Recently I have been able to experience a good handful of socially-dynamic situations: the Outdoor Retailer trade show, a family reunion, weeklong adventures with both new folks and old friends, and lots of meetings about the Wasatch Mountains as part of the Mountain Accord process. Each of these has involved a lot of pretty intensive conversations, and in total they have reminded me of the value of quality interactions and how few people understand the art of conversation.
Some years ago I bumped into a guy whom we’ll call “Seth” (because that’s his name) in Steamboat, CO whom I had met kayaking in Ecuador a couple of years prior, and it turned out that we were both heading west to paddle the Cross Mountain gorge section of the Yampa, so I hopped in with him for the 3 hour drive. As we rolled through the desert, I asked Seth what had happened in his life since we were together: was he still with his girlfriend, how was his job (traveling around in a van to various kayaking events promoting an outdoor brand), what other kayak adventures he’d been on and what were the details, what he had cooking for the future, etc. This “conversation” of me asking him questions and him answering went on for a good hour or so, and I finally decided to give him an opportunity to find out what I was up to, to see if this (fellow!) narcissistic phunhog would take advantage of that. So after he finished answering a question I didn’t say anything more, and a pregnant pause ensued. After a coupla minutes he glanced over at me and asked “Do you smoke weed?” huh? Uh, no not really. To which he reached down, grabbed his ipod, and plugged in his earbuds. I guess our “conversation” was over.
As we continued down the road I was tempted to say something to the effect of “Hey Seth, I have a concept for you to ponder: when two people have a conversation, it usually consists of one person asking some questions, the other person answering, and then the second asks questions which the first person answers, and so on. It’s kind of how two human beings interact.” But I didn’t. But I should have. Because since that time I have realized that the ability to ask questions – and at least act interested in the answers – is an all-too-rare characteristic of conversations. Too many people seem to take a question as a license to simply talk…..ad nauseum. And that fact combined with a perceived lack of interest in their audience quickly leads to the “audience” fully checking out.
Don’t get me wrong, I myself can talk as incessantly as anybody; just ask Tom MacFarland, a pretty taciturn guy whom I did a packraft trip with last summer and had never heard any of my stories (but was kind enough to laugh every once in a while), or Chris Adams whom I’ve paced at Wasatch 100 and pretty much asks me to yap at him to make the miles pass quickly, or for that matter Ashley, who still seems to tolerate me despite my infernal chewing away at her about pretty much anything and everything (and is happy that I have this blawg as an alternative outlet!) But Ash has taught me that pretty much everybody has at least something interesting to say – she’s a champion question-asker – and if nothing else, asking questions makes people feel like you are interested in them. And knowing this, I have to sometimes tell myself mid-yap to try to keep it in check. If nothing else, invoking a simple line that I mostly attribute to Greg Hanlon: “What do you think?” I think it’s a testament to some of our poor conversation habits that this question often takes people by surprise! But it’s a great way to say “I value your opinion”, which will make anyone feel good. I
I’ve long thought that the very first stages of a relationship are the most interesting. A very typical icebeaker is “where are you from?” The truth is that nobody really cares where you are from, but it typically leads to more conversation, if that’s desired. If someone says “I’m from Portland” I might say “I grew up there”; not because I want to tell them all about my many fun years there, but because I am familiar with it and there’s an opportunity for some commonality for future conversation. However, if I say to someone “I’m from Salt Lake” and the person I met says “Oh, my son-in-law went to school there!” Really? “Yes, but now he’s an attorney in Dallas and specializes in ambulance chasing and has a couple of darling boys who are great lacrosse players and boy do they love to come back to Utah to ski and and and”. Yikes! The best example of this I can remember is when a few of us were gearing up for a jaunt down a river in Oregon and a couple pulled up and asked where we were from, and when we told them we were from Salt Lake they said “Really! We had a two hour layover there just last week on our way home from Cancun!” No shit! Really? That is so scintillating! How was your experience?!” That was most definitely not finding commonality…..
And then there are the topics of conversation. Not long ago This American Life did a great segment on the most boring conversation topics ever (only they took it a bit further by attempting to actually make something interesting out of a decidedly uninteresting topic). The mother in the story was a very proper Englishwoman and the taboo topics I remember were:
· How I slept
· My dreams
· The route I took to get here
· My period
She had a hilarious story about having Robert Redford over for dinner many years ago, and he pretty much spent the entire evening talking about his route, the traffic thereupon, and his return route/traffic strategy. To this list I would also add one of my pet unmentionable topics: gasoline prices. But the truth is that any topic can be ferociously uninteresting if your fellow conversationalist is not “in”. And if there are multiple people involved, keep in mind that the fascinating conversation that two of you are having may be making the others in the group - at best - strategizing about to gracefully exit the “conversation”, so it’s good to try to bring it around to everyone.
Meetings always provide an interesting venue for conversations, and it’s such a different dynamic than friends talking or an introduction. In actual meetings the attendants almost always have an agenda, and beyond the actual subject of the meeting it’s fascinating to watch people attempt to execute their agenda. Many folks unfortunately employ the “more is more” and figure they can prove their point by dominating the conversation, but I have noticed that the most effective meeting attendees are those who sit and listen a lot, then finally opine in a direct, articulate manner. Whether or not they are conveying the impression that they’ve heard and respected everyone else or they are simply engaging strategic timing is hard to say, but they typically have the most effect on the outcome. It seems that there are two critical periods in a meeting – or a conversation, for that matter – the beginning and the end. If it’s really important to set the stage/tone/direction of a meeting, then speak up early, but if it’s important to come away with your opinion as the main takeaway, then pay attention to the flow and go in hard in at the dire end. And resist the desire to interject with potentially extraneous thoughts; something that comes hard to us ADD types!
And interruptions…..are far too common, unfortunately. There seem to be two types: 1) I can’t resist bursting in with MY perspective!, and 2) I hear you, I acknowledge your point, I understand. The latter is better, but it’s still sometimes best to simply let the talker finish (again, I can interrupt with the best of them, but I’m trying…..).
Of course, if the best question you can come up with is “Do you smoke weed?” then perhaps the conversation is really not worth investing too much in, but generally there’s probably “a lot to be said” - as it were - for strategizing your conversations. Ask a lot of questions and you’ll get a lot of answers, and you might be laying the groundwork for creating fine art.