Our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time.
It’s easy to dismiss this notion, but the power of our words is inestimable. The art of engaging in clear, confident, and coherent conversation seems to be going the way of the fax machine. The major difference is that the value of face-to-face communication skills will never be outdated or trumped by new technology.
Watching a baby use sign language as a tool before they have language skills is both adorable and practical. I wasn’t aware of this method when my children were infants but whoever popularized this should win a Nobel prize. It’s a brilliant way to bridge the gap in communication until infants develop verbal skills. When taught to use sign language, babies have the ability to convey what they need or want before they learn to talk. By age two, most children are progressing with developing a vocabulary. Then they can use words instead of crying or whining when they need something. The goal is for them to become articulate.
Oh, that we would all aspire to become more articulate and have better conversations. Conversation leads to the exchange of ideas and allows us to develop meaningful relationships.In a fascinating article in The Atlantic, high school teacher and writer Paul Barnwell states, “Conversational competence might be the single-most overlooked skill we fail to teach students. Kids spend hours each day engaging with ideas and one another through screens—but rarely do they have an opportunity to truly hone their interpersonal communication skills.”
Perhaps the fact that teens text an average of 111 messages every day contributes to this conversational illiteracy. It’s not just teens texting instead of talking, but it seems to be snowballing with successive generations. Our cultural dependence on technology is only one factor contributing to the degeneration of civil conversation.
The inability, or unwillingness, of vast numbers of adults to engage in meaningful dialogue affects all of us. It contributes to the staggering divorce rate in our country. A breakdown in communication disrupts families, the workplace, our government – it undermines the foundation of every strata of society.
Considering that relationships are the heart of happiness in life, better conversation is a critical skill. Relationships are built through personal connectedness. Meaningful conversation leads to trust, which in turn releases oxytocin, a powerful neurotransmitter. Oytocin is known as the “love hormone” and is a marker enabling scientists to measure the happiness level of humans. It is possible to experience connection without the benefit of conversation. One example is the bonding through touch with babies. But adults usually rely on verbal exchange in order to build relationships.
Five Ways to Have a Better Conversation
1) Be fully present. This goes beyond putting away your cell phone and maintaining eye contact while minimizing external distractions. It means giving another your full attention.
2) Don’t interrupt or talk over others. Conversation can be compared to a game of tennis – you volley and only swing when the ball is in your court. Wait your turn – that’s how it works!
3) Listen. This is a skill that some personalities are more naturally gifted in than others. But it’s a trait we all need to work on. Why is it so hard to listen well? One factor is the way our brains work. The average person talks at about 225 word per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. That gives your brain time to fill the space with thinking about what you are going to say next, or what you have to do next, or perhaps you just let your mind drift.
4) Refrain from being repetitive. Since we want to be heard and make sure people understand what we are saying, we tend to rephrase and repeat our point in several different ways. Unless you are talking to a two-year- old, this is boring and even condescending
5) Know how to land it – don’t talk too long. Don’t be one of those people others avoid because they don’t have time to get trapped in your web of words. In learning the craft of writing, I was taught that good writing is clear thinking made visible. This applies to conversation as well; good conversation is clear thinking expressed verbally. Know when it’s time to stop talking. Memorable conversations include breathing space.
The school of masterful communication is a lifelong learning program. There are major benefits for staying in school. You are much more likely to get what you want when you learn to say what you mean without rancor. Listening to another without becoming offended can transform a relationship. Having better conversations is not science, it’s art. Webster’s dictionary defines art as “a personal, unanalyzable creative power”. The power to be articulate is within you. Be intentional with it and prepare to be amazed.