How English Native Speakers Do It: Having Worthwhile Conversations to Connect and Grow

When we learn the rules for polite conversations in English, those in the know tell us to avoid controversial topics: don’t talk about religion, politics, or unpleasant or sad topics. Frankly, that’s what I want to hear about. Maybe you feel the same way.

When it comes to talking, though, I am a different person. I’m not going to lie: some of my favorite conversations are ones where I get to talk a lot. However, I hate it when people ask me about controversial topics, because I feel vulnerable giving away my thoughts. What if the listener judges me? I tend to want to control what I hear and what I say. A blog is a great format for me, because no one talks back (except the spammers!). Maybe you feel the same way.

There’s a part of me that wants to control what I hear, what I say, and the reaction the other person has. Maybe you feel the same way.

A good conversation leaves you feeling like you have learned something new about another person or about the world–in other words, you feel more connected. So the question is, how can I have a good conversation? More specifically, what are the rules for good conversation in English?

One approach is the one offered by Celeste Headlee, a radio host who has interviewed hundreds of people. She gave a TED talk where she suggested 10 basic rules for having a good conversation. I have summarized Headlee’s rules for you:

  1. Be present. In a conversation, don’t multitask, don’t check your phone or watch people walking around.
  2. Assume you have something to learn. Everyone is an expert in something. Don’t pontificate, don’t push your own opinions too strongly.
  3. Ask open-ended questions. If you use the yes/no format, you will not learn much. If you use a question word–who, what, where, why, when, how—then the speaker will provide a more personal or original answer. For example, don’t ask “were you angry?” Instead ask, “how did you feel?”
  4. It’s like meditating. Stories and ideas will enter your head while another person talks. Let your stories and ideas simply melt away. Headlee says, “go with the flow.”
  5. “If you don’t know, say you don’t know,” Headlee says.
  6. It’s not about you. Don’t steal someone else’s spotlight by breaking in with your own “similar” story. Your life is not the same as someone else’s. Don’t equate your life with theirs. Conversations are not opportunities to promote yourself.
  7. “Try not to repeat yourself,” Headlee advises, acknowledging this is hard to do.
  8. Skim the surface. When you are painstakingly providing names and dates, you are boring your listener. Unless it makes a point, leave out the small details. Headlee calls this “staying out of the weeds.’
  9. “Listen,” she says. This is the most important point. In the beginning of her talk, she even jokes about how we are told to make eye contact, nod our heads, and give feedback channels like “uh-huh,” in English to show we are listening. She says if we are actually listening, it will be obvious.
  10. “Be brief,” she says. She also punctuated her advice with this slide:
Celeste Headlee’s Slide: “Be Brief”

Headlee said if you can even become an expert at just one of her rules, your conversations will improve. I am guessing you are already practicing some of these. Personally, I want to learn to stop repeating myself!

One of the main takeaway points from her advice was the role that control plays in listening versus speaking. When we are speaking, we are neither listening nor discovering the other person, and this can make us feel like we are the center of attention. Plus, we feel like we are bolstering our own identities. If the listener is actively interested in us, all of this is fine—for a while (but see Rule 10).

Still, listening to the other person can be satisfying. Headlee observes, “I am always prepared to be amazed, and I am never disappointed.

Headlee’s advice is a great start, but I still have questions. What do you do when you are in a conversation with someone, and they get distracted? What if they pontificate? What if they equate your story with their own story, and take over your spotlight? What if they are longwinded? What if the other person is overly controlling? And so on. This will have to be fodder for a post on “advanced conversation skills.”

With conversation, there is no set of rules that is going to work 100 percent of the time.  Like practically everything else when it comes to human interaction, you have to have a lot of experiences so that you arrive at your own personal default approach.

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