I had two dates recently with successful, nice, intelligent, educated men. However, I noticed something that I find extremely common in dating — they both had no idea they were droning on in great detail about people or stories that held nearly no interest for their listener (me!).
I work to be a generous listener, asking questions about people’s lives and stories that show I’m interested. My questions are designed to uncover their values and interests. I am not perfect at it, of course. I realize some people are put off by too many questions, so it’s important to interject tidbits from one’s life as well.
However, the monologue disguised as conversation is such a rampant issue, it’s been suggested that I lead a seminar on how to be a conscious conversationalist.
So allow me to share some ideas in hopes that these suggestions might be useful to those who want to increase their conversational prowess — thus increasing the likelihood of more dates with similar people.
If you’re serious about improving your conversation skills, do what you’d do with any skill you want to improve — practice and get feedback. Find a pal who also wants to improve and practice together.
If you were in my workshop, I’d put you in pairs to find out about each other. I’d give each pair a stopwatch and ask you to track each other’s speaking time. So if you and I are partners, when you started to talk I’d hit the stopwatch and stop it when you asked me a question. Then you’d start the stopwatch when I started talking.
If either of you went over 5 minutes without the other talking, the listener would say “stop.” Then the talker could be aware that they are droning.
In this exercise you’d pause between turns to log the time each spent talking. At the end of the exercise you’d show each other the numbers. If one of you continually talked up to 5 minutes, then s/he needs to be more conscious of their monopolizing the time.
The goal of this exercise is not to “win” by having the lowest cumulative time. In fact, you could be a jerk and answer the other’s questions with one- or two-word responses. That gets tiresome quickly. I recently stopped communicating with someone who asked me to text him and then he only responded with one-word answers. It was too much work to try to have a conversation. So I dropped it — and him.
In emails, on the phone, or in person, work to end your comments with a question, even it’s just mirroring back their question.
Person A: “Where were you born?”
Person B: “I was born in XXXX. Where did you grow up?”
A: “What do you love about your job?”
B: “That’s a good question. I love the flexibility, variety, good compensation and ability to see the world. What’s your favorite part of your job?”
A: “Why are you divorced?”
B: “We realized we wanted different things in the future. What precipitated your break up?”
A: “Do you have kids?”
B: “Yes, I have 3 kids, all grown and out of the house. What about you?”
A: “What do you like to do for fun?”
B: “I like a variety of activities, including biking, hiking, dancing, theater, concerts, movies, trying new restaurants, cooking, gardening, reading and listening to NPR. What are some of your favorite recreational activities?”
If you already know his answer to the question he asked you, you can use this to either dig deeper into the question or switch topics.
As much as possible, try to avoid a preponderance of “reporting questions,” e.g., “How was work?” “What did you have for lunch?” “Did you talk to your mom today?” unless there are extenuating circumstances that would make that question important (e.g., his mom recently moved to a nursing home and he’d shared his concern about her adjusting).
In our workshop, you’d do an exercise I use in my seminars. I give each pair a potato — yes, really! This is a version of hot potato in that the goal is to get rid of the (pretend) very hot potato quickly. But you can only give it to the other person if you ask them a question.
So you want to make your answers pithy, without being curt, and ask them a question to pass on the potato to them with your question.
In the advanced version, we’d cover open-ended vs. closed-ended or limited-answer questions and how to avoid the latter. Why? Because closed-ended (generally beginning with who, what, where, when or how) get people to answer too briefly to get to know much about them. By asking open-ended questions/statements (tell me about, share with me, elaborate on, help me understand, as well as some how, what and even why questions), you get more information about the person.
Simply say, “I’ve been talking nearly non-stop. I’d like to know more about you. Tell me, what do you love about your life?”
By practicing these ideas with a pal you can give each other feedback and kudos. Don’t be afraid you’ll feel stupid — when you’re learning or improving any skill, you will, no doubt, do it poorly at first. Allow yourself to not be perfect, and just listen to the feedback and practice some more.
So, how have you learned to better your conversation skills? What do you know you could still improve on? (You knew I’d have to ask!)
This is an excerpt from the Dating Goddess’ book, First-Rate First Dates: Increasing the Chances of a Second Date, one of the 15-book Adventures in Delicious Dating After 40 series. Order it at DatingGoddess.com.