Civility and manners,  Communication,  Friendship and relationship advice,  Where I'm published

A Thanksgiving conversation primer

“Real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking.” ~Alan Alda

Our social lives took a huge hit during the pandemic. We celebrated birthdays with drive-by parades, limited our holiday gatherings to small family bubbles, and even Zoomed memorial services.

Now that our lives are back to near-normal, we look forward to gathering around our holiday tables with friends and family.

We’re also rediscovering how to talk to each other after long periods of semi-isolation and social distancing. Not long after the pandemic eased, a friend confided that her social skills suddenly feel a bit “rusty” — especially when she meets new people at larger parties or work functions.

No wonder. Pandemic isolation forced us to rely primarily on social media and cell phones, leaving us bereft of body language and other social cues that are essential to three-dimensional conversation. In other words, we got used to talking at each other, rather than with each other.

In our defense, social media sites foster one-sided communication. That’s the way they work. Along with bragging rights, Facebook and Twitter give us full permission to talk about ourselves nonstop. We like to believe we’re interacting with others, but in reality, we’re mostly fueling our addiction to the rush of dopamine we get whenever someone “likes” or comments on our posts. 

Real conversation, on the other hand, is a balanced exchange that requires empathy, curiosity, and superb listening skills. It is not a monologue or a recital in which one person drones on endlessly about herself while the other person quietly nods (or tries not to yawn).

A good conversation leaves everyone feeling heard, understood and appreciated.

The give-and-take of social skills

The easiest way to refresh and improve our communication skills is to observe the folks who’ve mastered the gift of gab.

For starters, good conversationalists love to learn about other people. My father would always try to discover at least two new things about each person he met or hadn’t seen in a while. To achieve this, he focused on other people and listened carefully — instead of simply waiting for his turn to jump into the conversation. By focusing on others, he reminded me, you can overcome shyness and self-absorption.

Good conversationalists might share interesting details about their own lives — but they always find a way to loop the conversation back to you. 

They’ll tell you about the week they spent mountain-climbing, for instance, but they’ll never forget to ask what you did on your summer vacation. As Dale Carnegie advised: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years trying to get other people interested in you.”

Good conversationalists understand that political arguments are unwelcome guests at dinner parties and holiday gatherings. They save loaded, controversial topics for another time — for private discussions in safe company.

They also know that a sincere compliment is a great conversation starter. Again, this requires paying close attention to the positive qualities in others rather than worrying about your own self-image.

Lastly, good conversationalists never boast or show off. They know that a great conversation is never a competition. They’ve learned that listening with an open mind opens a window to understanding a variety of people. No wonder we all enjoy their company. ~Cindy La Ferle

Another version of this essay was first published on July 21, 2021 in The Sunday Oakland Press.

Throughout my career, I've worked as a book production editor, travel magazine editor, features writer, and weekly newspaper columnist. My award-winning lifestyles features and essays have appeared in many national magazines and anthologies, including Newsweek, Reader's Digest, The Christian Science Monitor, Writer's Digest, Victoria, Better Homes & Gardens, Bella Grace, and more. My weekly Sunday "Life Lines" column ran for 14 years in The Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, MI) and won a First Place (Local Columns) award from the Michigan Press Association. My essay collection, Writing Home, includes 93 previously published columns and essays focusing on parenthood and family life.

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