There are conversations, and there are meaningful conversations. How do we have more of the latter?
In Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss, Jon Call (aka Jujimufu) was asked “what one of his new behaviors or habits has helped him most in the last five years?” His answer (paraphrased):
Tell your brain “no” when it wants to relate a conversation you’re having with someone to a “bigger” story. Let the desire go to “one-up” someone’s story with your own. The loss of the opportunity to possibly impress someone is far outweighed by what you learn when you ask more questions.
We’ve all had the impulse. A story one of your colleagues is telling about their Spring Break trip to Jamaica transports your mind back three years ago when your family spent a week in Ocho Rios over the holidays. And you’ve got that hilarious story about how, with the rest of the tour group watching, you and your brother just could not get your dune buggy up that hill! Is interjecting that story at your colleague’s first breath really adding the most value to the conversation? When instead you could ask your colleague to elaborate on any number of things from their experience: how was it traveling with their new spouse? What did they find most intriguing about the local culture? Did they have any noteworthy interactions with the locals?
Think about it from a selfish standpoint. If you believe every person has value, every human has something to offer, then why wouldn’t you take every opportunity you get to learn, to expand your perspective, and to deepen your relationship with and understanding of that person?
Let’s take a business example. You sit down to meet with someone in person for the first time. Maybe you’re in Sales and you are sitting down with a prospective client. Maybe you’re in a job interview. Maybe you’re at a networking event. In any of these business situations, you have the inevitable “ice breaker” introduction moment. Some number of seconds or minutes spent on connecting with that other person on a topic outside the real purpose behind your meeting. Current events and the weather tend to get the lion’s share of these conversational exchanges. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s delightful when, in this “ice breaker period,” you actually do make a meaningful connection of some kind. You find a few square feet of common ground; perhaps you have a mutual acquaintance, Linda. Your new contact used to work with Linda at their previous employer. You know Linda from university. So, as you stumble upon this fun fact and your new contact says, “I worked with Linda at Company Q,” you have a choice. You can either launch into explaining everything you know about Linda from three years at university, or you could ask a follow up question about their work experience at Company Q. Which of these paths is going to better serve you in developing your relationship with this new contact? Should you ask some questions like, “What was it like working with Linda? How closely did you work together? Oh, you worked on a project together, what was that dynamic like? What did other colleagues say about working with her? If I were to ask her what it was like to work with you, what would she say?” just imagine how much of a deeper understanding you’ll have about your new contact. Isn’t that worth more than getting that story about you and Linda partying hard in the tailgating lot on Homecoming Weekend off your chest?
I’m not saying storytelling is bad. It’s not; it’s essential. It’s not that you should never openly share about your own life. How is anyone supposed to learn about you otherwise? The point is to adopt a mindset of curiosity. Good conversation isn’t about having the “gift of gab” or “being able to keep the conversation going,” it’s about telling your brain “no” when it has impulses to one-up the other’s story or to jump into sharing mode when it should be seizing an opportunity to learn, grow, and connect.
The next time you’re in a conversation with someone and a self-centered idea pops into your brain, try telling your brain “no” and instead ask a question. You might be surprised what you find out.
I’d love to hear about a time you tried this; what the situation was and what you learned by telling your brain “No.” Let me know in the comments!