Conversational enders are like a drive-by conversation. We walk into a room, we randomly toss out a question, and we don’t even wait for a response. We’ve already lost our focus before the person responding says, “Fine” or “Nothing.” They function like filler, and we resort to them because we’re uncomfortable with the alternative: silence.
Conversation starters, on the other hand, warm people up and get them talking. I’ve seen this firsthand, both as a journalist and as a wife. Some questions fail to get a response, even out of the most talkative person. Others? They function like a light switch, one that turns people on and gets them sharing. But it takes more than just the right questions, I’ve found. As I’ve written before, there was a time when my marriage was enveloped in an uncomfortable silence, the kind that can cause two people who share the same bed to feel like strangers. To move out of that silent place, I had to do much more than ask the right questions. I had to create an atmosphere of warmth. Not only did I try to ask the right questions, I sincerely listened to the answers. People can tell when we’re not listening, especially our spouses. If our thoughts are really elsewhere, our facial expressions are off. We smile a few seconds too late or we frown when we should be smiling. Our eye contact is dull, and our “um hums” and “uh huhs” come at the wrong moments.
What happens when people catch on that you are not listening? They stop sharing.
Here’s something else that can stop a conversation in its tracks: story stealing. Say your friend or loved one finally opens up and starts telling you a story. He’s just a few lines in when you say, “That reminds me of this one time … ” Listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give. It’s like a warm bath for the conversational soul. It makes people feel safe enough to share.
But what I’ve found is most effective: silence. We fear silence. It makes us uncomfortable. So we do things to avoid it. We jabber on about meaningless things. We withdraw and become immersed in our smartphones. We walk away. We busy our minds with something else. Yet, I’ve found, both in interviewing people and in my marriage, that silence is exactly what quiet people need to feel safe enough to open up. Silence functions much like a baton pass. You stop talking. There’s some silence. There’s some more silence. You feel uncomfortable. You assume the other person is uncomfortable. Stay with it. For people who are reticent, this is exactly what they need to realize, “Oh, I have the conversational baton.” For you, it might seem like a delayed reaction. For shy people, your silence is a gift. It’s a way of saying, “Your turn.”
Silence is also beautiful in many other ways. When you generate love and tenderness in your heart, people around you can feel it. Silence can give you a moment to feel the love and send it out into the room. It’s also a time to communicate without using our vocal cords. How can you offer love with your hands? Your gaze? Your smile? Your energy? Think of the power of a hug when someone is sad, or a smile for someone who has had a hard day.
Often, when we are at our worst, words are not what we need at all. We just need a loving presence.