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{54c12dad2cc2b53ae830e39915b1a3e70288dbcbbeb8bbf8395437c5dc3c512c} of my thoughts are only about me. My problems. My work. My entertainment. My life.

I’d guess for another 10{54c12dad2cc2b53ae830e39915b1a3e70288dbcbbeb8bbf8395437c5dc3c512c} 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{54c12dad2cc2b53ae830e39915b1a3e70288dbcbbeb8bbf8395437c5dc3c512c} 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{54c12dad2cc2b53ae830e39915b1a3e70288dbcbbeb8bbf8395437c5dc3c512c} of their time in this state of mind. Seeing as only 5{54c12dad2cc2b53ae830e39915b1a3e70288dbcbbeb8bbf8395437c5dc3c512c} 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].


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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