The Art of Conversation

Illustration by Leah Chirico

Relationships are built on communication. From our connections with our friends, family and even our classmates — communicating with someone can make a bond or break it. It can be anxiety inducing, it can be heart-throbbing but in the end, it is between you and that person.

How do you talk to someone who is so fundamentally different from you — not just different in political views or in a generational gap? How can you begin to understand someone, and have that person understand you in turn? This is where the importance of effective communication comes in.

The goal of effective communication is not to pull a 'got ya' on your weird uncle during a political debate at dinner, nor is it to manipulate someone into agreeing with you. For someone who truly struggles to communicate with their loved ones, this is for the people who want to bridge that gap.

The First Step

Sometimes, the hardest step to having a difficult conversation is the first one: actually starting the conversation.  As people, we tend to avoid conflict for a variety of reasons.

There are an abundance of 'how-to' articles on the internet that illustrate conversations as a step-by-step process. Obscure websites on the web will tell the reader to "listen up" or "choose the right time to talk,"  but in real life, where inciting conflict can lead to severe consequences, running down a list of talking points is easier said than done.

Communication is a skill that requires constant practice. A cornerstone of good communication is asking yourself essential questions. What is the goal of the conversation and what assumptions — if any — are being made?

Setting out to completely flip a person's opinion is unrealistic. If the conversation begins with a mindset that one side must be wrong and one side must be right, the conversation will begin to deteriorate. This is why knowing the purpose for a conversation is so important.

Take the example of someone living in a family with different political views. Sometimes you, as the child, feel very strongly about a topic while at the same time, your parents may feel as strongly, but not the same as you do. You are tasked to balance your beliefs with your family, and at times this can cause great duress. This highlights an important question in communication: what kind of relationship do you want to have?

Taking Two to Tango

In the end, the most important part of communication is that it is not a one-way street.

The famous quote “blood is thicker than water” is never quoted fully. The full quote, “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” really means that the relationships and bonds you choose are so much stronger than that of obligation.

"You are not responsible for your parents' feelings," Hala Shamsi, a social worker with WellNest, wrote. In the same way some conversations can be bogged down by an inability to see the other side, sometimes people take it upon themselves to be responsible for 'correcting' their loved ones when they believe they are in the wrong.

"You are not responsible for your parents' feelings."

A person can choose their relationships, but love is not an obligation if they do not love you back — or love you in the way you want and need to be loved. It goes back to the idea that, for as much hurt as a loved one may cause you, it is ultimately up to you in how you want to pursue that relationship.

For people who want to continue to pursue their relationships, one vital technique is needed: active listening.

Active Listening

One of the highest barriers to effective communication is a hyper-fixation on the individual experience. People can get stuck looking at a situation from one perspective, and one perspective only. This is only natural, since American culture tends to emphasize the individual experience.

"We live in a culture based on avoidance and blame, which makes it easier to blame others, or avoid conflict," Elaine Montilla, a speaker and writer on culture and accountability, wrote.

"We live in a culture based on avoidance and blame, which makes it easier to blame others, or avoid conflict."

Building meaningful connections with people requires people to reach out and understand how the other person feels.

“Listening is an active process,” Ohlin wrote.

If you have diametrically opposed values to a person, it can be extremely difficult to listen to them without immediately preparing the next argument. The practice of 'fishing for responses' gets in the way of a meaningful interaction, since both sides of the conversation are too busy looking for an opportunity to interrupt to actually engage with what the other person is saying.

It is paradoxical in the way to reach out to others, you constantly have to ask yourself why you want to reach out. What do you want to fulfill by communicating with a person, or by doing the opposite and refusing to engage? It is a journey that is so individualistic that even when someone writes an entire piece about communication, there is no answer to be found.

The most important thing is to keep an end goal in your communication. Why do you want to establish boundaries with this person? Why are these boundaries important? What is at risk if those boundaries are broken?

Goals in Communication

"A goal properly set is halfway reached," Leon Ho, the CEO of Lifehack, wrote.. Oftentimes, conflict is ignited during serious conversations because there is a lack of clarity to what the person wants to be done.

Conversations themselves are often reactionary and are very rarely planned as it has been encouraged through this piece. However, there are results in putting these techniques to practice.

A 2014 study with the International Journal of Listening reported the effectiveness of active listening between strangers. They found that participants who received active listening from their conversation partner reported feeling more understood than those who had more superficial conversation.

More research indicates the human need to feel connected is a fundamental part of our nature as a social species.

This extends to how we evolved as a species in order to communicate with each other — to express not just our needs and wants, but our wishes and our feelings to each other as well.

In a world with almost 8 billion lives, it is vital to keep communicating.