How to Have a Good Conversation: 3 Principles to Follow

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Fierce Conversations" by Susan Scott. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why should you give your full attention while someone is talking to you? What are the basic principles of having a good conversation?

Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott explains that your behavior, body language, tone, and communication style are critical to courageous conversations. Scott discusses three principles to follow that will establish mutual trust and understanding with the other person(s) so you can have an effective courageous conversation.

Let’s dive into how to have a good conversation.

Principle #1: Give the Other Person Your Full Attention

First, Scott explains that to learn how to have a good conversation, you must give the other person(s) your complete, undivided attention. If the other party senses that you’re distracted or don’t care about what they’re saying, they’ll be reluctant to share their truth. To start things off right, get rid of distractions like technology, and make eye contact to show them you’re listening. Further, focus on both the content of their statements as well as smaller details like their tone and body language. The things people say—the thoughts, feelings, details, and examples they discuss—show what’s important to them. Their tone and body language, and any changes in these elements that occur during the conversation, can indicate unspoken desires, fears, and emotions.

Use Empathic Listening to Make the Other Person Feel Understood

In 4 Essential Keys to Effective Communication, Bento C. Leal reiterates the importance of giving the other person your full attention—he calls this “empathic listening.” He elaborates that empathic listening comprises three practices. First, clear your mind of all thoughts aside from what the other person is saying (which Scott recommends in the following paragraph). 

Second, Leal reiterates to focus on their words and body language; however, he says to specifically focus on their word choice. For example, using the word “hate” instead of “dislike” indicates that the other person’s conveying a more intense feeling.  

Finally, Leal recommends showing the other person you’re listening—not only by making eye contact, as Scott discusses, but also by summarizing the person’s statement and repeating it back to them and mimicking their tone and body language.

To pick up on these details, Scott says you must achieve a state of inner peace. In this state, you’re focused on the other person rather than on your own thoughts or feelings. You’re curious to learn what the other person thinks and feels, and why, rather than judging them or formulating your own responses.

(Shortform note: It can be difficult to achieve a state of inner peace where your thoughts are quiet and you’re focused solely on the other person, especially for people with disorders like ADHD. People with ADHD often experience disruptive thoughts and struggle to focus on one thing at a time. Experts provide a few additional recommendations that may increase your ability to clear your mind and focus on listening if you experience disruptive thoughts. For example, visualize what the other person is saying by creating a movie in your mind out of their words. This will also help you stay engaged.)

Principle #2: Control Your Impact

To ensure you leave a positive impact, Scott says you must be genuine and compassionate. This requires you to say what you mean and avoid unclear, negative, or manipulative forms of communication. For example, regularly remind important people how much they mean to you, and avoid forms of communication like blaming, sarcasm, exaggerations, threats, and so on. This way, people will know exactly how you feel toward them without having to guess or interpret mixed messages.

(Shortform note: In Nonviolent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg emphasizes that the way we communicate with people impacts them and the relationship, whether it’s our intention or not. He argues, like Scott, that to leave a positive impact you must communicate authentically and compassionately, and avoid certain forms of communication—what he calls “life-alienating communication.” These negative forms of communication include moralistic judgments (blame, criticism, and diagnoses), comparisons, denial of responsibility, making demands (which implies a threat of punishment), and inauthentically expressing compliments.)

Further, always have important conversations in person, not by text or phone call. Text and phone conversations lack important nonverbals that indicate to the other person what you really feel and mean. This makes people more likely to misinterpret what you’re saying and how you feel.

(Shortform note: The authors of Difficult Conversations agree that text and phone conversations are not ideal because they deprive you of crucial nonverbals. However, they add that these conversations aren’t always avoidable–especially if the other person initiates or insists on talking via phone. The authors provide a few tips that can help if you find yourself having a difficult conversation over the phone. For example, while reading messages, assume good intentions since you can’t read their nonverbals, and stop reading if you start to get emotional. In your responses, be as explicit as possible about your intentions, reasoning, and emotional state, and let them know if it’s going to take you a while to type a response.)

Principle #3: Utilize the Power of Silence

Scott urges you to embrace silence to enhance understanding. Integrating breaks of silence into the conversation allows time for you to fully process what the other person is saying, reflect on what truths are being revealed, identify the most important thing to discuss next, and ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to speak so that the conversation isn’t monopolized by one group or person.

(Shortform note: Other writers underscore the benefits of silence that Scott discusses, and add a few additional benefits that may prove useful in courageous conversations. They explain that silence can also be utilized to make people notice you in conversation, to display self-confidence, and to prevent you from saying things you might later regret.)

To integrate silence into conversations, give your full attention to the speaker while they’re speaking and take your time to form your response after they’re finished. When someone shares something important and you feel like you need a longer pause to process things, inform the other person that you need a moment to reflect before responding.

(Shortform note: While Scott provides actionable advice for integrating silence into conversations, many people may still struggle to feel comfortable with silence, especially those who experience social anxiety. Experts provide a few tips to help you feel more comfortable with the concept of silence so you can integrate it into conversations. For example, remember that deep conversations tend to have more silence than small talk, so silence should be expected and welcomed. Further, rather than dreading silence, focus on the fact that it will make the conversation more interesting—both people will have time to come up with something meaningful to say.)

How to Have a Good Conversation: 3 Principles to Follow

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  • Why you must have uncomfortable discussions about feelings
  • How to uncover the most critical issues that must be addressed
  • How to ensure you stay aligned with your life goals

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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