13 November 2006

The (almost) lost art of conversation

OR: are we really afraid to connect with each other?

Robb Lucy, of www.eyelearner.com, shared the following article with me. I hope you enjoy it:

Here’s my theory: everyone’s got a story, and some of them are damned interesting. But why are we hiding them? Or is it just that we don’t know how to share them? In a very wired world with communication technology capable of so much, why do we stink at connecting with one another? Are we afraid?

A story. We just got back from a short cruise. We’ve done lots of cruises since the early 80’s, and my favourite time has always been dinner. I loved getting to know some fascinating people and learning from their different, and rich, experiences.

But now there’s a new trend in cruising, and I think it’s a sample of our unconnectedworld. You’re not assigned a table anymore, ‘forcing’ you to eat with, and get to know, ‘strangers’. You can eat anywhere you want, at any time. Eat by yourselves or with people you know every night.

I think it’s a huge opportunity lost. Here’s why.

One year we sailed out of Naples, Italy. We got on the ship a couple of hours before sailing and wandered the decks looking at, and sizing up, the passengers. I took note of one couple; she was short, heavy, dressed in black, very Italian. Her husband was from central casting; white hair, suit, and following behind her.

Dinner time, 8pm. We walked into the large dining room looking for table 41. And there she was. Well, not much conversation with them I thought, knowing they were quite Italian. Beside them were a pleasant looking couple, also about 25 years older than us, probably American.

It turned out she was a superior court judge in New York State, and she knew everybody. He was the best joke-teller I’ve ever encountered. The other couple were travelling the world, she recovering from breast cancer. We told stories, laughed and cried every night. Our table was the first to fill, and the last to leave. We connected with each other and it enriched us.

It happened again on a ship through the Panama. We walked up to our table and it was a sea of white hair, average age 75+, but fascinating people, every one. America’s leading sociology textbook writer for colleges. An 85 yr. old firecracker who had nursed in 25 countries. A 45-year teacher in a one-room school who travelled to a different country every summer. Every subject resulted in animated conversation. We left the ship for a few days and brought them back gifts from Machu Pichu. They cried, and the picture of all of us is still on our kitchen wall.

Yes, travelling is a great way to connect to new people, but why don’t we do it all the time? Are we afraid to be open and tell our stories? Afraid to offend by asking for their stories? Don’t want to enter someone’s space? I’ll bet if you talk to a hundred people, a high percentage will be proud of their family, their accomplishments, their experiences & dreams. And they'd probably like to tell them, but they don't know how and they don’t feel safe.

A good conversationalist just knows how to ask questions. CBC Radio’s Barbara Frum was the best, and all of us can learn something from her. Open-ended questions find out what’s important to the person you’re talking to. Barbara often just said: “tell me about…” and the game was on!

When you’re next on a plane, a ship, or waiting for a bus, open up a conversation with a few non-threatening questions. Tell me about your work? What’s the most fun you have with your family? If you could do one thing tomorrow, what would it be? And have your stories ready so this isn’t just an interview. The worse that will happen is they don't want to participate, and your antennae will let you know. The best is you make a new friend. You will walk away feeling enriched. They will tell their friends and family they met an interesting person... and a new friend.

Successful business people know this works. They build a connection, a relationship, and business builds as a result.

And connecting isn’t just a rich experience with people you don’t know. Good conversations help existing friendships grow much deeper.

Four us spent a recent New Year’s weekend at beautiful seaside lodge. We decided to learn more about each other by answering questions in the past, present & future. We answered questions like “A book that affected me?”, “A person that affected me?”, “A skill I will learn?”, and “An experience I will have?”. The result was deeper friendships with people we knew more about.

Everyone’s got a story, and feeling connected to more people, and ourselves, means listening to and telling those stories. Doesn’t the popularity of devices that help us ‘communicate’, like cel phones & Blackberries, show a yearning to stay connected?

Problem is, we are less connected to each other. But if we just take the risk to tell about ourselves, and carefully listen to their stories, that will change.

And hey, who doesn't need new friends?

Robb Lucy is a Vancouver, Canada entrepreneur, writer & producer – rlucy@eyelearner.com

Thanks Robb! Readers, please share your thoughts.

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Unknown said...

Part of the problem is, and perhaps always has been, that folks are less interested in hearing a story than sharing one.

For me, I love a good story, and sometimes love hearing the same one. The problem I have is there are too many stories and not enough time, and I sometimes make it worse by feeling rushed.

My wife and I have lately been actively seeking time to sit and chat with people over dinner or at our home. It is amazing, as the article points out, how many wonderful stories and people there are out there.

It's a side symptom of the true lack of friends people make today also.

Nate Vogel said...

I don't know if you've seen this, but I found Gothamberg yesterday - It is a project for people to share stories of living in apartment buildings. You can check it out at feed://communicationnation.blogspot.com/atom.xml. Its very artistically done.

Nate Vogel said...

One more thing - I think speaking to strangers is a learned skill. We are taught to do it or not to do it. And in most ways society teaches us not to. The simplest example is that just about every kid grows up with the mantra: Do not talk to strangers. But in every interaction we are not taught the skills to deal with new people or the habits to seek them out. And people who do go outside that comfort zone can get funny looks. "Why are you talking to me? I don't know you." Going outside one's social comfort zone is difficult, and must be continually reinforced whether we want it to be or not. But its not, so is it that surprising that we lose the knack for it?

Webconomist said...

We started with cave drawings. Look how long it took us to arrive here. Now we can't get enough of YouTube, Blogs, Flickr and the likes, the so-called Web 2.0. We're all bursting to tell our stories, to share, to opinionate and explore.

Only now are we able to on a larger scale. Cave drawings were Communication 2.0, this is 3.0. And as we learn and communicate more, peace will come, reflection and better global relationships.