Even the most transient encounter can be a rewarding interpersonal experience when we learn to have a meaningful conversation by asking genuine questions and truly listening to others.
Do you ever wish you could read minds? Imagine being able to perceive other people’s thoughts to discern the truthfulness of their words.
We often think about such ability as resulting from some supernatural sensibility. For those who believe in the Christian concept of revelation through the Holy Ghost, such a supernatural sensibility does exist. However, when we take into account the potential to recognize people’s inner thoughts through divine inspiration, we must recognize that even this type of extra-human communication does not occur unless it is preceded by effort on our part—an effort to ask questions and listen with sincerity.
People usually mask their true feelings behind superficial communication. When we take the time to inquire about others’ lives and wellbeing with genuine interest and then listen with unfeigned attention, we are able to perceive motives, worries, thoughts and inhibitions that normally go undetected. We are able to have a meaningful conversation.
The problem is that most of the time we are so concerned with our own affairs that we talk with others out of a concern for courtesy and political correctness, but not out of a sincere appreciation for them as people. As a result, our words are shallow, trivial and terse. Naturally, a person thus spoken to responds with conversational self-defense in similarly brusque manner.
The following is a familiar conversation that doesn’t seem familiar at first. It is not what we actually say, but what we express with our mannerisms. If thoughts were words, we’d certainly have the following dialogue memorized by now. The “Sender” is the individual who initiates the conversation, while the “Receiver is the one who reacts to the first contact.
Receiver: If he takes no further interest in me, why did he bother to talk to me in the first place? Probably to serve his own ego, telling himself that briefly acknowledging my existence makes him more morally praiseworthy.
Sender: My catch-and-release method of conversation is quite clever, isn’t it? I think that it’s important to recognize you so you feel like you matter. However I don’t want you to get too attached to me. I don’t find you quite useful or attractive enough.
Another common exchange is the following:
Receiver: Hey! It’s my good friend from a couple days ago. I can’t wait to return his kindness in starting up an unexpected-but-pleasant conversation.
Sender: Oh no! It’s him again. Maybe if I stare straight at my computer screen and pretend to be busy, he’ll realize I’m not interested in sharing his company.
Receiver: He seems a bit distracted. It’s probably me. If I show more enthusiasm, smile and throw in a good joke, he’s sure to open up.
Sender: Great, now he’s talking louder and more obnoxiously than ever. I never wanted this conversation. I wish he’d understand I want to be left to myself.
These examples highlight the fact that people are prone to animalistic and undisciplined tendencies when talking. So how do we change these dispositions and have a meaningful conversation?
Ask with genuine interest. See every person you encounter for what he is: a son of God, a unique individual with a set of life experiences, talents and perspectives particular to him. We consume books and television to learn about interesting, often fictional, human lives. We do so in order to get out of ourselves for a while. But we ignore the fascinatingly complex individuality of the real person standing in front of us. Engrain the value of that individual in your mind, and ask a sincere question—not “how do you like this weather?”
Ask the same way you would ask about the current state of your favorite sports team, or about the episode you missed of your latest soap opera. If you formulate even just one genuine question, this starts a chain reaction, a meaningful interchange of question, answer and opinion. You have a meaningful conversation.
Listen with sincere attention. Do you space out when someone is talking to you? Do you daydream, or think about what you’re going to have for dinner? Unless you begin to really listen, you will never have a meaningful conversation. Can you really appreciate Van Gogh’s Starry Night if you’re playing Angry Birds the entire time you’re at the art gallery? Will you really get Mozart’s Requiem if you’re on your cell phone during the concert? Listening involves processing words and letting them sink in. Really listen, and conversation will become as enjoyable as fine art.
It’s a simple formula. So the next time you find yourself next to a stranger on the bus or in the elevator, quick looking at your watch—introduce yourself, ask with genuine interest and listen with sincere attention. Discover the beauty of human individuality by learning to have a meaningful conversation.