New acquaintances often tell me I’m easy to talk to. I appreciate the compliment. I want to be a good conversationalist and enjoy deep conversations.
When people compliment me on “how easy I am to talk to,” they often mistakenly think there is something special about me, my energy, or our connection.
What the person giving the compliment doesn’t know is that I was taught how to be a good conversationalist - and I say conversationalist instead of listener because I truly am seeking an equal back and forth. There is nothing “special” about our connection or me - I’m just a human interested in another who has the skills to pursue that interest.
My mother was a wonderful conversationalist (she passed in 2014). I learned many of my skills from watching her and dialoguing with her. The skills I didn’t naturally absorb, she would teach me or nudge me about (such as when I monopolized conversations).
I also had excellent role models in my mother’s parents. My grandfather (who passed while I was in college) and my grandmother (who, lucky for me, is still living) make EVERYONE they encounter feel deeply heard and cared about.
I’ve had the visceral experience of someone being genuinely interested and asking insightful, caring questions. It’s a wonderful feeling.
So there are some obvious things that contribute to being a good conversationalist:
Be interested in the other. This is something that cannot be faked, because that fakeness can be felt. Being genuinely curious and interested in another human being can be felt.
Ask questions. When you are interested in another, the natural follow-up is to ask questions about them. Again, this is best if guided by your genuine curiosity and desire to know more
There are also some skills that show a person you are listening and interested:
Eye contact as they are speaking (as an autistic person, I often have difficulty making eye contact when I am speaking - but I tend to make up for it by ensuring I make good eye contact when they are talking)
Body language. I orient my body toward the person. I also lean in when I want to know more. Some of these things come naturally for me, but sometimes I consciously do them.
I think the above are all obvious things we’ve heard over and over. Here are some not so obvious things that help you to be a better listener:
Be vulnerable yourself. When you share openly and vulnerably, it lets others know that they can do the same, and they’re much more likely to reciprocate.
Allow and encourage emotions. As people start to share about topics they deeply care about, emotion will likely arise. They often look to listener for reassurance. I typically encourage them by asking more questions, or when appropriate, saying “Don’t you worry, I’m a fan of crying”
Catch yourself when you’re monopolizing. It can be easy for us to get carried away on topics that excite us. Learn to catch yourself when you’re talking too much and own that with the person, “Oh sorry, I just realized I’m talking a lot.” And then offer a question to the other person
Check in with the other person. Sometimes we don’t know if a question is too invasive or if we’re boring someone else with our own topic. It’s ok to ask. You can check in by saying, “If you’re not up for talking about that, please let me know.” or “Is this boring? We can switch to another topic.”
A good conversation involves a nice back and forth. By using the above skills, you can ensure you are contributing to that.
Sometimes, even with the best skills, a conversation doesn’t develop or the other person takes over and it becomes a monologue. It is important that we tend to ourselves as much as we tend to others. If a conversation doesn’t feel good to you, it’s ok to end the conversation. It doesn’t mean you failed as a conversationalist.
All of the above skills are based on a genuine interest and desire to connect. If that desires fades, you’re better off concluding the conversation than faking your way through.