One of the skills I continue to work on is the art of conversation. This seems to be key to so many things I’m interested in, from management to communication to cognitive science. And it has the added benefit of being useful at parties!
So what makes for a good conversationalist?
One of the qualities I try to cultivate in myself is broad interests. I like to know a little bit about a lot of things. This gives me an advantage in conversations in that no matter where the conversation goes, I am interested, and can often contribute some thoughts or experiences. Over the course of the past few months, I can recall conversations about motorcycles, sports of all sorts, management, investment, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, geek culture, programming, games, music, etc. The conversation about motorcycles particularly sticks in my brain because a friend of a friend had a Ducati and three of us were gathered around it ooh-ing and aah-ing, and my friend was completely bored and left out of the conversation for 15 minutes. I felt bad for my friend, but didn’t know how to steer the conversation back towards territory where he would be more comfortable.
Because I have broad but shallow interests, I have the advantage that I rarely have turf to defend in a conversation. As I mentioned in my other post, the flow of conversation requires a collaborative effort where people are looking to construct new understanding, not defend their existing position. Adversarial relations turn conversations into arguments. So my lack of expertise may actually contribute to me having better conversations, as I have no positions to defend, and I’m generally open to new viewpoints. I’m even learning to get past my ego and stop trying to use conversations as an arena to show off how clever I am. Mostly.
Those who have a deep but narrow focus can be interesting to talk to for a while, as they are passionate about their subject. It’s fun to get them talking about their research, especially if I can relate it back to topics that I find interesting. Unfortunately, once the conversation leaves their topic of expertise, they don’t have anything to say. If I’m on my game, I can serve as an impedance matcher, translating things into concepts they find interesting, but that’s a skill that I’m still working on.
I’m still figuring all of this out, of course. I am nowhere near as successful at talking to people as I’d like to be – there are many people with whom I fail to have even perfunctory conversations. But every now and then, I have moments of progress; last week, I went to a holiday party where I knew nobody but the host and managed to have several interesting conversations with people about various topics. Interestingly, I do best in one-on-one conversations because it forces me to take the lead. Small group conversations of a few people work as well, where I can lay back a bit but still contribute. Once the group size exceeds about 6 people or so, though, I’ll fade into invisiblity because I’m not yet assertive enough to assume anybody should care what I have to say.
Conversation as an art form continues to fascinate me because it’s a realm in which I feel relatively comfortable. I’m reading a book on leadership now, and its advice is to “discover and cultivate that authentic self, the part of you that is most alive, the part that is most you.” I sometimes wonder if conversation is my element. A good conversation can energize me for days. Great conversations stay in my thoughts for years (often aided by me writing them up). I love taking ideas out and bouncing them around and collaborating in the process of synthesis. I thrive in the interstices between other people. I’m still not quite sure what that adds up to as far as a career path, but I’ll keep on playing with it.
P.S. Ironically, I should be out at a nextNY holiday party having conversations right now, but I was too socially exhausted to go. After finishing off my master’s project proposal last Tuesday, I was doing something social for six nights straight, with a few of those nights double booked. I ended up coming down with a cold, and decided to stay in for a couple nights to recover. Tomorrow night, the big push to Christmas starts, though 🙂
P.P.S. In the spirit of starting conversations, the book I’m reading claims that Emerson used to greet friends with “What’s become clear to you since we last met?” What a wonderful question. I need to adopt it in my life. And I ask it of anybody reading this post!