The Joy of Conversation
By Bruce Rosove,
Conversation is an art form. But do people value being good at conversations ? Or more specifically, do people want to speak and listen and do they know how to do it well?
Conversation consists of both speaking and listening.
Listening is an art form. Many people pay a great deal just to be listened to. If you’ve ever gone to a coach, a counsellor a therapist, a doctor or even a dentist you know how important being listened to is. Imagine a dentist who does not listen to us before he or she starts work. He might drill or pull the wrong tooth! So listening is important. People value being listened to. But do people value being the listener? Or more specifically, do people want to listen and do they know how to do it well?
The answer varies.
How do you feel about listening to others? How do you feel about being listened to? Do you have a system that helps you listen well? Can you describe the process you use to make sure that you listen well and that your message is heard accurately?
There are at least two elements to good conversation skills. Focus, that is, giving your full attention to the other person and Structure. Both full attention and structure are key to having successful conversations.
The First Element: Focus
To focus, each person must give his/her full attention to the conversation.
This means that both need to let go of all their concerns and focus on the conversation. This is easy to say, harder to do. It takes effort.
So, if you are listening, listen with your full attention. Wait for the speaker to finish his or her thought. Let go of anything but paying attention to the speaker’s words. That is all. Do nothing but listen. Just listen!
And if you are speaking concentrate on offering a clear message and watch for signs that the other person wants to ask a question or to have something clarified. If you don’t pick up on this, your conversation partner will likely miss important information you are offering.
The second element of good conversation, structure, makes it much easier to focus.
The Second Element: Structure
By “structure”, I mean a set of stages in the interaction. Each stage has its role to play in making sure that, if we are listening we are listening attentively, assisting the speaker to get in touch with his or her wisdom and passion about the topic in question. If we are the speaker, structure helps us organize how we deliver our important message.
Being focused means we are speaking clearly and watching for signs from our listener that he or she needs to ask a question or clarify something. This structure helps us be attentive to our listener.
The Five Steps in a Conversation
1. Setting a Contract
Have you ever thought you were in a conversation only to discover that the other person did not really want to speak with you? Setting a contract is designed to make sure that both the listener and the speaker really want to have this conversation. It seems obvious, but, quite often one of the two people in this situation don’t want to talk right then.
Creating a contract for the conversation can be as simple as saying:
“Would you like to spend the next 10 minutes discussing this situation?”
The amount of time and other details of the agreement to have a conversation vary, of course. The key is to make sure the other person is open and able to take part in the conversation. Sometimes the invitation to converse leads to a plan for a conversation at a later time.
2. Identify the Topic
If the other person does agree you can move on to the next stage, Identifying the topic. Again, it seems obvious, but it is important to ensure that you both are clear on what the speaker wants to speak about and that the listener is open to discussing that topic.
It is up to the person wanting to speak to say what it is they’d like to discuss. And it’s up to the listener to reflect back to the speaker his/her understanding of what the topic is.
Once the topic is agreed to it’s time for the speaker to begin speaking about the topic.
As the conversation moves along, it is important to pause and give the listener a chance to ask clarifying questions. And that takes us to the next stage in the structure of a skillful conversation.
3. Clarifying Questions
Once the speaker has described enough of the situation that the listener thinks he or she has a sense of the message. Or if the listener realizes he/she is not clear about what the speaker has said, the listener asks questions either to confirm understanding or to get clarification if needed.
The listener will be asking questions that help him or her understand exactly what the speaker is saying. I often see this stage as the heart of the process. This is where you support the speaker to get in touch with exactly what he or she wants you to know. Often speakers will be surprised or pleased that this part of the conversation has helped them understand for themselves what they need or want. They get in touch with their own wisdom! This can be very empowering for the individual. It’s also very satisfying for the listener!
Note that if the listener has not understood what the speaker has said. Or if the understanding is only partly correct or complete, the speaker will clarify. This can take several sets of the speaker explaining, the listener asking clarifying questions and the speaker providing more information to make his or her message clearer.
The key is that you are both working to gain understanding. I sometimes think of this as a sort of “dance”.
Once, you, as the listener, feel you have a good understanding of what the speaker has been explaining to you. It’s time to Summarize. This is the fourth stage in the structure. In this stage, Listeners summarize what they think the speaker has been telling them and ask the speaker whether they have got it right. Often the speaker will say that you’ve got it partly right. If that is the case you ask more clarifying questions and summarize again when you have a clearer picture. When the speaker tells you that your summary describes what they were trying to communicate you have completed this stage.
5 Deciding on What, if any, Actions to take.
Once the speaker feels he or she has been heard and understood by the listener, it is time to discuss whether any action is needed and who does what if actions are needed.
This can lead to another stage in the conversation.
The key is that each person in the conversation is heard and feels that he or she has been heard accurately.
Some more tips for Listeners.
In all stages
Ask open ended questions like: What do you think the problem is?
Avoid questions that start with the word “why”.
Questions that ask “where”, “when”, “how” “what” work well to help the speaker be more and more clear about what he or she is trying to explain or explore. These questions are especially useful in the Clarifying stage. But they can be useful in all stages.
In the Clarifying Questions stage
Do not ask questions that are action planning in disguise.
Questions like: “Have you tried x solution to your problem.”
Are action planning in disguise.
If you’re in the Action Planning stage you could ask:
“What would you like to do about (the problem that you have now identified).”
Where are the Conversation Skills Useful?
The skills I have outlined here are skills that we can all use. We don’t have to be professional listeners to benefit from listening in this way. Listening in this way can be of great value when you are doing a job search, when you’re doing research for a project or when you are in a conflict with a spouse, a child, a neighbour or a co-worker. Good conversation skills are important just about any time you are speaking with someone. Generally, the more important the conversation, the more important these skills are.
Good conversation Skills can bring a great deal of peace to your life and the life of those around you.