The Art & Science of Conversation
Today at a Glance
- Mastering the art and science of conversation is essential to creating the deep human connection that provides rich texture to life.
- Four principles of connected conversation: (1) Create doorknobs, (2) Be a loud listener, (3) Repeat and follow, and (4) Make situational eye contact.
- Use my list of potential conversation starter or conversation developer doorknobs to thrive in your next social situation or professional gathering.
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Anthropologist Margaret Mead was reportedly once asked by a student what she thought of as the earliest sign of civilized human society.
The student anticipated a response about tools, cave paintings, or other ancient artifacts, but Mead took the question in a different direction: She explained that the remains of a healed broken femur were the first sign of civilized human society.
Why did the anthropologist hold this seemingly obscure human skeletal remain in such high regard?
The human femur is the longest bone in the body—connecting the hip to the knee—and is particularly important for our survival in the wild. It also requires a notoriously long healing period from a fracture, sometimes up to 10 weeks.
Mead reasoned that in the wild, pre-civilized societies that marked our early human ancestors, a broken femur was a death sentence. Without any “value” to the clan, the injured individual was left behind to starve or be eaten.
In contrast, a healed femur indicated that the individual had been cared for, its health and safety looked after by others.
This, she believed, was the sign of a civilized society. The human desire and need for connection, love, cooperation, and support is what allowed us to survive and thrive.
But in a world with technology providing more connectedness, but less connection—a lot of people feel more isolated than ever before.
Our connection muscle has atrophied.
To fight back, we need to revive a seemingly lost skill: The art and science of conversation.
The Principles of Connected Conversation
The skilled conversationalist can take many different forms:
- Extrovert or introvert
- Theatrical-storyteller or prudent fact-deliverer
- Giver or taker
The point here is that your natural predisposition does not make or break your ability to become a skilled conversationalist.
The extrovert who constantly runs away with conversations and doesn't let the other person get a word in is just as challenged as the introvert who refuses to create forward momentum with active listening or progressions.
The goal is to make the most of our natural skillsets and become the best conversationalists we can be.
Here are four core principles of connected conversation (that anyone, regardless of natural disposition, can use):
Principle 1: Create Doorknobs
I once read a great article by an improv artist who referred to the concept of "doorknobs" in conversations.
Most questions are like a stop sign. They invite an answer that naturally ends the conversation.
Doorknobs are questions or statements that invite the other person to open them and walk through. They invite the other person to start telling a story.
- Question: Where did you get married?
- Doorknob: How did you decide on the wedding venue?
The question will more likely than not lead to a conversation stop when the person responds with a location. The doorknob will more likely than not lead to a story.
Every story offers new opportunities for you, as the listener, to attach to a point and further the connection and discourse.
Doorknobs create stories—you should create the doorknobs.
Principle 2: Be a Loud Listener
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, David Brooks referred to the idea of loud listening.
Loud listening can take many forms, but it is generally defined by the actions of the listener to let the speaker know that they are being heard and felt.
- Sounds: Saying "yes" or "uh-huh" or "hmm" to signal listening and encourage continued energy from the speaker.
- Facial Expressions: Changing facial expressions to react physically to the story being told.
- Body Language: Forward lean posture towards the speaker signals engagement and positive energy. Never turn away or sideways, as it signals you are trying to leave a conversation and immediately hurts the energy of a moment.
We've all been in a conversation where it becomes very clear the other person is uninterested in who we are or what we have to say. We know that feeling. Don't create it for others.
Note: Most importantly, you should train yourself to be genuinely interested in everyone you meet. You can learn something from literally anyone.
Principle 3: Repeat & Follow
Active listening leads directly into the "repeat and follow" method:
Repeating key points back to the speaker in your own words and following on with an additional insight, story, or doorknob.
This is an opportunity to relay the things you agree (or disagree) with to the speaker and show the engaged listening.
It builds conversational momentum and cements connection.
Principle 4: Make Situational Eye Contact
Eye contact is nuanced: Too little and you look shifty, too much and you look psychotic.
I like situational eye contact:
- Deep and connected while they speak.
- Organic while you speak.
It’s ok to gaze off while you think, but use eye contact to emphasize key points and moments in a story.
If you focus on those four core principles, you'll immediately improve your overall ability as a conversationalist.
Specific Conversation Tactics
Here are a set of great "doorknobs" that I like to use in conversations. Choose a few to incorporate in your toolkit and use them the next time you're in an unfamiliar social or professional situation.
I'd recommend thinking about your own response to these topics, as you will likely encounter situations where the person flips them on you to get the conversation moving.
- What are you most excited about right now, personally or professionally?
- What was your favorite (or least favorite) thing about your hometown?
- What's the origin of your name? Why did your parents give you that name?
- What was the most interesting thing you've read or learned recently?
- What was the best movie or show you've watched recently? What characteristics made it so compelling to you?
- What's been making you smile recently?
- If you had an entire day to yourself with zero responsibilities, how would you spend it?
- What do you remember as some of the more formative moments of your life? What made them so formative?
- What do you feel you've changed your mind on recently?
- If you could have a dinner with 3-5 people from any point in history, who are you choosing and why?
- What has been something you've purchased for under $100 that has really made a big difference in your life?
- Tell me more about how you escape or unwind.
- What is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you?
These are in no particular order, but they've all been effective and led to deep connection with new and old friends in my life.
Give them a shot and let me know what you think!
Whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, storyteller or a fact-deliverer, we all have the potential to be great conversationalists.
Mastering the art and science of conversation will pay off professionally, but more importantly, personally, as it leads to the meaningful connections that provide new texture and richness to life.
Use the four core principles and specific tactics above to get started on your journey to becoming a master conversationalist.