I used to have conversations — both with friends and strangers — that were so engaging and enlightening that I would go home afterward and actually write in my journal to reflect on what we discussed. They were conversations that unfolded slowly, each person taking the time to explain how (s)he came to hold certain beliefs and making the effort to listen deeply to what the other was saying. They are conversations I now rarely have.

Back in September, I wrote that a “good conversation doesn’t come easily or frequently. It is a skill to be developed, a craft to be honed.” I’ve never met anyone who has honed the conversational craft as well as Panthea Lee. I realized this when we were at a party and she somehow managed to engage complete strangers in conversations about what was most important to them. In part, this is because Panthea was trained as an ethnographer and design researcher. She was trained to get people to open up about themselves and their desires. She doesn’t just ask the right questions; she offers tidbits about herself to establish a bond. And she invests more energy than most of us to listen attentively without getting distracted, to think of follow-up questions, to connect what she hears with experiences from her own life.

This morning I came across an interview with radio host Celeste Headlee that has some great tips to have better conversations without taking oneself too seriously. Some things I highlighted:

  • There’s a great study out of Harvard in which researchers discovered that talking about yourself actually activates the same pleasure centers in your brain as sex and cocaine. That means it’s very pleasurable to us to talk about ourselves and what we like. You could walk away from a conversation like that and feel fantastic about it. But remember — talking about yourself makes you feel fantastic. So you may have just walked away from a conversation in which you talked about yourself — that was awesome! — and the other person is walking away going, “Good god, that person would not stop talking about themselves.”
  • Very often, an awkward silence comes because either you weren’t listening or they weren’t listening, and therefore, you guys have kind of meandered off-topic to where you’re at the opposite ends of a football field. The way to fix that is to say, “You know what, I’m sorry, I got totally distracted. Where did we start?
  • We have stopped talking to people that we disagree with. We basically want to be able to curate and edit our conversations the same way that we curate and edit our social media. If we’re talking to somebody that we don’t want to hear from, we want to unfollow them like we do on Twitter. The problem with that is that everybody knows something that you don’t. And so if you are stopping all of those conversations and only speaking with people who have similar experiences and opinions, you’re not going to grow, ever, and you won’t change your mind or your opinion.
  • And here’s the thing that people are always surprised that I say: it is totally okay to not have a conversation. Having a real conversation takes energy, and it takes focus, and sometimes you just don’t have that kind of energy to give. That’s totally fine — don’t have the conversation, enjoy the silence.
  • “What about when people really don’t seem to want to listen, but just want to talk about themselves and their experiences?” I’ve found that it’s good to very kindly address this head-on. Say, “It’s so great to hear all that. Can I tell you a little about what I’ve been doing?”

I find that I can get conversationally lazy in the same way that sometimes I stop doing exercise for a few weeks. Panthea and Celeste inspired me to get back in the gym.