The art of conversation: Ways to connect more meaningfully with others
By Beth Goldner
Talking can help you connect more meaningfully with others and support your health and well-being. While digital communications may be easier and more comfortable than conversing for some people, it is worth the effort to participate in regular verbal conversations. Read on for tips to help you make the process easier and more enjoyable.
Conversations are a cornerstone of how we as humans connect and relate to each other. “Connections to others are what bind us to life,” says Patrick Arbore, Ed.D., of the Institute on Aging in San Francisco. “Yet society has come to view verbal communication with less gravity, as the rapid advances in technology over the past 20 years have led people to become more engaged with screens than with other humans.”
This increasing dependence on technology can have an isolating effect. Meaningful conversations are important for everyone, but they are particularly important for seniors who lack regular social contact. According to a Pew Research Center report, 26 percent of seniors live alone, which can be a predisposing factor to social isolation. That risk demonstrates a need for increased human interaction, whether in person or over the phone.
Isolation can put people at risk for depression. “Social connectedness is really important in preventing depression in older adults,” says Misa Romasco, vice president of Journey’s Way, a senior center in Roxborough.
In order to connect, we must first approach another person, which can be intimidating. Romasco suggests drawing upon universal experiences when choosing topics for initial discussion, such as by asking about family. A good way to start a conversation is with a positive statement or a compliment. Be genuine and make eye contact with the other person.
Try to introduce neutral topics. Avoid controversial subjects such as religion and politics. It is important to ask questions to keep the conversation flowing. For example: Where do you live? This may get the other person talking about how their neighborhood has changed.
Once you’ve gotten the ball rolling, one of the most important factors to keeping it going is to be intentional, says Arbore. Regardless of the topic, make it clear to the person you are engaging with that you are interested in what they have to say. State this aloud: “I’m really very interested in getting to know you.”
Create a bridge of empathy from yourself to the other person, Arbore suggests. Although small talk may be necessary to get things started, meaningful conversations need to go deeper. To take your conversations to the next level, try to avoid asking yes-orno questions. Instead, ask open-ended questions. This technique leads you to find out what matters to a person by allowing the other person to move the conversation to cover what they find meaningful. “There are three words you can’t do without in a conversation: ‘Tell me more,’” Arbore says.
Heartfelt communication originates from the listener, is based on interest and is free of platitudes, says Arbore. “Listening is one of the most important factors in creating a true connection. Although listening seems obvious, doing so with intention may not come naturally. Many of us are not listening actively during a conversation, and we may not even know it. We may be so focused on formulating a response in our head that we are not carefully listening to the other person.
“The listener needs to create a sense of intimacy,” Arbore says. To do this, make sure you don’t interrupt the person speaking. Provide your undivided attention, and tune into the details of what the speaker is saying. Show you are actively listening by asking questions related to what they are talking about. People want to be heard, and by making it clear you have listened, a connection is made.
When you are at ease when speaking with someone, your entire body will show it. We say a lot before we even begin to speak, Arbore says. Studies show that 55 percent of communication is nonverbal. When you engage in a conversation, your facial expressions can be as important as your words. The manner in which you are seated or standing, whether you are relaxed or have your arms crossed, whether you are tapping your feet or have your hands gently folded on your lap, all convey your attitude towards the conversation.
Physically leaning in while you are listening and talking demonstrates that you present in the moment and attuned to the other person’s words.
“Communication is a complex transaction,” Arbore says. When we are intentional in navigating this complexity, by initiating conversation, asking questions, actively listening and paying attention to the other person’s verbal and nonverbal cues, we generate opportunities for true connection.
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