One of my favorite exercises to do in client sessions is "communication myth-busting". Despite the popularity of self-help books and pop-psych TED Talks, the basic interactional principles of human communication remain shrouded in mystery for many. Communication anxiety prevails. Awkwardness is a fate worse than death. Being silent, isolated, and avoidant is the only path for anyone who is not a naturally gifted communicator. And that last part is the worst...because almost everyone except for you seems to have an easy time with conversation and communication. If you're struggling, well, you're one of the weird outliers.
There is good news, and there is bad news.
The good news is, you are not the only one struggling. Many people-- I believe the majority of people-- struggle with conversation. The bad news is: it's because conversation is actually pretty hard. The struggle is real!
Once upon a time...
The more time I spend studying human communication, and helping people one by one figure all of this out, the more perplexed I am at the fact that so many people assume communication is easy. Communication is natural for humans, there is no question. We are driven to develop ways to communicate, if left in a vacuum. But why is it that so many people internalize the idea "There is something wrong with me?" when experiencing difficulty in conversation?
I'm sure there are many contributing factors to this, which I won't fully explore here. I believe one of these factors, though, is the carrot-on-a-stick phenomenon. No matter how much you struggle with speaking, listening, or interacting, it's likely that at some point in your life you've had one of those magical, effortless conversations. You and your conversation partner clicked. You shared ideas, enjoying the natural ebb and flow of topics and turn-taking. It was a great conversation. You felt it.
Those are the conversations everybody wants to have. I love those conversations.
The problem is, those conversations aren't normal. They are unusual, and for most of us, quite rare. Yet for some reason, everybody seems to think that this is what a "normal" conversation is. A "natural" conversation (effortless = natural, in our heads). So, we get upset and self-conscious and beat ourselves up when we experience anything less than this.
Here is what I consider, and teach, as parts of a "normal" conversation:
- Small talk
- Having to think
Here's the thing. You can actually develop skills in all of these areas (yes, even the skill of making mistakes). This is what makes a confident communicator. They know how this ugly stuff works.
1. Small Talk
Before you complain about how much you hate small talk-- I know. Nobody likes small talk. Having a strong dislike for it does not make you special. Small talk is repetitive, cliched, predictable, surface-level. It is also necessary.
Small talk is what allows us to move into deep talk. This is true whether you know someone very well, or have just met them (though the timelines for shallow --> deep conversation will vary).
Deep conversation occurs when both parties have a meaningful, shared interest or connection. The trouble is, we can't tell just by introducing ourselves what it is that we might deeply share with someone else. Small talk is a structured social ritual that allows us to probe someone, in a socially acceptable manner, in the hopes of finding that mutual spark. Small talk serves the function of a conversation warm-up.
Small talk topics center around universal experiences. This is why the weather is such a classic small talk topic. Even if you know nothing about the other person, you can discuss your shared experience of the present weather conditions. And hopefully learn something interesting about the person while doing so. Which brings us to our next skill.
2. Having to think
I might also call this "having to work" in conversation. This skill allows you to maximize the results of your small talk, moving it to meaningful conversation. Sometimes, that transition happens effortlessly. If it doesn't, and you find yourself circling around tired small talk topics, effortful action is needed. Skilled conversationalists are very good at using small talk strategically, which also means they are putting in more work than less skilled conversationalists. It's not magic.
For myself, I like to conceptualize this skill as a filing cabinet. When I first meet someone, my "file" on that person-- interests, likes, dislikes, life issues, etc.-- is empty. Throughout the course of small talk with that person, I learn some information about their basic daily life and surface-level interests. Each piece of information goes into the file.
As I put the information into the file, I am critically assessing each fact to determine if it might be a clue as to a deeper interest or opinion. They attended an event on the weekend? Hm, I wonder if something about that event speaks to a passion or hobby of theirs. They mentioned a recent news story in passing, maybe they have special knowledge or connection to it. Maybe, maybe not. I'll have to ask questions on each line of thinking to see if it will lead us somewhere interesting. Conversational testing, if you will.
If this seems like a lot of work, well, yes it is! Good conversation requires constant awareness of what topics have been covered, what topics could be covered, and critical thinking as to what would be a good future topic. All conversations, from stilted to magical, require constant shifts in topic to stay alive.
Personally, I like to keep two possible topic-shift questions in mind whenever I am talking to someone. This keeps things moving, and also means I don't have to worry about the Lull.
3. The Lull
The Lull in Conversation. Oh no. THIS IS SO AWKWARD. WHY DOES THIS ALWAYS HAPPEN TO ME. UGH I AM SUCH A FAILURE AT CONVERSATION. *pretends to get a text, excuses self from conversation, hides in the bathroom until the party is over*
To save paragraphs, I'm going to explain this as follows: A lull in conversation is normal. NORMAL. It happens to everyone.
Lulls are inherently a little bit awkward. They often occur after the conversation has been moving along at a steady chug, which increases the awkwardness when suddenly nobody has anything to say. There is a pregnant silence in which everyone is mentally scrambling, trying to think of something to say.
Here is how to handle a Lull:
1. Acknowledge it, mentally. "Oh, we're in a Lull!"
2. Remind yourself that it is normal. It will feel awkward. Lulls are rarely non-awkward.
3. Pull out a file to ask a question. If your files are running low, return to a small talk topic.
4. This may take several seconds (which is a painfully long time in conversation). But, as long as you move the conversation forward, this won't matter.
This last point is key. One of the most important concepts to remember is that conversations are inherently bound to time. Time does not stop, and neither can a conversation. It must always be moving forward. This concept is critical for dealing with Lulls, and also Mistakes.
You made a joke that fell flat. You said something off-topic. You mispronounced a word. You tried to explain something that came out totally disorganized and nobody knew what you were talking about. [For the purposes of this piece, I'm referring to mistakes that are embarrassing for you, but not truly offensive, harmful, or cruel to someone else. Those require more repair.]
Remember: the most important moment in a conversation is always the PRESENT moment. This is why Mistakes can seem so world-ending. In that moment, that's all there was, a Mistake. Your brain becomes consumed with this Mistake you made in this moment.
Recall how time works, though. While you brain may try to hold onto that moment in your mind, time has moved on. This means the conversation has moved on, too. You are stuck back in that old moment, and there is a new one already happening.
You may still be reeling from the emotional flood of your recent Mistake, but time is continually gracing you with new conversation opportunities. If you stick to the methods and rules (small talk, your conversation file), you'll be able to jump right back in.
This is easier said than done, I know. This takes skill and commitment to using skills in the face of discomfort.
Final thoughts: practice
You are always practicing conversation. You just don't know it.
Anytime you have a conversation, you are reinforcing certain patterns. If you are conversing without paying attention to how you are conversing, you may be reinforcing unhelpful habits unintentionally (eg allowing yourself to dwell on Mistakes, rather than refocus on the present topic).
But! Before you add that principle to your list of things to fret about, know this: you are always practicing conversation, and conversation is always a practice. It is not a performance. Practice, by definition, means it is OK to screw up. In fact, it is expected that you will screw up. You might forget the small talk menu, or have a haphazard filing cabinet, or get sucked into the psychological panic of a Lull or Mistake. That's OK! You're practicing!
When you are practicing a skill, and you make a mistake, what do you tell yourself? How do you learn from it? How do you use that mistake, in the context of practice, to improve your overall ability?
Now, go be awkwardly charming.