Some people have a talent for talk.
My friend John can strike up a conversation with just about anyone. The ladies who work at the country market near my house, a woman who operates an ice-cream stand in town, a teen in the coffee shop interested in politics: All have fallen under John’s spell of words and thoughts.
His amiable nature along with his voice, which is charged with enthusiasm and goodwill, encourages others to open up and share their thoughts.
When asked where he'd acquired these skills, John credits the time he'd spent years ago as a ski bum in Montana, when he'd worked as a waiter and a bartender. “If you wanted to keep your job and make the tips, you were pleasant and talked and listened to people.” Not that John’s a glad-hand kind of guy. “Put me in a room of strangers,” he says, “and I’ll never approach anyone. But if someone breaks the ice, I’m all in.”
One of my sons, known as J.P. to his friends, possesses this same gift for connection. Like John, he once worked as a waiter. In high school and college, he appeared in plays, and for a year was on the staff of a Virginia gubernatorial campaign. For a decade, he worked in sales for a software company, where he was a raging success. More boisterous than John, J.P. lights up a party. Engaging with strangers for him means asking where they’re from and what they like to do. People sense that this is no façade, that he’s genuinely interested in them.
Google “great conversation starters,” and you’ll find a slew of websites offering tips on how to keep a conversation flowing. Common to all these lists are points that John and J.P. already practice. They show an interest in others, ask questions, and are excellent listeners. Both are well-read and able to engage in topics from movies to politics. Both are attuned to the feelings and facial expressions of those with whom they’re speaking.
These skills, which we can acquire through practice, can open all sorts of doors.
In the workplace, clear communications are vital to the success of any enterprise. But if we go beyond this norm, if we ask a fellow employee about her vacation or inquire after a sick child, we can create bonds that may eventually turn into friendships, making for a better work environment, yes, but also bringing into our lives the gift of another human being.
Well-chosen words and a listening ear can also strengthen the ties of love. The husband who turns off the TV when his wife asks to talk, or the mom who offers her sobbing teenager solace for an insult delivered on social media have an impact much greater than their words alone. Simply by being present and in the moment, they're making a difference.
And then there's the sheer pleasure of good conversation. When I see John, J.P., or people like them talking to others, laughing, or nodding at something they’ve said, the enjoyment in this exchange is truly beautiful. If they’re with old friends, they’re often sharing memories, strengthening the foundations of their relationship. If they’re new to the other, they become explorers, detectives seeking clues to the mysteries of this stranger.
In Daniel Pink’s recent book “The Power of Regret,” we find that many of the men and women he interviewed regretted most of all the words spoken or unspoken from their past, the harms they caused others by what they carelessly said or failed to say.
Learning the art of conversation can help us avoid such regrets. Much more importantly, however, the practice of this same art can broaden the mind and deepen the spirit.