Sometimes I find conversations difficult. Now, I don’t mean because of the content, I mean because of the people involved. Something about the interaction between us just doesn’t seem to allow the conversation to flow: it is hesitant, full of awkward pauses and unfulfilling. Perhaps it is because of previous issues between us, maybe it is because of cultural, age or sex differences or maybe it is because… well… we just don’t seem to ‘click’. I’ve been a party in many of these types of conversations over the years and have spent some time reflecting upon their ruins! Mostly I thought about how it is my problem (I could certainly be a better listener) but in the end what I have discovered is that a change of situation seems to work better (and was a lot easier) than a change in me. So, if you are facing one of those awkward conversations, here are my three tips on how to make them better by changing the situation, along with examples of how I put them in to practice.
1) Eat Together
I’m sure psychologists, sociologist and anthropologists could give a complex explanation about why eating with someone helps improve conversation but I’ve got a simpler one that it is much more mechanical than psychosocial. Simply put, to eat you need to put food in your mouth and this means you have to STOP talking. How does that help? Well, for starters the awkward silences aren’t awkward anymore, they can be filled with food. It is socially acceptable, even desirable, that you don’t speak whilst actually eating, speaking is for the gaps between mouthfuls! If you don’t want to speak you have a ready made excuse not to… no pressure. However, perhaps more importantly, when one party has their mouth full the other has a chance to speak, they have unfettered access to the conversation, if they want it, and can direct the topic to whatever they choose. Food creates natural opportunities for a back and forth in the conversation, something which is often missing if one party tends to naturally dominate, it can force us to be better listeners!
Recently I felt that the consultant body at our hospital had become fragmented. Relationships were strained or non existent and at meetings the same limited group of voices would be heard whilst others would remain silent. I decided to arrange an irregular, informal get together over a basic lunch of bread, cheese, ham, and drinks. It was a simple plan but the impact has been encouraging. Colleagues who rarely talked in other settings found a voice and those who would previously dominate a conversation got the chance to listen. Rather than the same old voices of the past, a range of voices were now heard amongst the buzz of conversations as consultants got to know new friends for the first time and old ones a bit better. Although there is still a long way to go, relationships amongst colleagues seem better, we are slowly becoming a more cohesive group and I keep getting asked when the next lunch meeting is!
2) Walk Together
Struggling to talk with someone? Go for a walk with them. Honestly, it works! Now we’re not talking about Aaron Sorkin levels of walking and talking but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much easier a conversation develops as you move your feet. Perhaps as you travel through your surroundings there are opportunities to comment on what you pass by, loosening the tongue, but I think it is more to do with eye contact… there is none, or at least very little. There is an emotional intimacy associated with eye contact, particularly in a one on one situation, which can be off putting for some people, yet avoiding eye contact would be seen as socially awkward and create a negative atmosphere. When we walk alongside someone we can’t practically make eye contact with each other, so it becomes socially acceptable not to, and thus that potential barrier is removed. You can feel hurt, angry, jealous or betrayed and let your face show it without the fear of the impact it will have on your companion. Spared the effort of controlling your face you can concentrate on how and what you say and also what you are hearing, making for a better, more productive conversation.
A few years ago I struggled to speak with one of my management colleagues. We didn’t have a good relationship and conversations were always tense between us. One day I took a chance and emailed him asking if he wanted to go for a walk around the hospital grounds, after all, it was sunny! He agreed and as we walked I felt more able to speak to him about how I was feeling and I was able to listen to him more clearly as well. It became a semi regular part of our work relationship, allowed us to move past where we had been and our relationship has been so much better for it.
3) Work Together
Here is the opportunity to achieve two goals at once: next time you have a job that needs doing, invite the person you are struggling to talk with to help. It might be a cupboard at work that needs clearing out, a bedroom at home that needs tidying, a teaching resource that needs printed/stapled/sorted but if it is appropriate to ask them for assistance, see if they will help. This has similar benefits to walking, as prolonged eye contact is avoided as each of you works on the task at hand, but it works in other ways too. It makes silence acceptable between you as you both concentrate on what needs doing; it creates opportunities for neutral conversation about the task as you work towards a united goal; and it also gives you the chance to say something positive and appreciative as you thank the person for their assistance… which is always helpful. From these moments, turning the conversation to the topic you wish to discuss, or perhaps the one they want to, becomes easier.
This is a strategy I regularly used with my teenage children at times of strained relationships. Asking them to help with a task that I need to do, or better still, offering to help them with a task they don’t want to do (bedroom cleaning, school art projects), has inevitably led to some of the best parent-child conversations I’ve had. It opened blocked lines of communication and allowed us to demonstrate our desire and ability to support each other during tough times, with the added bonus of getting to a situation where the vacuum cleaner could actually find bedroom carpet to clean!
I’ve no idea if any of these three tips are backed by scientific theories, I just know I’ve tried them in most of the relationships in my life at some point and they seem to work. If you’re struggling with a conversation you need to have with someone and don’t know what to do, perhaps you could try one of these… you might be pleasantly surprised.