Tag Archives: how to have a conversation

The 5 Principles For Great Conversation

Great conversations don’t just happen.

Good ones – maybe.  Mediocre ones – sure.

But to cultivate the habit of robust, satisfying conversations with your ~

  • Sweetie
  • Spouse
  • Child
  • Sibling
  • In-laws
  • Friend

pull up a chair.

Here are 5 (I think fun) principles to help keep your conversations working for you, rather than against you.

1. Every Conversation Counts

Screen shot 2015-03-18 at 9.42.40 AMRemember the 5:1 ratio (see here).

Relationships sink or swim one conversation at a time.

It’s not as if we need to be on high alert every time we open our mouths. But it is good to be prepared.

Just as you’d be unwise to show up for a multi-day back-packing trip with an injury, no  map, no route, no clear destination and no provisions, so likewise you’d be daft to to launch into an important conversation in a foul mood, with no idea of where you want this to go, no thought for what you need from your conversation partner and no energy for the effort.

Since every conversation you have with someone important to you will bring you closer or push you apart, it pays to figure out what’s happening.

Remember the five types of conversation?

  • Connecting – the frequent comings and goings and ins and outs of relating;
  • Deepening – the processing of life’s ups and downs;
  • Transacting – the tasks of living, giving-&-taking that demand some finesse;
  • Transforming – that invitation to grow oneself up that relating invites;
  • Healing – that loving solace we find in one another.

So the first principle – that every conversation counts – means being aware of what’s going to happen. Is this “just” a connective “Hi, you’re on my radar!” few sentences. Or do you need to talk with your best friend because you felt hurt by her actions? The latter will need a bit more emotional preparedness.

2.  Attend to what you feel and need.

Screen shot 2015-04-15 at 10.29.43 AMEver been in a conversation where the speaker’s words and body language/energy were at odds? That dis-connect feeling?

The gritty fixed grin that comes with the words, “No no, I’m fine.”

The fleeting sigh of anguish accompanied by “No, there’s nothing you need to do.”

(Click the image for a list of words for feelings – or you can click this Words for Feelings-2015 )

Say you need to have a transacting conversation with your spouse. “Transacting”? That’s when you need to talk about something important and make some decisions. It’s way more than a simple connecting “Hi, you’re on my radar”. It’s going to need a deeper level of attentiveness and care.

You’ve been offered a huge promotion and need to talk through whether to take it. Before you launch into the conversation, check in to see what you feel and need.

Are you feeling ~

  • Flattered – it’s about time they valued you!
  • Frightened – holy smokes that will mean a lot of work!
  • Frustrated – you’d love to take the job but it means a move and the family is finally rooted.

Now you can begin the conversation by bringing all of this to the table:

“You know – I finally got offered that promotion I’ve been hoping for and now that I have it within my grasp, I’ve got really mixed feelings.”

Knowing you have mixed feelings, you’ll be clearer about what you need from your listener to start with:

Can we just go back and forth with the pros and cons for a while before we even think about the logistics of a move?

 3.  Attend to what they feel and need.

 Screen shot 2015-04-15 at 11.02.51 AMThe other day a client told me how she recently had the chance to do just what I recommend in #2 above. She saw a friend who’d hurt her feelings badly and was finally able to snag her at a party and tell her how these actions had made her feel and what she’d needed from this woman that would have helped.

It bombed! The woman appeared to listen but right after, got up and left the party. My client has neither seen nor heard from her since.

What went wrong?

(See above for a list of needs.)

My client forgot to consider what her friend might feel or need right then.

Remember, this is an article about conversation. It’s a pas-de-deux, not a solo. We have to keep alert for how our steps in the dance impact our partner.

How to do this?

If you’re about to embark on a tough conversation, like the one my client faced, check in first.

Hey Mandy. Good to see you again. I’ve not seen you since we had that difficult situation go down. I’ve been feeling sort of sad and distant ever since. I’m wondering how you’re doing. Is this a good time to talk about it? “

Stay alert to the idea that it really does take two to tango. You may be aware of your feelings and needs, but if you are trying to have a “deep and meaningful” conversation with someone else you’ll do much better knowing as much as you can about their inner state.

4.  Think “Improv” not Tennis.

Screen shot 2015-04-15 at 11.16.55 AMGood, mutually satisfying conversations look like great improv scenes with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, not like foul-mouthed Jimmy Conners slamming the ball back and forth with tantrum-prone John McEnroe.

To take a ho-hum conversation to the “great” and even “great fun” level, definitely go improv over tennis.

Here are Four Rules of Improv, from Tina Fey’s ideas in Bossypants. I really encourage you to click this one page excerpt from the book – Tina Fey’s Rules of Improv and read Tina’s words. She writes as well as she improvises.

RULE #1 ~ Say “Yes.”

  • Start by agreeing with their point: you can shift directions in a moment.
  • Show respect for them as a person: who wants to build a relationship with anyone who disrespects us?

RULE #2 ~ Say “Yes, and . . . “

  • Agree, and add a gift.
  • Contribute something of your own.

RULE #3 ~ Make statements

  • Stop hiding behind questions to much.
  • Think a bit.
  • Be part of the solution.

RULE #4 ~ There are no mistakes.

  • Only opportunities!
  • Beautiful happy accidents.
  • New venues to explore.

5.  Know When to Insert A Period

Screen shot 2015-04-15 at 11.38.30 AM

If you are in a long-term relationship with someone, conversations really never end. They just get punctuated. Maybe you have fifteen minutes to talk about the job promotion but then life interferes – one of you gets tired; or the boss calls; or a kid needs you; or you remember that other conversation you were mid-way through from this morning . . .

It’s OK to punctuate your conversations. Maybe this one needs a comma? “Shall we continue whilst we prep dinner together? Right now I‘m distracted by my rumbling stomach?”

A period? “I’m swiped. I think I’d appreciate sleeping on this. Can we pick this back up on Thursday after work?”

Again, good, satisfying conversations are the thread that stitches your relationship together over time, across space. As much as you can, allow the reality of both protagonists to influence the winding journey any conversation might take.


Here we are on week 3 of a month-long exploration of great conversations and I’ve not focused on listening.

That’s not because I don’t think it’s important!

It’s because it is SO important it gets its own month.

May is all about listening.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.

Click the box for the full list.Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation


Five Conversations

When I was twenty-something my boss, who was thirty-something, told me “When you’ve been married a while, you begin to have the same conversation over and over again.”

I was newly in love and this seemed like an impossible nightmare. We – Mark and I – would never run out of things to learn, to say, to inspire, to challenge, to encourage, to deepen our love.

Now we’ve been married for thirty-something years and we’re working to keep things fresh: Mostly. It’s a journey. It’s a conscious effort. When you say “’Til death do us part” these days – man – that can be a L O N G time. How do folks keep conversations fresh, connective, helpful, real?

And, that’s only one challenge for “The Conversation” – that relationship heavy lifter; that bridge over troubled waters; that small brave rocket launched from one soul to another across unfathomable distances of culture, meaning and interpretation to land into what – hostile waters? Toxic air? Fertile ground? We often don’t know, when we launch that first “Hello!”

But, if we are to be in relationship to someone else we must keep launching our words as emissaries of hope and tentative connection else – what? Radio static? Terrifyingly unfathomable silence?

OK – enough of the hyperbole. I had fun there.

But I have – through years of conversations as a professional therapist, wife, mother, sister, friend – discovered The Rule of Five when it comes to learning about and engaging in great, powerful, connective conversations.

I figure there are ~

  1. Five Assumptions I’m Making
  2. Five Conversations
  3. Five Principles of Great Conversations
  4. Five Levels of Intimacy
  5. Five Conversation Killers

And, as luck would have it, there are five Wednesdays in April for me to share each of these!

Today I’m going with 1 and 2 since you’ll need to know my assumptions. And besides, I need week five for that little something special I have up my sleeve!

 Five Assumptions I’m Making

  1. You want great relationships – not mediocre ones. This teaching goes beyond Conversation 101.
  2. You are self-aware and learning all the time. These ideas are not for the denizens of denial.
  3. You are willing to take responsibility for quality conversations. This is not for the whiners and complainers.
  4. While you can use this information at a one-off work social, these tips are intended for those wanting, or in, longer-term relationships.
  5. “Conversation” is not just about the words. It includes the silences and non-verbal overlays.

The Five [Types of] Conversations

When you’re in a relationship for the long haul (think partner, parents, in-laws, kids) your conversations have to be versatile. Marriages don’t survive on the “What’s your favorite movie?” or “How was lunch?” level.

You need to navigate the ~

  1. Connecting – the frequent comings and goings and ins and outs of relating;
  2. Deepening – the processing of life’s ups and downs;
  3. Transacting – the tasks of living and giving and taking that demand some finesse;
  4. Transforming – that invitation to grow oneself-up that relating precipitates;
  5. Healing – the willingness to apologize and forgive when we hurt one another.

These are different skills.

1.  Connectingthe frequent comings and goings and ins and outs of relating

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 8.11.51 AMSo OK – every relationship starts someplace. Maybe even at the office social. At one end of connecting therefore is that “What’s my opening gambit?” fear. How do I know if I even want to get to know X or Y more fully if I can’t pluck up the courage to say “Boo.”

Here’s an info-graphic based on shyness-expert Professor Bernardo J. Carducci’s five (that “Five” again!) stages of a successful conversation.

But out beyond the initial connection, every-day connecting and re-connecting comprise the warp threads of long term relating. All day, every day – with people who matter to us – we’re structuring our relationship through conversational bids for connection. They look like this:

  • Did you see that sunrise? Boy it was breathtaking today!
  • I found a new farm for happy-chicken, free-range eggs. What do you think of them?
  • Oh, the neighbors are putting in a new planter box – I wonder what they’ll grow.

Yup – seriously folks. These are long-term-relationship conversational bids for connection. You know how you could blow it? By hearing them as slightly mad one-liners, instead of conversational openers. Sure they could be the mad mutterings of the old cat lady down the road, but if you want a great relationship with the mutterer in your life then you need to also hear what is underneath: you need to listen for the unspoken sub text, which is “Hi there! You’re on my radar. Am I on yours?” And yes, you need to respond.

These Connecting Conversations do not have to be long. A little friendly volley works wonders. Not in the mood? Nurturing the inner grump today? No worries, as Dan Wile writes, you can still honor the spirit of a Connecting Conversation by simply commenting on your state: “Hon, I’m all over those eggs. Right now I gotta dash. See you tonight – good luck with that meeting.” That right there – while brisk, is not brusque. It lets a partner know you heard and they are indeed still an important blip on your radar.

2.  Deepeningthe processing of life’s ups and downs

If Connecting is the warp thread, Deepening is the woof. Every day we rally forth into the world to study, work, play, teach, shop, search – whatever. And we come back with our share of triumph and tragedy. It’s with our loved ones that we process this stuff – or at least, ideally. It’s how we converse about these daily experiences that builds or erodes our mutual trust, love and attachment.

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 2.01.31 PMThese conversations tend to go well to the extent one or both parties have some emotional fluency. For a brief overview I’m going to paraphrase from that master of emotional intelligence, Haim Ginott as explained in Chapter 1 of Faber & Mazlish’s  How To Talk So Kids Will Listen (yes, this works for grown-ups too).

So, imagine it’s the end of the day and you’re regrouping as a family. One of you has suffered some sort of indignation and wants to use this Deepening Conversation (though they don’t use that term!) to process what went down. They want to feel better. To understand why it felt so bad. To see if they need to respond. What do they need to keep this conversation feeling helpful and good?

Here are 7 things they do not need!

  1. Denial of feelings ~ “There’s no reason to be upset. It’s foolish to feel that way. You’re probably just tired and blowing the whole thing out of proportion. Come on, cheer up!”
  2. Philosophy ~ “Look, life’s like that. You can’t always get what you want. You need to learn how to take things in stride. Nothing’s perfect.”
  3. Advice ~ “Here’s what I think you ought to do. Tomorrow go here and say that. Don’t get sidetracked…”
  4. Questions ~ “Well what did you do that precipitated this whole thing? Didn’t you think of that? Didn’t this same thing happen last month?
  5. Defending the other person ~ “No wonder X did this. You were a total jerk! You’re lucky it wasn’t worse!”
  6. Pity ~ “Oh you poor thing! That’s just terrible! I feel SO sorry for you.”
  7. Psychoanalysis ~ “Has it ever occurred to you that the real reason you are so upset is that this reminds you of how your father treated you, and you always over-reacted to him?”

So, what might forward this conversation in a way that deepens your relationship?

  • Empathy ~ “Boy that sounds like a rough experience. To have that happen at work, in front of X and Y, especially after all the effort you put in, must have been pretty hard to take!”
  • Follow-up ~ “What do you need right now, to move forward with this?

So, deepening conversations do more than Connecting. They let the other person know you not only heard them, but you are seeking to understand their experiences and get on their team. Once you respond thoughtfully, empathically, these conversations will keep spiraling deeper – have a go. See what you notice.

3.  Transactingthe tasks of living and giving and taking that demand some finesse

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 2.21.48 PMThese are those grittier conversations which often take place at that edge where we bug one another.

The proverbial toothpaste and toilet seat perennial arguments that marriages are purported to crash upon.

No more!

For these conversations, I am totally indebted to Marshall Rosenberg and his work in developing and teaching a process he calls Non-Violent Communication.

Whether you click on the graphic or download the PDF here – 4part_nvc_process – you’ll have a brief over-view of a hugely helpful 4 part process for figuring out how to have a conversation about needs that not only helps you get those needs met, but also deepens your relationship.

This is such a super important issue for great relationships, I’m dedicating the whole month of August to the topic. So – do please come back!

4.  Transformingthat invitation to grow oneself-up that relating precipitates

The origin of the word and concept behind “conversation” – according to the online etymology dictionary, is ~

mid-14c., “living together, having dealings with others,” also “manner of conducting oneself in the world;” from Old French conversation, from Latin conversationem (nominative conversatio) “act of living with,” noun of action from past participle stem of conversari “to live with, keep company with,” literally “turn about with,” from Latin com- “with” (see com-) + vertare, frequentative of vertere (see versus).

which seems to imply a more snap-shot of what is than a transformative anything.

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 2.51.17 PMHowever, the fact of living together and being with one another can be transformative.

I’ve seen it in my work for years. We can be called forth to be better.

Again, a lofty topic worth taking time over, and here is a wonderful little book that will help you get there, from Mona Barbera.

Two key concepts to whet your appetite?

  1. The intense pain you think [the other person] is causing is really your own.
  2. No matter what [the other person] is dishing out, you can choose to give better back.

Mona’s book is targeting couples, but her ideas are universal and can absolutely help you use these forms of Transformative Conversation to do just that – to become a bigger you.

5.  Healing – the willingness to apologize and forgive when we hurt one another

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 2.35.49 PM

Another whopper as far as relationship resiliency goes, and one that is getting covered in depth in October (Apologizing) and November (Forgiving).

If you are keen to get a feel for how these conversations might look, you could visit these articles I wrote in 2012:

Come Fall, I’ll rework these articles – so again, do come back!


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.

Click the box for the full list →    → Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity