Do you make this mistake in conversations?

Years ago I suffered an exercise-related injury. My doctor referred me to a physical therapist. On my first appointment, the physical therapist welcomed me and introduced himself as Michael.

He patiently asked questions about my injury, listened intently, and explained what we would work on.

For several weeks, Michael helped me recover from my injury. As much as I appreciated his professional help, what I enjoyed more was his conversational style.

He was easy to talk to and a superb listener. He asked a lot of questions and was interested in my answers. There was no competition. I felt like it was important for him to learn more about me. When my physical rehabilitation ended, I missed the weekly conversations with Michael.

My doctor (when I lived in California) was another person whose conversations I always enjoyed. We occasionally met for lunch and he always asked questions and showed interest in what I had to say.

He listened well and was able to share his own stories and insights in a noncompetitive, flowing manner. We tended to talk about ideas more than everyday stuff, and I came away enriched by our conversations.

The poor quality of conversations today

What I seem to notice, increasingly, is the poor quality of conversations today.

Perhaps the ubiquity of social media, texting and digital communication has made us all impatient, distracted, rude conversationalists. We tend to talk at one another rather than with one another.

Just the other day, I was enjoying a latte in Starbucks, sketching in my journal. I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation next to me between two women. I don’t know their names, so we’ll call them Carole and Linda. It went something like this:

Carole: “So, how’s your daughter Jennifer doing?”

Linda: “Oh, she’s doing fine. We got her a tutor for math, ’cause she’s been struggling a little bit. Oh, and she’s trying out for the girl’s basketball team, so we’ll see.”

Carole: “Our Joseph is still on the varsity football team. We went to his game last Friday night. It was terrific. Look, let me show you (pulling out her phone and scrolling through pictures of the game). See, here he is making a touchdown. Oh, and he’s still eyeing Stanford University. It’s more expensive than the state university, but George and I know it will open doors for him. Joseph might even get a football scholarship. We’re working on that.”

All illustrations by: John P. Weiss

Linda: “Well that’s great. Oh hey, did I mention that Bob and I are thinking about going to Hawaii this summer? We haven’t had a vacation in a while, so we’re pretty…”

Carole (interrupting): “Oh, George and I went to Hawaii last year! Remember, I showed you pictures. We rented this amazing guest house right on the beach. Now that George got a promotion at work, we’re talking about going to Italy this summer. Don’t get me wrong, Hawaii was fun, but there’s just something about Europe that’s exciting. We were going to do one of those tour groups but decided to explore on our own. Like we did when we went to Scotland last year. Did I ever tell you what happened when we visited Edinburgh?”

It went on like that. Carole monopolized the conversation, often interrupting Linda to talk about herself and her family. Worse, Carole kept “one-upping” Linda. Whatever Linda had to say, Carole would counter with something better. The more I eavesdropped (I shouldn’t have but they were loud) the more annoyed I became with Carole.

“There cannot be greater rudeness than to interrupt another in the current of his discourse.”-John Locke

Competition disguised as conversation

How people converse tells you a lot about them. Egocentric people like everything to be about them, so they steer conversations back to their favorite topic: themselves. Shy, reserved people tend to listen more, but also fail to jump in and share. As a result, they get steamrolled in conversations.

Boisterous, overconfident people think they know everything and interrupt frequently to share their “brilliance.” Insecure people sometimes play the “one-upmanship” game, needing to go one better than whatever your accomplishment or success might have been.

Then there is the substance of conversations. It’s natural to begin conversations with standard pleasantries and superficial chit chat. The best conversations move past this, delving into a deeper back and forth. Perhaps sharing with one another about recent struggles or successes. Concerns and dreams. Each listening intently, not monopolizing the discussion, and contributing equally.

Or, the discussion forays into the realm of ideas. Things learned from books or lessons derived from a meaningful movie. These types of conversations are far more enriching than superficial gossip.

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” -Eleanor Roosevelt

A lot of conversations become competitions disguised as conversations. Each person is not really listening. They’re formulating and preparing their next thought and readying to interrupt. Neither is really learning anything from the other. It’s an awkward dance of egos.

“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.” -Simon Sinek

Even worse are the conversation hogs who hold you hostage with their long stories, recounting every mundane detail. Their stories frame themselves as heroes, brilliantly outsmarting everyone else and winning the day.

Or they devolve into a long rant, bitching and complaining about real or imagined slights. People who hold court over others might think they have a rapt audience, but they don’t. Their audience can’t wait for the pain to end.

I’m currently reading Tara Westover’s amazing memoir, “Educated.” Microsoft founder Bill Gates interviewed Tara Westover. On his website,, Gates describes the book as follows:

“Tara was raised in a Mormon survivalist home in rural Idaho. Her dad had very non-mainstream views about the government. He believed doomsday was coming, and that the family should interact with the health and education systems as little as possible. As a result, she didn’t step foot in a classroom until she was 17, and major medical crises went untreated (her mother suffered a brain injury in a car accident and never fully recovered).”

Watch the way Bill Gates talks with Tara Westover in the below discussion about her book. While this is more of an interview than a strict conversation, Gates displays all the earmarks of a wonderful conversationalist. He asks brief questions. He nods affirmatively and listens intently. Gates is a brilliant man, but he has no need to pontificate, lecture or tell long-winded stories. He is truly interested in what Tara Westover has to say.

Do more listening than talking

My wife took me to a beautiful winery once along the northern coast of California. We attended a special dinner and were seated with several other couples. The conversation was polite, as we all remarked on the beauty of our surroundings. But then a woman in the group made an overtly political comment, and in my youthful impetuousness, I couldn’t let it go.

Soon the woman and I were engaged in a heated political discussion. The woman’s date was older than her. A distinguished gentleman with white hair and an impeccable suit, he seemed bemused by our debate. He had listened quietly for quite some time. At some point, someone asked his opinion.

He leaned forward, and with a smile and twinkle in his eye, started to share an interesting story from history. It related to our political debate indirectly but took on its own form. The gentleman weaved a short story around it. About hope, loss, and how fruitless some of our battles are. It was brilliant. Elegant. Above the fray.

My wife missed it, having abandoned the table with another woman. My debate partner and I had been disarmed and shut down by this wise, articulate gentleman. I learned a lesson that night about humility.

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”-Bernard Baruch

Here’s the bottom line. We all do it. We all get caught up in ourselves from time to time. We want to be the center of attention. Our egos get the best of us. But the problem is, doing so often makes us utter bores.

The mistake we make in conversations is making it all about us.

People love a great listener. There’s a sense of validation when someone listens closely to what you have to say, nods affirmatively, and paraphrases back to you parts of what you said. When we discipline ourselves to stop steering the conversation back to ourselves, something amazing happens. People start to open up to us. They begin to trust us more. They go home after the conversation and tell others what a brilliant conversationalist you are.

Tips for better conversations

What follows are some helpful guidelines to improve your conversations. Learn and employ these tips, and watch what happens. You may find people seeking you out more for coffee, lunch or just to talk. People will start speaking highly of you, as someone who really listens and converses well.

Stop trying to be right

What is it with our need to be right all the time? It gets in the way of understanding others. Instead of trying to win a debate, how about trying to better understand where the other person is coming from?

Ask deeper questions, like, “Tell me why you believe that. I’d like to understand better.” Even if you disagree, you might gain valuable insights. Everyone has their beliefs and stories. If you’re always trying to slam them with your rehearsed talking points, then you’re not really conversing. You’re just feeding your ego.

There’s an old saying that sums up the importance of listening:

“God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. So you listen twice as much as you talk.”

If you’re talking, then you’re missing an opportunity to learn from others. Even people we dislike or disagree with may have wisdom to share. What kind of arrogance assures us that we have all the answers and everyone else is wrong? Learn to listen more.

Stop hogging the conversation

Perhaps you are a clever person and have tons of wisdom to impart. Maybe you possess a slew of personal stories about your successes and brilliant escapades. Guess what, most people aren’t all that interested. They may feign interest, but chances are they aren’t.

Yes, there are exceptions to this. If you are a paid speaker, people are probably there to learn from you. Or maybe you’re a soldier home from deployment, and your family can’t wait to hear about your tour of service. But for the rest of the time, at coffee or dinner with friends, don’t inflict long, uninvited stories about yourself on others.

My Dad was a Type A personality, which means he was impatient and authoritative. It caused him to have a heart attack, and he received counseling on how to better manage his Type A impatience. He once told me the following advice:

“In the middle of a story you’re telling friends at dinner, excuse yourself to use the restroom. When you come back and sit down, wait and see if anyone asks you to resume your story. Don’t be upset if they don’t. Our every day, personal stories are not always fascinating to others.”

Stop the one-upmanship

Some people just have to do you one better. Mention your promotion at work, and they’ll have to tell you about theirs, and why it’s more remarkable. Talk about how proud you are of your kid, and they’ll mention something better about their kid. It’s a twisted kind of insecurity. Like they have to compete with you.

We see this too with intellectual snobbery. The academic who has to correct others, and proceed with a mini-lecture on a particular topic. To most people, this kind of behavior looks like you’re wearing a signboard that says, “I’m totally insecure.”

Ask questions

The famous attorney Gerry Spence once wrote a book about winning arguments. It was an unconventional book, and different from the usual texts on logic and debate. In one part of the book, he talked about the uncommon knowledge found in others. The wisdom of truck drivers and janitors that cannot be found in books.

If we are to learn more about people and life, we should view each person as an exquisite interview opportunity. Like you, they have their own experiences and stories to tell. Why rehash your life story when you can learn from others? Learn to ask more questions.

“The size of our universe shrinks considerably when we place ourselves at the center. And the people who are most focused on themselves are the least satisfied in life.” -Joshua Becker

Embrace active listening

If you really want to blow people away as a conversationalist, don’t just listen attentively. Learn to paraphrase back what they said. Here’s an example:

“So that’s how come I’m so excited, Steve. I studied for months, took the sign language exam, and passed the first time with 100%! Now I can apply for that new job and if I get it, I’ll get a raise!”

“Wow, congrats Beth. It’s not easy to study sign language for months and ace the exam! When will you apply for that better paying job?”

In the above example, Steve clearly paid attention to Beth, and then paraphrased back the main parts of her story. This validates what she’s saying and feeling. She will remember and appreciate Steve’s interest a lot more than if he had turned the conversation into a story about his own work or job successes.

Give reciprocity

We all have times when we just have to tell our story. Maybe something exciting happened at work, or we’re still raving about a great movie we saw. Everyone has the need to share their experiences and stories.

The trick is to learn to give and take. Learn the art of reciprocity. Don’t make it all about you.

When you finish your story, say, “Enough about me, what’s new with you?”

Conversations are not competitions. They’re a chance to connect, laugh, cry and learn from others. Steer clear of mundane stories.

Follow the tips outlined above, don’t make it all about you, and soon everyone will be saying what a remarkable conversationalist you are.

But the best part is that you’ll start connecting on a deeper level, learn new things, and find greater joy in the conversations you have.

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