The Conversation You Should Be Having

Take-Home Message: People love talking about themselves. Give them a chance.

“Hi, I’m Mitchell.”

“Hi, Mitchell, I’m [Insert Name]”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise. So, Mitchell, what do you do?”

That’s the script to each new interaction I’ve been programmed to rehearse. It happens on auto-pilot. On many occasions, I catch myself regurgitating these words like lines from a play. It’s not because I’m superficially interested, either. It’s something more Pavlovian than that. It’s the response I’ve been conditioned to recite for years, as if we’re all merely products defined by our roles in society, rather than humans with passions, a family, and a story.

It happens all around us, and it walks with us through each new stage in our lives. Questions about what you wanted to be morphed into questions about your major, or any other classifying information. Whatever the question, the result is the same, and I’m guilty of it, too.

I call it qualifying by classifying. It’s really an easy recipe. You take a glassful of notions you have about an individual, add two shots of answers to surface-level questions, maybe stir in a pinch of prejudice, garnish with a stereotype, stir, and then you drink this mind-numbing libation. Add rash judgment according to your preference.

This isn’t healthy. All this does is continue a broken narrative that our existence is pointless. It adds to this group-think mentality that our own intrinsic, individual characteristics don’t matter. It adds to the propagation of society as a swarm of worker bees, beholden to the hive. It grants us each a label according to our role–rather than our personality–as if it’s our duty–rather than our choice.

But, there is still hope.

It happens by working on our delivery. Instead of asking someone what they do, ask, “What’s your story?” or “What keeps you up at night?” or even, “What are you passionate about?”

Watch the fire light in their eyes. Why? Because people love talking about themselves, detailing their passions, and telling their stories. What they likely don’t get often is someone eager to listen. This is not mere conjecture. Research has proven that the areas of the brain that respond to self-disclosure are also associated with reward. People really, truly, love talking about themselves.

Here’s the beauty of this, though. When you engage someone else this way and set them into motion about their story, you will learn more about them than you would by asking them what they do or about their major. Why? Because when you show interest, it allows others to let down their guard and make way for a friendly conversation. Before you know it, you’ll be figuring out how your aunts went to high school together or planning a cookout.

But why does it even matter?

Here’s why. Because a lot of people haven’t thought out what makes them happy or evaluated what they would do differently if they could. They’re just like you and me, moving through life, searching for answers, only to find more questions. But something happens when someone engages us and we get to talking. The wheels start turning and it awakens these feelings and inspirations that we’ve either repressed or forgotten about. Sometimes, all someone needs is to feel like they have the permission to let it all out. We can do that for other people, and it doesn’t even cost a thing.

But why do I care or why should I?

Here’s why I care. Not long ago, someone asked me what made me come alive. He asked me about my goals and my ideal life, where I envisioned myself in a few years, and why it all mattered to me. It floored me. I thought this guy was the most impressive person I’d ever spoken to. Why? Because he made me feel like a rockstar. He challenged me to provide answers to questions I had not even articulated for myself.

I walked away from that conversation remembering him. I remembered how he made me feel, too. And I couldn’t shake the questions. They stuck with me. So, over the course of several weeks following that conversation, I hashed out answers to a lot of those questions. All of this from just a simple conversation, that only took a few minutes of a stranger’s time.

Now, I’m not  proposing you do this as charity. You can approach it from a motive of self-interest. You can even look at it as a key for networking better and making people remember you. You can do it from the joy you’ll likely receive from witnessing someone light up as they describe their story to you. You can do it to feel like a good person.

It doesn’t really matter why you choose to, or even if you choose to at all. But, I assure you, you’re leaving value on the table in every interaction you have if you’re continuing to engage people solely based upon their occupation or education.

I dare you capitalize on that missed value and to join me in making this change. It’s no easy one. It requires a process of undoing years of socially-cultivated colloquial. No matter how I look at it, though, all I see are opportunities–and years of missed opportunities from just scratching the surface. The ripple effects of those opportunities turned into action are impossible to know without trying.

So, will you join me?

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