for example organized a Christmas dinner for people who either don’t have any family to celebrate Christmas with or who don’t have the means to afford a Christmas dinner. In London, an 18-month project The Loneliness Lab was started to make the city less lonely.

In addition to all these great initiatives, I feel that there is something that all of us can do. Even though not all of us feel lonely, I think most of us are familiar with the feeling. And generally, we all appreciate a good conversation. I think the feeling of being heard, being known and having someone to talk to can really help. Not just to battle loneliness, but also to accelerate our own personal growth, strengthen our relationships and simply to have more fun and be less occupied with yourself.

Hopefully most of us know what it feels like to have a good conversation and what it can do for us. I asked my connections on my Instagram what it means for them to have a good conversation. It was interesting to see all the different responses. I am grouping some of the main responses together here – to give you three keys how to have better conversations.

Listen more than you talk

This was the most common response. Apparently it’s quite common – at least in my circle – to talk more than you want. To end a conversation thinking: “did I just talk too much?” or “actually I still don’t know how they are doing!” I think many of us could to with a little more listening. During a coaching course I did last year, we did an exercise where two people were having a conversation, but only one was allowed to talk. The person who was listening was not allowed to keep his/her eyes open or to respond through any non-verbal response. I was skeptical about the exercise, but every person who talked gave a similar reflection: they all felt heard. All people who listened gave a similar response as well. As they did not have to think about their reaction, all their energy and focus went to listening and they felt they were able to remember so much more of the conversation.

Maybe sometimes it really is best to listen. Not just to listen to give a good response, but to actually hear what someone has to say.

Understanding each others perspective

Many responses on my Instagram request had to with understanding each other, having compassion and respect for each other and to learn from one another. So I grouped this into one: understanding each others perspective. This is a bit different from ‘listening more than talking’, but is unattainable without listening properly. I think really trying to understand each other starts with actually caring about others and what they think. It starts with being interested in where they are coming from and what their train of thought is. It also requires from us that we don’t try to be right – because it’s not about right and wrong. It’s about understanding somebody’s point of view. That might actually give you a lot of insight into other thought processes and considerations.

When we understand each others perspective, we don’t have to agree with each others opinions or expressions, but at least we have given each other respect and mutual understanding. I think this would improve our society a huge amount. I want to try better to understand people instead of being right all the time as well.

Finally: having fun

The last type of response very much had to do with having fun and laughter. I think we all need this. I think laughter and fun is such an underestimated medicine against all kinds of evils. My day is simply better if I have a good laugh. So maybe another resolution can be to not just have serious conversations all the time. Be creative. Have a bit of fun. Talk about stuff that isn’t too important. And maybe try to crack a joke.

Loneliness and mental illness is not something we can change overnight, but if there’s something we can all do: I think having more good conversations this year is at least something we can do. Who knows, you might actually help someone at your work, in your neighborhood or at your school who really needed that conversation.

And finally: if you are in need of having a good conversation, please be bold enough to reach out!

4 thoughts on “What makes a good conversation? Three things I learned by asking this question

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