The Conversation Killers


An open mind and an interest in what other people have to say is a dying virtue.

During a drunken night out with some colleagues a few years ago, I was told that I asked “a lot of questions”. This wasn’t in response to quizzing this particular person about anything inappropriately personal (honestly), simply an innocuous, polite query about her plans for the weekend. Naturally, I wasn’t mortally-wounded by her comment but it did make me question whether there was something odd about my overall approach to conversation. After all, no one wants to be that “nosey weirdo that wants to know the ins-and-outs of everyone’s business while contributing nothing original to the discussion himself”. I quickly concluded that even if I was prone to treating an informal chat as some kind of starchy interview process, it was far preferable to being the other far more common personality type: the tiresome bore that treats all social interaction as a platform for airing the latest draft chapters of their autobiography. The sort of person that perceives any conversation as an excuse to brag incessantly about their recent “exciting” exploits or, worse still, verbally attempt to exorcise their emotional issues. Suffice to say, you are not expected to pass an opinion on whatever it is they’re rambling on about, and anyway it’d be rapidly brushed aside so that they can quickly regain control of the airspace. However, the occasional raising of eyebrows in admiration or pained expression of sympathy will be gratefully noted. Needless to say, such people rarely, if ever, ask questions – even simple mundanities like: “Have you seen any good films lately?”; “How’s your job going ?”; “How was your recent weekend away in Skegness?”.

We all know people like this. We can all be that person on occasions but if those characteristics begin to define your general approach to social situations, don’t expect an invite for a drink from me. You see, in my view, questions – and the answers they elicit – are the lifeblood of conversation. Aside from the fact that they give us a chance to home in on the aspects of a person’s life, opinions, and feelings that we’re most interested in, asking questions is a way of showing that we value that person as a fellow human being, let alone a partner, friend, or colleague. Not everyone feels comfortable with spontaneously expressing their thoughts uninvited, and questions give the less brash, more modest person permission to open-up and contribute to the conversation. Importantly, a question is also an unequalled method of kickstarting a discussion.

But if you’re reading this and thinking “Why the hell should I repress the urge to drone on endlessly about myself and allow some other less interesting fool a word in edgeways?”, at least try to toss in a few cursory questions, in the interests of bonhomie if nothing else. For a start, other people may be more inclined to spend time in your company. If you must, think of a question as a commercial break in your highly entertaining monologue. And as the tedious bastard begins to answer, you can always zone-out and contemplate what veiled boasts and personal philosophies you can bombard them with next.

But why the disinterest? With a few exceptions, people are actually pretty fascinating. Their behaviour, thoughts, and emotions have been the subject of numerous academic studies and most of your favourite TV shows revolve around their everyday trials and tribulations. Who knows, that stranger you’ve just been introduced to may actually be a scientist on the verge of discovering a cure for cancer, a world-renowned, publicity-shy author, or even your mother’s secret toyboy. They may have something interesting to say; something that could even shake the foundations of your world. If only you’d asked a few questions. Whatever their response, it’s going to be more intellectually stimulating than a needlessly detailed (grossly exaggerated) history of your medical problems or the boundless prodigious talents of your offspring.

The term ‘listening skills’ appears on many an annual performance appraisal form, and isn’t it surprising that something so fundamental to communication is deemed as an attribute? Personally, I don’t consider it a ‘skill’ at all. To listen to others – even the chronically dull – is a conscious choice, something easily within most people’s grasp. To routinely approach conversation simply as a way of thinking aloud or bolstering a fragile ego will mean that the very concept of asking a question may never even enter your head let alone reach your lips.

Anyway, enough about me. So, what did you do at the weekend?