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There is an art to conversation, a way of being in the moment which builds connection with those with whom you converse. It isn’t magic, nor does it rely on a cold and calculating formula, it is just a way of looking at the person in front of you and entwining yourself in their life. Everyone has a story, many stories. It doesn’t matter if it is a youth who swam eighty kilometers to the freedom of Guantanamo bay, a child bursting to tell someone she is about to have a brother or sister, a man who finds his passions at the age of forty, or even a lady who is struggling with life as her marriage falls apart; we all have stories. The art of conversation is finding those stories, both your own, and the person who sits in front of you. Because while you talk to that person, their stories should be the most important stories you have ever heard.
They say a charismatic person will walk up to you and shake your hand and for five seconds you will feel like the most important person in the room. This isn’t a trick or a special gift, this is a skill, practiced and trained. That charismatic person at some point in their lives learnt a lesson, a lesson which is simple in its application. When you talk to someone they should be the most important person in the room. When the charismatic person shakes your hand you feel important because for five seconds their entire attention is focused on you, there is no time, there are no others in the room and there is no pressing matters on the mind other than you. You feel important because for five seconds you are important, the most important person in the world. Your importance shines through in the charismatic person’s gaze, their body language, indeed it shines through their entire bearing. It can come across as a spark, or an energy, to the conversation but I don’t believe this. I think we read people well enough to know when someone is genuinely interested in us. We read it in something as simple as when they say your name, because your name was important enough to remember. I don’t think it can’t be faked or mimicked either; it can only be done by believing that the person they are greeting is indeed the most important person in the world.
If you want to hear a person’s stories they are not always easily won. People want to believe they are important to the person they are talking to, that their stories will be heard, understood and accepted. So put away the phone, the thoughts of tomorrow, worries of another day and most of all put away the judgments of what you would do in their situation. Listen, just listen. Listen as if they are your parents dying last words, the Queen presenting you a knighthood or a romantic interest you are chasing whom you desperately want to understand. When someone can see they have your complete unbiased attention they feel safe, they feel like they can tell you the most amazing things that happened in their lives, and they will. When you focus you will hear stories of woe, tales of tribulations, epic adventures, victories won and lost, unbridled passions and most of all you will hear the stories that mean the most to them. To treat any story as less than this is to justify the reasons they had for not opening up to you in the first place.
Sometimes it can be hard to find the thread to a person’s stories, they are guarded and stories are only let out piece by piece, they are trying to gauge how you will react. They want you to pull the threads, it’s a test you see. They are judging your interest, they are judging how important you think they are. They are observing to see if they have your attention, to discern if you are going to judge them through the lens of your own perceptions. To pull the threads you have to ask questions, each thread is another page which must be turned and it can only be turned with interest in their story. Some pages may be stuck, they won’t be simply turned, and they require you to show you understand. They require that you show you have been through something similar, have had to make similar decisions or experienced similar events. Yet if you want to hear the book through and through the pages must be turned, you must pass their tests and show them they are important, you are interested and most of all you understand.
A conversation is two ways though and to a person who wants to tell you their story, they want to hear yours as well. Not the outline, not the condensed version but the real stories. The ones that are important to you. They want to know how you felt, what you experienced, what you went through and what you learnt. If you want a person to trust you with their stories then you must be able to trust them with yours. No one particularly cares how perfect your life is, they want to hear about the warts, the things that scared you, made you cry, made you burst with excitement, fall in love or the stories where you overcame your demons. A good conversation is about swapping tales, swapping stories from the trenches, lessons from the classroom of life or relating the random adventures life sometimes throws your way. Yet if you can’t put your heart on the line with these stories don’t expect the other person to do so either.
Conversation is an art. It’s about two people having the courage to put their hearts onto canvas and painting their murals in front of the other. It’s not about listening 60% of the time or some special skill some people are granted at birth, it’s about opening up to receive the stories you hear. It’s about considering them as precious gems to be cherished, a rare look into the inner life of the person you are talking to. Most people yearn to be understood, to be heard, to know the things they have done and felt are meaningful, but they need to be able to trust you as well. If you want a conversation that goes on for hours make that this person the most important person in your world, turn their pages and follow their story, most of all show them you understand with stories of your own.