How to Have a Conversation


I love talking to people, and if I’m honest I’ve always thought I was a pretty good conversationalist. However, for the last ten years I’ve been interviewing writers of all kinds, in videos for the online magazine I edit, and for my weekly podcast. I don’t actually think of these as interviews, however. I never start with a list of questions. In fact, I rarely have any idea what we’re going to talk about until we get going. For this reason, I consider these one-on-ones conversations whose direction I am slightly more responsible for than my partner.

When you start recording your conversations, and editing your conversations, and asking other people to listen to your conversations, you start noticing what works and doesn’t work in a way you might not have when you weren’t talking to people professionally. Here, then, are a few of the conversational rules I have learned to follow.

1. Listening is more important than talking. The first time I was interviewed on the radio, the host sat beside me and read her questions from a card. She never made eye contact. When I finished my answer to one question, she read the next one. I found it difficult to give entertaining and inspiring answers. I knew I was talking to the radio audience, but I couldn’t see or hear them. The host was my real, physical audience at that moment, and nothing I said seemed to have any effect on her. She didn’t laugh, nod, or smile. How I answered one question didn’t change the next one.

It was in that moment that I understood how useful my lack of preparation for author conversations was. Because I hadn’t prepared any questions, I had to listen to my guest to know what to ask next. Not only did this mean my questions flowed naturally from what they’d last said, but my simple, human attention gave them an audience with which to be engaged.

When you listen to someone, you let them know they matter. I know what it is to talk to someone who isn’t listening, who has gone away in their mind to tell themselves another story or simply to think what they will say next, waiting for me to finish so they can start talking again. I’ve done it myself. When I know my partner isn’t listening, I’m not sure why I’m talking. I might as well be making random noises. But when I know I’m being listened to I feel that connection between people I’m always seeking, and I want to jump into it, be a part of it, contribute to it, evolve it and explore it. When I know I’m being listened to, it’s like love and I want to give it back.

2. Care about yourself. You might think that if I invite someone on my podcast, or sit them down for a video interview for my magazine, that our conversation will be all about them. Theoretically, it is. Secretly, however, it’s also about me. Specifically, what it is about them that I find most interesting. It’s easy for me to talk about things that are interesting to me; it’s hard to talk about things that are not. I always prefer easy.

Fortunately, there’s always something I find interesting about someone else. Or, to put it another way, there’s always a place where my interests overlap with someone else’s. That’s always what I’m looking for first in my conversations. It’s pretty easy with the authors because we’re both writers, but it’s true also of acquaintances and friends and strangers. To find that overlap, I have to listen to them, but also to myself. I can’t pretend I’m interested in something I’m not simply to be polite. Sometimes politeness is the death of a good conversation, a lifeless dance to avoid the discomfort of disagreement.

I have to trust that there is always something of mutual interest we can find to talk about. People are not so different in the end. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone’s suffered, and everyone has friends, and everyone’s been in love, and everyone’s been hurt. I’ve found that not only does looking for this overlap make for better conversations, it also makes the world seem a little safer, a little friendlier, dissolving as it does the veil of mystery I lay over those people I call strangers.

3. Everyone’s your equal. When I first started my conversations with authors, I had not yet been published, though I had been trying for many years. In my mind there still existed a sort of royalty-and-commoner divide between published and unpublished writers. Fortunately, I was so excited to be talking to another writer, to someone who was as interested in this thing I loved to do as I was, that I forgot about that perceived divide. The authors and I found ourselves in enthusiastic agreement about the magic of storytelling. Equality is inherent in agreement, and agreement is the foundation of friendship.

I don’t know how I would have had those conversations if I had seen the authors as better than me. The few times I was a little intimidated, as when I interviewed Nora Ephron, I found the conversation awkward. It was as if I was talking to royalty, trying to please or impress the queen with gifts of cleverness. I wasn’t myself; I was trying to be someone better.

I have never succeeded in being better than who I am, I have only learned to shed the layers of artifice I accumulated to mask shame and doubt. A conversation is a great opportunity to do just that. It is impossible to have a good conversation if I’m pretending to be someone I’m not, or pretending someone is better than me or that I’m better than them. And it is all pretend, these ranks and roles we invent. It’s as if we’re all characters in an enormous drama, wearing costumes and reciting lines written by someone else, until we all step off stage, disrobe and reunite, knowing full well the Fool could have played the King, and the King could have played the Fool.

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