How not to hold a conversation

how to hold a conversationA while back, I was at a networking event chatting to three men who I’d not met before. They came from incredibly different backgrounds; each had a rather unique job, and from the sounds of it a rather unique life that had led them into that position. The result was one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever witnessed – but unfortunately not because of how interesting each of the men was. It was quite in spite of that fact.

Picture, if you will, a three way conversation where one man talks, quite politely, after the first. He gives a reasoned, level response to the man before him, in tones indicating a yes, but… factor to his answer. The words that he says, however, have nothing whatsoever to do with what the man before him said. The other two wait patiently for him to finish speaking, then the third man contributes, with the affable intonation that he fully agrees, and would like to add… only he adds words that have no reasonable thread to what was said before. They nod along, make humming noises of agreement, and it’s the first man’s turn again.

This conversation carried on like this for over half an hour. Possibly longer; amazing as how inconceivably sustained it was, I left them to it.

The reason they were able to keep this bizarre conversation going for so long was that they were talking about themselves. It was not, however, because they were interesting people. It was because they were desperate to tell their stories, as though these tales were all bottled up inside them ready to explode into the world every time there was a gap in the conversation. No matter what the conversation was actually about.

None of these three men, it seemed, had the faintest idea that the other two weren’t responding in any meaningful way to what they were saying.

It may have been because they had rather unique jobs that they believed this was an acceptable way to converse. That they were so enthralled by their own personal life-stories that they assumed anyone joining in the conversation was doing so to congratulate their successes. But it was remarkable to see three such men engaged in one conversation, completely oblivious of what the other two was saying. It went a little something like this (though this content is entirely fictitious):

“I haven’t driven a car since I learnt to ride a unicycle.”

“Ah yes, there was a time when my window wouldn’t shut properly, so I planed down one edge.”

“That’s interesting because when I studied Tai Chi with the monks, they always told me that I have a deep sense of inner strength.”

“You know I heard that too, because I used to run a garage in America. And every Tuesday, a lady would deliver us doughnuts.”

“Exactly. The window shuts properly now, actually.”

Of course we’ve all got stories we want to tell. We’ve all got aspects of ourselves we want to sell. But you have to listen, to know when (and why) your story is appropriate. Moreover, you have to listen to make sure that what you’re saying is being heard. These three men were not even aware that what they were saying was falling on deaf ears. It was like watching three men so desperate to get to the toilet that they rush in together and get stuck in the door. And that story doesn’t end well. 

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