My mom gave me a great love for “how was your day?” conversations growing up, which she made sure we had nightly at the dinner table. Here’s hoping that Covid-19 will result in a renewed appreciation for talking and some tips to make your conversations as pleasant as possible.
Word on the street is that conversations suck recently. “My roommates and I aren’t talking anymore because we’re sick of each other,” one source said. “It’s depressing talking about Coronavirus all of the time,” others admitted. “What am I supposed to talk about when I’m not doing anything?” was the general consensus. When our lives are on pause, especially as we live in a busyness-addicted society, it’s natural to think you might not have much to contribute conversationally. Many people that live together are used to passing like ships in the night. This may be the most time they have spent in the same house in… forever. So, maybe the solution is approaching conversations with a creative spirit, being reasonable in terms of expectations, and grateful for the simple ability to connect.
As someone who has built her entire writing career around in-person interviews, I’ve had to adjust my process these past few months to fit my new, solitary lifestyle. Thank goodness for easy apps (like Zoom) that are perfect for the technology-challenged like myself, which I’ve used to conduct video interviews for my new series “Talking to Strangers is My Self Care.” (The series, which explores how people around the world are coping with Covid-19, is based on my 2019 TED-x Talk by the same name.) I have also committed myself to get to know friends and family better by scheduling regular chats and not assuming I already know everything about them. Without the usual busyness of life, this is actually an ideal time to go beyond the usual “How was your day?” banter. As my friend, Australian songwriter Anthony Priwer, said, “Conversations should be more appreciated than ever these days because, in self-isolation, they’re our link to the outside world.” What I have found through my video interview series is that people are being more thoughtful, self-reflective, and real than before. Perhaps because we’re all in the same situation, the barriers we usually set firmly in place have come down. As toy designer Luc Hudson, based in London, said, “People are being more human.” I agree with his statement and believe this is better for all of us.
After many years of projecting and protecting our social media images, I see this as a hall pass period; we don’t have to compare ourselves to others or look like we have it all together. Hardly anyone’s career is skyrocketing, everyone needs a haircut, and the majority of us are stuck at home. Perhaps the upside is that in self-isolation, we can actually be more intimate with each other because of the lack of distractions, social pressures, and pretentions. Maybe, even though very little is happening on the home front, there’s more to talk about than we thought.
Set up the right space. Just like I think multi-tasking is a bunch of BS, no one can have a good chat when the TV is blaring or his or her phone is dinging. Setting up the right space for your conversation, whether it’s over Skype or in person, is key to being mindful during it. (Plus, there is nothing more disrespectful than hearing someone type or put away dishes while you talk.) A quiet, undistracted space where you can easily dial in a focus is ideal. (My step-dad uses his office during our weekend calls because it’s quiet and private.) Next, make a vow that within that space, you will put any thoughts that come up on a cloud and gently push them aside. Besides external distractions, like noise, the number-one thing that takes people out of conversations is their mind. Actively listen rather than think about what you’re going to say next. If you find your thoughts drifting back to yourself, consciously put your focus on the other person. (This is a great technique to practice during video calls when a lot of people become distracted because of being able to see themselves.) Not only is being present a present, but I promise you all of your concerns will be there once the conversation is over.
Don’t be a hog or a log. There is nothing I dislike more than incessant talking and thinking if I fell into a giant hole would the other person notice? Great conversations come from an equal balance of give and take in terms of information. Show consideration for the other person’s time by asking if it’s still a good time to talk and even how long they have. Keep your thoughts brief so your conversation partner can process what you’re saying. (There are studies that show we can only take in so much information at once.) Bookend thoughts by asking the person you’re talking to a question so they know their opinion is valued. Especially in a “me, me, me” social-media world you will win if you go into a conversation with the desire to listen and learn. From my many interviews, I believe the British are excellent examples of this less is more mentality in terms of conversation. They tend to make their point in just a few, succinct, thoughtful statements. By forgoing the fluff and not feeling as though they have to fill up space with words, I tend to follow them more easily and remember, finish what they say long after the conversation.
Great conversations come from an equal balance of give and take in terms of information. Show consideration for the other person’s time by asking if it’s still a good time to talk and even how long they have. Keep your thoughts brief so your conversation partner can process what you’re saying.
Lead with compassion and empathy. Even if someone seems to be coping with the times decently, the context of Covid-19 affects us all. Whether someone had to file for unemployment for the first time or home school his or her children, stressful times affect how we communicate. Before you have a chat, take a moment to imagine what world the other person is living in. By putting yourself in their shoes, you’ll be able to discern whether you should ask about work or hobbies. (If someone is stressed to the max with their job and working 12-hours a day, maybe ask about what movies they’ve watched recently.) And don’t underestimate the power of a simple, yet sincere, “How are you doing?” Acknowledging the difficult situation others are in at the moment, and applauding them for simply surviving the day, is a great way to show empathy. It also prevents you from taking things as personally if someone in your life isn’t as talkative as usual. As a great therapist told me once, “the way most people treat you has nothing to do with you.” By honoring people’s space, and respecting how they are reacting to the situation at hand, they may come back around. And in the meantime, this gives you carte blanche to find a new conversation buddy who might find talking to be therapeutic rather than cumbersome.
Get creative! The biggest complaint I have heard during quarantine is that people are tired of talking about what they saw on the news. So don’t! Just because the world is in a crisis doesn’t mean all of your conversations have to revolve around it. I’ll use conversations with my dad as a great example. We talk almost every Saturday and spend the first ten minutes talking about current events like what we think about certain states opening businesses before others or if wearing a mask in public should be mandatory. (Conversations I admittedly never dreamed of having.) Then he’ll usually say, “I digress,” which is code for “forget the political tangents.” From there, we’ll talk about the books we’ve read or the artwork we labored over that week. Quarantine is also a great time to get to re-know even those closest to you by asking about their favorite memories or why they chose their career path. Because people are familiar we often assume we know everything about them. Instead, consider this a time to play reporter and approach conversations with a childlike curiosity. You might be surprised at what you’ll find out by diverging from the usual topics and asking nourishing questions like, “Can you go a bit more into detail about that?” By showing a genuine interest in others, you’ll be amazed at how they will voluntarily open up. Plus, by being present in your conversations, you can inject them with the spontaneity that is missing during quarantine, which can feel a bit like “Groundhog’s Day.” See the person you’re speaking to as brand new and they will become that.
Quarantine is also a great time to get to re-know even those closest to you by asking about their favorite memories or why they chose their career path. Because people are familiar we often assume we know everything about them. Instead, consider this a time to play reporter and approach conversations with a childlike curiosity.
Leave room to reflect afterwards. Self-isolation should be a time where we’re a bit quieter, move a little slower, and are willing to self-reflect. I feel lucky that I am able to record my interviews, and therefore experience my conversations twice, which never fails to lead me to some sort of epiphany. As I pull out clips from my video interviews to post on social media I ask myself, “What did I learn?” or “Have they changed the way I think about life?” As important as the physical space, approaching conversations with an open attitude allows you to maximize what you gain from them. Even if one sentence stays in your mind after a chat, I can tell you from doing over 1,000 interviews, that means it is a success. Lastly, I also believe in the power of letting someone know how much I appreciated our talk afterwards. There is nothing sweeter than receiving a text message saying, “I really enjoyed our talk and took away x, y, z from it.” Modern life can feel very rushed and surface-level, so this is a great time to appreciate others for their unique insights and personalities. Like I said in my TED-x talk, everyone has wisdom to share. Walk into your next conversation believing it will change you and I promise, similar to a self-fulfilling prophesy, it will.
Author Lily Clayton Hansen believes honest conversations can change the world. The Chicago native stumbled upon her love for interviews as a young journalist nearly 12 years ago. Since moving to Nashville, Tennessee, in 2012, the interviewer, who is affectionately called a “people whisperer” by her subjects, has found her purpose. She gets her joy from giving others a safe space in which they can open up.
In Word of Mouth: More Conversations—the follow-up to Hansen’s first coffee table book, Word of Mouth: Nashville Conversations, which sparked collaborations with institutions such as the Nashville International Airport and Vanderbilt University—the author interviews a wide cast of characters from business owners to community leaders and artists. Her intention is to show the textured, complex creative mecca that is Nashville.
“One day I realized that there were so many role models living in my own backyard,” she explains. “I began seeking out their wisdom derived from real life experience.”