More Conversation

I am a terrible, horrible, implacable eavesdropper when at a bar or restaurant. At times it can drive my wife absolutely crazy. She'll want to tell me something, but I'm totally focused on the conversation next to me--unable to break away from the gossip occurring nearby--and I'm always trying to get her to listen in too. Most of the time it's booze-related, as in someone is talking about wine or spirits. Sometimes it might be a fight or a disagreement and I want to hear what people are fussing about. Often, however, it's simply my interest in other humans that draws me in--my desire to study how people interact with one another. This past weekend my wife and I drove down to San Luis Obisbo for a little R&R and we stopped downtown to have lunch. Even she couldn't help but get sucked into the politics of the table next to us. I don't think the two of us said a word to one another the entire time. There was the most wretched girl absolutely blabbering about anything she could think of and we couldn't help but stare at the wreckage.

If there were ever a shining example of self-centered egoism in this world, it's me. However, I've worked very hard over the last decade to drop many of my bad habits. Today I'm much more thoughtful and considerate of others (not that I was ever a jerk, just uninterested), especially when having a conversation. Call it maturity if you want, but it wasn't always easy for me to allow others to talk. Because of that tendency, and my current embarrassment about past behavior, I'm incredibly sensitive to others who still engage in that practice. They say that people often can't stand those who are just like them. I definitely have little tolerance for folks who want to dominate the conversation, mainly because of my own shame. Working in customer service this attitude definitely will not fly, which is why I sent this article out to all of my colleagues this week -- a blog on the San Francisco Chronicle website about conversational skills.

Author Kim Thompson lays out five basic guidelines when having a conversation with others, as a reminder to practice etiquette during the intense pace of the holiday season:

Be genuine with what you convey to the other person. A good conversation is not a debate to win a point it’s more about an exchange involving all of your senses such as non-verbal language, eye contact and sending cues that you are interested in the other person.

Share the conversation, aim for a 50-50 balance combination of talking and listening.

Be focused when talking and listening. Rarely can a person convey their interest in you when looking around the room to check out who is present.

Questions fuel good conversations use open-ended ones to help the other person talk.  Make comments and add feedback, your input is just as important.

Use the “WAIT” technique an acronym for “Why Am I Talking?” This is a good reminder to help you internally  monitor your actions when communicating with another person. If you can’t come up with a good reason as to why you are talking, it might be a sign that you are dominating the conversation.

While I know that these bold points may seem like common knowledge to many of you, I can assure you (as if you haven't had a run in with people like this) that there are plenty of folks out there who have no concept of these skills. One of the worst, most despicable, and embarrassing examples of bad conversational skills was on display at the table next to us in San Luis Obisbo this past Sunday. It was so bad that at one point I spit out my food laughing and I had to act like my wife made a joke because it was obvious I might have been listening in. Two parents, their son and daughter, and their two finaces were having lunch at the Creekside Diner and five of those six people were being dominated by one person. The son's fiance was talking over people, dismissing their stories in place of her own better story, bragging about travel, sharing her basic and rather trite epiphanies as if they were incredible realizations, and whenever others would talk she would check her phone or whisper in the son's ear. It was so ridiculous I thought at one point it had to be staged.

I don't know if it's a generational thing, or just a result of a more ego-centric world, but it seems to me like this pattern of behavior is getting worse. Maybe it's just an unlucky string of incidents on my end, but I'm experiencing it more wherever I go. I might also just be super-sensitive to it. Whatever the case, I can assure you that people notice when you don't allow others a chance to speak or share their own experiences. Working at K&L on the sales floor we have people come in everyday who are as excited to tell me about a whisky they've tried as they are to shop for more whisky. Listening to those experiences genuinely and politely is a big part of what we do (and I enjoy doing it). Every now and again, however, some of us need a reminder of proper conversation skills (me included -- don't think I fail to see the irony of writing a piece about good conversation skills while eavesdropping and ignoring my own). Especially during this time of year when the stress and strain of the holidays pushes people to vent.

We all need someone to listen to us. We just need to be prepared to listen to them in return.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll