Here’s an incredibly useful and rewarding skill to learn or hone in retirement: conversing.
Most of us think we already know how to converse. But the truth is few of us do it well, and all of us could do it better.
Some of us are appalling unskilled. And the cost is high.
Talking at people not with them is the path to friendlessness, a lonely road paved with unawareness of one’s impact on others, and almost certainly a way to become known behind your back as a bore.
In retirement, good conversation is both a survival tactic and a life-enrichment strategy. We need friends, arguably more than when we worked because we have more time on our hands. The workplace used to supply friends, or at least social contacts. That source has dried up. So we have to make them on our own. Alienating new prospects with too much self-talk is self-sabotaging.
And yet, shockingly — to me anyway — there is a small army of people who don’t know how to converse, who routinely and insufferably talk about themselves and the minutia of their lives without even seeking to engage others who are supposedly in the conversation.
So there is no conversation. And probably few friends.
A quick primer on conversing more effectively is Talk WITH People, Not AT Them, a blog post by Brett and Kate McKay at The Art of Manliness, a blog I value.
A big problem say the McKays: poor conversationalists are also often poor judges of their behavior.
"One of the insidious things about trying to judge our own social skills is that if an interaction went well for us, then we assume the other person thought it went well too. While you’ve probably never consciously thought about it, if you had a good time talking to someone, you think they felt the same. But this just isn’t the case. It’s very possible for you to walk away from an interaction feeling grand, while the other person walks away feeling annoyed, bored, or burdened.”
Why be a person others must endure? The opportunity is to be someone others seek because the conversation is satisfying.
Here is what the McKays advise (paraphrased by me):
1. Try to choose mutually interesting subjects. (Your cat is not one of those.)
2. Look for clues that your partner is engaged and interested. If not, change the subject.
3. Introduce subjects with humility, not ownership. (“I read the other day that…”)
4. Keep stories short and make an insightful point relevant to us all. (No cat.)
5. Have discussions not arguments. Seek the opinions of others. Try to empathize.
Before all that though, we have to be self-aware.
When interacting with others, ask yourself: “Am I talking too much, too much about myself and too little about the other person?”
If the answer is yes, then ask the other person a question. “What have you been thinking about lately?” Or “How have you been spending your time lately?” Anything. Be curious, and try to be legitimately curious. Fake curiosity is cloying.
After you get a response to your question, don’t start talking about yourself again. Create a flow of reciprocity.
The McKay’s wrap up nicely: “… see what people bite on; like volleyball players, hit the ball back and forth over the net. Show that you’re curious, open-minded, and interested in other people’s experiences and perspectives. Interact rather than making the other person solely react to what you say and do; create a little theater/dialogue/symposium/comedy together, rather than having them watch you from the gallery."
Science has recently verified the rewards of conversing well. In a study published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers concluded: “people who ask more questions, particularly follow-up questions, are better liked by their conversation partners.”
Sounds so obvious, doesn’t it?