We suffer, says Mathis Wackernagel, from a conversation deficit. The challenge is not that we don’t talk enough; rather in the quality of the questions we ask each other, the thought we give to responding, and the quality of our listening.
In fact, it comes down to intention.
• When I ask you a question, I can be ‘making conversation’, or I can be truly interested in what you have to say. “How are you?”
• When you respond, you can be on autopilot. “Fine, thanks.” Or …
• When I listen to your response, I can be on autopilot – “Good, good.” Or I can be truly listening not only to your words but for your meaning. “You seem extremely busy.”
There is of course a role for ‘making conversation’. I remember my mother once remarking, about an inordinately intensive and charismatic person who looks deeply into your eyes on every single exchange: “He has no small talk.” Tiring!
However I agree with Wackernagel that the balance needs to be righted. Less small talk, more real conversation. Real conversation can be sparked by good questions – liberating questions. And truly liberating questions are neutral: the wording gives no hint of what you might like the answer to be, and contains no implied criticism. Examples:
How do you feel?
What would you most like to change or improve, if you could?
How can I help?
What is the best thing that could happen?
What is the worst thing that could happen?
There are more examples here, including questions we might fruitfully ask ourselves. Don’t forget to listen attentively to the answers!