A Guide to Having More Meaningful Conversations

You can really feel the difference a genuine conversation makes. I’ve left some talks feeling invigorated with new ideas. Others I have left feeling that I’ve just lost twenty minutes of my life that I will never get back. So how do you create more meaningful conversations and avoid the small talk that drains life away?

Although there are a lot of elements that go into a good conversation, I’ve found that there are only two rules that are extremely important:

  1. The conversation is not about you.
  2. You need to give trust to get trust.

Keeping these two rules in mind won’t make all of your chats life changing, but they have helped me enjoy more meaningful conversations.

Rule One: The Conversation is Not About You

As a species, we’re incredibly self-absorbed. I’m sure I’m a fairly average person, and I would wager that a good 85% of my thoughts are only about me. My problems. My work. My entertainment. My life.

I’d guess for another 10% of the time I spend thinking, I think of other people. But during this chunk I’m only thinking about how those relationships apply to me. What do my friends think of me? Who would I like to spend time with today? My relationships.

Only about 5% of my time would be spent thinking about others from their perspective. This rare occasion is called empathy, and I’d guess that even the most empathetic of us wouldn’t spend more than 5-10% of their time in this state of mind. Seeing as only 5% of my energy is devoted to thinking about your thoughts, you begin to get a picture of where my interests are.

Since only a few percentage points are devoted to empathy, a quick way to ruin conversations is to talk non-stop about yourself. Here are a few better subject matters that create more meaningful conversations:

  • Talk about the other person. Be interested, not just interesting.
  • Frame your situation as it relates to them. Many successful bloggers write mostly about themselves. Why do people still read them? Because the focus is outwards. They talk about their passions, experiences and knowledge as it applies to you.
  • Talk about a mutual subject. Discuss something that both of you can easily relate to. Conversations in the shared space of mutual passions are usually the most meaningful.

Rule Two: You Have to Give Trust to Get Trust

A great conversation connects people together. More than just trading ideas, a meaningful conversation usually involves both sides opening up. Trust is necessary for complete openness. You probably don’t share your life’s dreams, fears and experiences with random strangers on the bus. Without trust, conversations can’t go below the surface.

There are only two ways you can create trust in a conversation:

  1. Give trust by opening yourself up.
  2. Give trust by supporting openness on the other side.

You can get trust in a conversation by taking the first step. Revealing some vulnerability to the other side declares that you have trust in them. If I share some of my interests, I run the risk of getting rejected or laughed at. Showing openness on your side can build trust.

Showing openness isn’t the same as complaining. If you lack confidence, you may close yourself off by hedging any statements with self-bashing. True openness states confidence, so don’t confuse vulnerability with low self-esteem. I’m much more impressed by the football player who tells me he loves listening to Abba than the person who jokes that she is a dumb blonde.

Just being open isn’t always enough to build trust. The other person may be closed even if you show all your cards. The second method is to reward the person for trusting you. This means that you support them when they take a step by

revealing something personal. These steps are a bad time to tell jokes, since that punishes their openness and closes off communication.

How to Have More Meaningful Group Conversationsdiscuss1.jpg

Having a meaningful conversation with several people is much harder than a one-on-one. For starters, trust is harder to
build since I need to trust everyone in the group. Group conversations also usually have more people trying to be funny, which can accidentally step on members trying to open up.

You can make group conversations more meaningful simply by picking the right environment. I’ve had many meaningful conversations in Toastmasters simply because negativity on others ideas isn’t supported.

Group conversations can also be made more meaningful if you can get one person to open up with an interesting topic. If someone needs to take a risk in the conversation to make things more interesting, it might as well be you. If you see someone else taking a risk by adding something new, add something on to keep the conversation going.

Meaningful conversations don’t need to be somber. My face has hurt from laughing so hard after many genuine conversations. The key is to be careful when the ball starts rolling so that you don’t use humor to step on another person’s ideas.

Following the two rules won’t make all your conversations perfect. But I have kept them in mind to stop myself when I might violate them. Talking about myself without framing it in the other persons interests or closing off other people’s ideas is a great way to fumble a conversation.

Photo by [phil h].

  • Bobbi

    Thanks for the post. It’s such a treat, indeed, when I come away from a conversation knowing I’ve connected with someone. It’s connecting with the human in all of us that makes us feel so good. My kids laugh when I schmooze with store clerks. Why not? It makes me smile and I know for the ones who do more than grunt back, I’ve made the large, cold metropolis we live in more like a community. After a true conversation with a friend, we’ve blessed each other with what we all want: I see you and honor your existence. First time commenter, Bobbi

    • Bobbi,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I love to see first time commenters!

      I certainly agree that making conversation, for its own sake, can really add a human element to our day-to-day interactions. It’s amazing how interesting people are when you probe a bit beneath the surface.

      As someone who is naturally reserved, it took me long time to develop the confidence to strike up conversations with strangers, but now there are few things I enjoy more.

  • I used to feel the same way as you. Now it works better for me when I think of interactions as a two-way conversation. To say that a conversation is not about me makes me not want to be in a conversation.

    It is true that many people talk too much about themselves, and not enough about the other person.

    A conversation is about two people enjoying eachother, and relating emotionally.

    I teach social skills.

    • I agree. The most meaningful conversations I have are two-way exchanges that are very much about me, but they are also very much about the other person.

      I think Scott has done well, though, to warn people about the dangers of being too self-absorbed.

  • You’ve got to take a genuine interest in what other people have to say and encourage them to talk about their lives. Anything insincere will be pretty apparent.

  • Great post. Awareness of my own communication habits has helped me have more meaningful conversations. Our body language communicates more than we are normally aware of. An example of this; someone is agreeing with what we are saying, but has their arms crossed on their chest. They are not really in agreement with us.
    Tuning into nonverbal/body language can really boost a persons conversational compitance. A great book to read on this is “The definitive book of Body Language.” by Allan and Barbara Please.

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  • I enjoy talking with friends and strangers about anything and everything – at coffee shops, cafés, and other third places. What helps me to engage an learn from others is having an attitude of openness towards difference.

  • Jimi

    Thank you so much for this article

  • hey

    Wow i read this acticle and immeadiatly started having meaningful conversations. I just do not know what to say to the people who do not have meaningful conversations anymore. I look them in the eye and I say I am not sure what I want to order yet waitress, but how was your day and what do you think about gOD?
    Thank you

  • other third places. What helps me to engage an learn from others is having an attitude of openness towards difference.

  • Great post. Awareness of my own communication habits has helped me have more meaningful conversations. Our body language communicates more than we are normally aware of. An example of this

  • kx1

    I think of interactions as a two-way conversation. To say that a conversation is not about me makes me not want to be in a conversation.

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