You don’t need to be a professional interviewer, journalist or memorialist to inspire conversations that mean something. And as the person instigating the story capturing, some prep goes a long way. With a little heart, lots of intention and a limit on preconceived notions, there are ways to set up the scene and your conversation to get the details you both deserve. There’s also value in not over preparing leaving room for the whimsy and unexpected.
Podcast host for The Root & Seed podcast, co-founder Anika Chabra says “I know just enough about the guest before interviewing them, but not too much, I let the conversation and their story reveal themselves. I have questions ready but with an open curious mind, allow the conversation to be led by the previous answer. It’s like a dance, just verbal.”
Whether you are leading a conversation as an interviewer, or participating as one of many storytellers, here are seven tips for having better conversations. Keep these in mind as you chat about your family stories and your discoveries will be more fruitful.
1. Be fully present in the moment.
Have you ever been bursting with excitement to tell someone a story, but found yourself losing momentum when they keep checking their phone? At best, multi-tasking communicates divided attention; at worst, it’s the equivalent to flashing a neon sign that reads, “This is boring.” Ouch. Giving our full attention speaks volumes - it might help if you think of this as less of an etiquette rule, and more of a win-win strategy for stronger relationships! When fully present, we’re more attuned to details that can lead conversations down deeper paths, and this encourages more reciprocity too.
2. Listen with authenticity.
Listening goes hand-in-hand with being present … but there’s a catch! While conventional wisdom tells us to show we’re listening with continual smiles, head nods, and good ol’ eye contact, in Celeste Headlee’s famous TedTalk, she invites us to rethink some of these tactics: “There is no reason to learn how to show you're paying attention if you are, in fact, paying attention.” In other words, all the head nodding in the world can’t make up for half-hearted engagement. Genuine responses show others that they’re truly heard - and that’s an irreplicable magic that keeps conversations flowing.
3. Be open to learning.
Honest communication withers at the door of a closed mind. While it’s beautiful to explore what ties us together, it’s equally beautiful - and necessary - to unravel some preconceptions we might have. Even though we don't agree with some people's point of view, we can still learn from their life experiences. They might even help us understand how they arrived at their points of view. Remember, no great minds think completely alike, and some ebbs and flows in agreement are a natural part of good communication.
4. Ask questions that can take you down unexpected roads.
A willingness to learn doesn’t just translate through our responses. It can even begin with the questions we choose to ask. Consider taking a “less is more” approach by asking simple, open-ended questions. Instinct might whisper that complexity can reveal how insightful we are or even inspire a less-than-chatty conversation partner to open up more. While these can certainly spark inspiration, questions sprinkled with too many assumptions are often statements in disguise. When all questions lead to a planned destination or can be answered with “yes” or “no,” we miss out on potential twists and turns along the way. Conversations are more fulfilling when we let others help map out the trail.
At Root & Seed, we’ve made our question prompts very open-ended with some of these ideas in mind! They are up for interpretation and can inspire different answers from different people - no matter your age, culture, or experience. If a storyteller needs some help, our “dig deeper” questions are always there to help you think about the topic from a different angle, or ensure all the details get covered. Here’s an example from our card deck and companion Conversation Tool:
What is your favourite memory from childhood?
Dig Deeper: What did you do for fun? / How did you get to school each day? / What did your bedroom look like?
5. Let others shine.
Sometimes, we become so caught up in a train of thought that we tune others out or interrupt without really acknowledging what was said. As observed by Stephen R. Covey, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Many ideas will come to us, but a great conversation requires us to let go of these sometimes to go with the flow.
Tip: Note if you have a tendency to jump in by making self-comparisons and aim to strike a greater balance. Sharing how we “get it” with a relatable story of our own can inspire bigger conversations and help others know they’re not alone, but the key is to still graciously give space and not overshadow another’s story.
6. Take the lead to course-correct.
As much as giving others space to share is important, practice taking a gentle hold of the reins when you sense a conversation trail going cold. Even great stories can lose their shine with over-repetition or a side quest “into the weeds” of details. If you can predict the exact trip down memory lane you’ll be taken on at the next family get-together or always find yourself hearing about a cast of side characters that aren’t integral to a story, then you probably know what we mean - hey, maybe even you’ve been accused of having this endearing trait!
Thoroughness doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Besides a rusty memory at play when your Nonna gets caught up in reminiscences, repetition can stem from a desire to emphasize an important point. These are gems of wisdom worth picking up on! A deep dive into details might also help some people sift through their memories to paint a richer picture. Try to take each of these conversational quirks in stride, recognizing their value while using your responses and follow-up questions to “dig deeper” and open up new pathways.
7. Embrace the short and sweet.
Be conscious of others’ time and expectations, but try not to be too ruled by a clock. That “less is more” approach can also apply to timing, especially if you plan to record or share with others. We live in a fast-paced world where many find more appeal in snack-size stories that pack a powerful punch.
We hope a few of these tips resonated with you and sparked some inspiration as you hone your skills to become a better conversationalist. If the road ahead still seems a little daunting or you’d like some help navigating as you take the lead, be sure to check out Root & Seed’s beautiful Conversation Tool & card pack.
Do you have any tips for leading great conversations? Let us know in the comments below.
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