My notes from the School of Life continued. Previous post, “Life is Hard.”

We can approach any conversation with our local identity and our universal identity. Most conversations revolve around our local identities: where we we born, what we do for work, our hobbies, religion, gender, politics. You know these conversations: “Where do you live? How long have you lived there? Which city do you like more? Do you have to travel a lot for work?”

We can also bring our universal identities to each conversation:

• We all have problematic families

• We’ve all been disappointed

• We’ve all been idiotic

• We’ve all been loved

• We’ve all been hated

• We’ve all had problems around sex

• We all have anxieties

• We all have ambitions

• We all have bodies that give us difficulties

Our universal identities offer us connections with anyone, no matter how different she or he is from us. And they tend to give us more satisfying conversations.

Through the questions we ask, we can guide any conversation to stay shallow or go deeper. Perhaps a new acquaintance tells us how overwhelmed she is by recent travel and endless meetings. We could respond:

• Well, at least you’re racking up the frequent flyer miles, right?

• Are you able to do anything fun on your business trips?

• What’s your favorite airport?

• That kind of dedication sounds demanding. Where does your ambition come from?

Each of those questions could lead to interesting conversations. But the last question is most likely to tap into our universal identities: Why do we continue to want to please our parents well into adulthood? What motivates us and have those sources of motivation changed over time? How do we distinguish between stress that enhances life and stress that is debilitating?

Some conversations are boring; some people come off as boring. In fact, no one is boring, they just haven’t been edited properly. We’re not taught how to have conversations and so we don’t have the opportunity to learn. We tend to be quite bad storytellers. We typically commit the following conversational mistakes:

• Over accumulation of details

• Insistence to explanation (“it was so cool” instead of describing why it was cool)

• Emotional squeamishness (we neglect how situations make us feel)

• Modesty (we cut ourselves short just when the story gets interesting)

• Digression (we try to tell 5 separate stories poorly instead of sticking to just one)

Similarly, we’re not great listeners. There is much we can do to help our friends tell us better stories. We can become patient, conversational guides:

• Get a strong idea of the underlying story your companion wants to tell

• Stop them from digressing (“so a minute ago you were saying”)

• Be extremely interested (exude interest and warmth, make eye contact, lean forward)

• Draw them away from surface details to deeper emotional experiences (“what did that feel like for you?”)

• Don’t judge

• Give them time (and help guide them land if they’re really lost)

We should lower our conversational expectations. No one can read our mind or heart. If we want to feel more understood, we should work harder at expressing our whole selves. It’s okay to admit that we’re not great conversationalists, and that we want to get better — just as an aspiring cyclist wants to get faster or a painter wants to better depict light and shadow. We’re judged not for our humble aspirations but for our insecurities, which often make us reserved and seemingly arrogant.

Not every conversation will be deep, enlightening, or emotionally satisfying. Sometimes we want to just fill the silence. Sometimes we want to gossip or point out the obvious: “it’s such a beautiful day” or “this ice cream is so good.” It’s how we share the experience of life with those we care about. Like a hug, even if it serves little purpose, it makes us feel good.

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