Are You a Good Conversationalist?

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Are You a Good Conversationalist?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Have you had any good conversations recently?

What made it good — was it lighthearted, deep, funny, thought-provoking or emotional? How did you feel during it or afterward — enlightened, inspired, validated or challenged? What did you do to make the conversation a success? What did the other person do?

Do you think of yourself as a good conversationalist? Could use some lessons in the art of conversation?

In “Nine Nonobvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversations,” David Brooks writes about how we can have better conversations even in a distanced holiday season. Here are four of his lessons:

Approach with awe. C.S. Lewis once wrote that if you’d never met a human and suddenly encountered one, you’d be inclined to worship this creature. Every human being is a miracle, and your superior in some way. The people who have great conversations walk into the room expecting to be delighted by you and make you feel the beam of their affection and respect. Lady Randolph Churchill once said that when sitting next to the statesman William Gladstone she thought him the cleverest person in England, but when she sat next to Benjamin Disraeli she thought she was the cleverest person in England.

Ask elevating questions. All of us have developed a way of being that is our technique for getting through each day. But some questions, startling as they seem at first, compel us to see ourselves from a higher vantage: What crossroads are you at? What commitments have you made that you no longer believe in? Who do you feel most grateful to have in your life? What problem did you use to have but now have licked? In what ways are you sliding backward? What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Ask open-ended questions. Many of us have a horrible tendency to ask questions that imply judgment: Where did you go to school? Or we ask yes/no questions: Did you have a good day? Which basically shut off interesting answers. Better questions start with “What was it like. …” or “Tell me about a time. …” or “How did you manage to cope while your wedding was postponed for a year?”

Treat attention as all or nothing. Of course, we all have divided attention. In “You’re Not Listening,” Kate Murphy writes that introverts have more divided attention than others while in conversation because there’s so much busyness going on in their own heads. But in conversation it’s best to act as if attention had an on/off switch with no dimmer. Total focus. I have a friend who listens to conversations the way congregants listen to sermons in charismatic churches — with amens, and approbations. The effect is magnetic.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Are you a good conversationalist? What do you do best in a conversation? What could you improve?

  • What recent conversation have you had that you found especially satisfying? Tell us why.

  • Do you find it harder to have meaningful conversations in a time of social distancing?

  • Which of Mr. Brooks’s nine lessons resonate most and why? Have you ever incorporated any of them into your own conversations? What other recommendations would you give to others who yearn for deeper, more satisfying discussions?

  • How important is it for conversations to be deep? Mr. Brooks writes: “Deeper conversations help people become explicable to each other and themselves. You can’t really know yourself until you know how you express yourself and find yourself in another’s eyes.” Do you agree? Has a conversation ever changed your mind or perspective on yourself or the world?

  • Mr. Brooks shares many insights into conversation and life drawn through his own experiences and from others, such as: “Being curious about your friend’s experience is more important than being right,” “Humans need to be heard before they will listen” and “Deeper conversation builds trust, the oxygen of society, exactly what we’re missing right now.” What lines or ideas do you find most meaningful, provocative or valuable?

  • And finally … the classic college essay question: If you could invite any three people to dinner, living or dead, fictional or real, who would they be and why? What would you want to discuss? What “elevating questions” would you ask? What do you think you might learn about yourself and the world?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.