Have you ever gotten into a conversation at Thanksgiving you didn’t want to be in? Do you avoid certain people at Christmas parties because you don’t want to talk with them? I’ve done both, but it doesn’t have to be this way. What if I told you it’s possible to have great conversations with almost anyone without wasting your time, getting bored, or even offending anyone? Here are four tips to help you do just that this holiday season.
First, be present. Multitasking is a myth. In the context of having a good conversation, it’s impossible to do two things at once. This means you need to remove anything that might be a distraction from the conversation. Put your phone in your pocket until the conversation is over. Better yet, try leaving your phone in the car. A radical idea, I know. Try it.
Being present, though, means more than simply removing distractions. It means being in that moment. It means not thinking about what happened at work or what you’ve got to do tomorrow. Don’t be half in the conversation and half someplace else. This is what it means to be present.
We all want to be paid attention to, especially when we’re trying to engage in conversation with someone. When you stay focused on the person you’re speaking to and remove distractions, you show you value him. To have a good conversation, you must first be present. You can’t truly be present and do anything else at the same time. This first tip is pretty simple. So is the next one.
Second, ask questions. Francis Schaeffer said, “If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first fifty-five minutes asking questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last five minutes I will share something of the truth.”
Schaeffer was on to something. Open-ended questions like “What matters most to you in life?” “What do you find confusing about Jesus and Christianity?” and of course, “What do you mean by that?” help you understand what a person thinks so you don’t misunderstand him—or worse, misrepresent him. Asking questions helps you understand what a person believes but also makes that person feel valued and heard. Questions can be disarming and often help bring down a person’s defensive walls. The next tip also helps put people at ease.
Third, be honest. If you don’t know something, say so. You aren’t God. It’s okay to not know everything. Not knowing gives you a good opportunity to ask more questions and to display your love and respect for truth along with honest humility about your own knowledge. If you can’t remember the details of an account like names and dates, that’s okay. You can look those things up later and get back to your friend with the specifics. Most likely, he won’t remember the details of how many manuscript copies of Mark we have from the second century anyway. He will remember your honesty, though. So, be open about your limitations, and see how easy the conversation becomes.
The fourth and final tip is the most important: listen intently. The number one tip I can give you to have a good conversation is to listen and be genuinely interested in the other person. Simply pay attention to him. Enter every conversation with the understanding that you want to learn about the person you’re talking with, even if you disagree with him on every level.
Just like with asking questions, as you listen, people become less guarded, more willing to open up and share their life with you. After you ask a question, actually listen to the answer. Often, this doesn’t happen.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.” Often, we don’t listen to what’s being said because we’re already working on a response in our mind instead of hearing all the other person has to say. This isn’t listening. This is formulating a response. Remember, we’re trying to have a good conversation, not prove a point.
It takes effort to pay attention to someone, but if you can’t do that, then you’re not really having a conversation. You’re just uttering barely related words and phrases at a person. Before you can have a good conversation, you have to be a good listener. To help you with listening, remember that people are amazing! The person you’re talking with is made in the image of God. Think about that. This alone makes him worthy of your time and undivided attention.
Be present and honest. Ask open-ended questions. Most importantly, listen. With these four principles in mind, you can have a good conversation with anyone. Now, go out and talk to people. Then be prepared to be amazed by what can happen, even during the dreaded holiday gatherings.