Conversations on a Train

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You’re traveling across Europe with a friend of yours, and you’re engaged in conversation about all the wonderful sights you’re seeing and the places you’re going next. But after a couple of minutes, you see your friend is playing on his phone. You decide to let it go and continue talking. Soon enough, your friend is back in the conversation, but he is clearly not up to speed on what you’ve brought to the conversation.

You’ve seen this happen before, and now you start to take it personally. You’re pissed. You’re feeling disrespected, unappreciated, and neglected.

What’s going on here?

Everything seemed fine just a couple of minutes ago. You were both involved and engaged in the back-and-forth banter. And then, poof, gone…all of it just disappeared.

You begin to run through all the possible reasons why this happened.

Were you speaking too slowly? Were you speaking too quickly? Were you talking about something that he found boring? Were you repeating yourself? Or, as you suspect, was he just being rude?

This happens all the time. We both start from the same place in our conversation and within a few minutes, one person is cruising along and the other suddenly jumps ahead, gets left behind, or simply loses his way.

Sometimes we are the one cruising along and sometimes we are the one who gets off track. It happens and it’s ok. It’s natural to get anxious, bored, or distracted. The thing is, no matter which role we play, we all need to find our way back to the conversation, so we look engaged and feel connected.

But how do we do that?

Well, let’s consider what conversation might be like if it were conducted while riding bicycles.

While riding a bike, you contend with a number of obstacles fighting for your attention and preventing you from remaining engaged and in sync.

On a bike, you’re side by side or even worse, in front or in back of the other person. Not helpful in being able to hear or be heard with all the wind, traffic noise, and the sounds of nature.

On a bike, you really need to pay careful attention to the road. You’ve got to watch for rocks, debris, potholes, low-lying tree branches, and any other hazards you might encounter. All of these provide great distraction from your conversation.

On a bike, you also need to maintain your own balance, so you are concerned with yourself more than the person you are riding with. Likewise, in conversation if you’re concerned with yourself and not your friend, you’re going to lose rapport and erode trust in the process.

And on a bike, one of you might decide to take off at a quicker pace, leaving the other behind. And if that happens in conversation, that can create a real challenge to understanding the details and nuances of the topic at hand.

As you can see, there are many ways a conversation can veer off the path and reduce the effectiveness of telling a story, sharing an idea, or relaying a message.

But what if we thought of conversation like riding on a train?

On a train, you sit comfortably without much distraction. Oh sure, there is the view out the window and the other people on the train, but you can tune them out and still maintain your balance and safety.

On a train, you can sit face-to-face, so you can see your friend’s facial expressions, you can hear them clearly, and you can read their lips to assist if you encounter any audible distractions during conversation.

And on a train, you stay on track, no racing ahead or falling behind. You’re right there in the same space at the same time, arriving at your destination together.

So how do we make our conversations less like riding a bike and more like riding a train?

It’s simple. Follow a few rules like the ones we just explored.

For the listener:

  1. Don’t be distracted by things in the environment. Put away your devices. In fact, make a show of it. Turn off the ringer and put it away. Show your friend that you intend to be fully present.
  2. Sit face-to-face, not side-by-side. Make it easy to see your friend’s facial expressions. This also makes it easy to maintain comfortable eye contact and allows you to read lips if you need to. (You’d be surprised how much we rely on lip-reading during conversation.)
  3. Don’t rush your friend to get to the end. Resist the urge to finish sentences or even supply the word they are looking for right away. Let them get there themselves (unless they are really struggling, then help them out).
  4. Allow for space between your friend’s speech and your response. Give a full breath before jumping in. Some friends might be more contemplative and need a moment to complete their full thought. So give them the space to be fully heard.
  5. Don’t offer advice unless it’s asked for. We all like to be helpful, but sometimes people just want us to listen. So honor their wish and just listen.

For the speaker:

  1. Speak in terms that are comfortable for you and your friend to understand. Use a shared language. If your friend uses the term “unavailable” and you ordinarily say “out of pocket,” use their term during the conversation. People like to know they have been heard and they share common vocabulary. Don’t try to show off with fancy language. It’s not a competition; it’s a conversation.
  2. Check in once in a while if you think your friend looks disinterested or bored. And if they check their phone while you’re speaking, ask if everything is ok, or maybe ask if that is more important to them right now. This can be difficult to say and to hear, so try to be gentle with your question when faced with this scenario.
  3. Don’t take the lead and stay there. Since you’re sitting across from each other, try to keep the conversation balanced. Strive for a 50/50 or at least 60/40 split on speaking and listening. This balance keeps the conversation more engaging and meaningful for both parties.
  4. And when your friend shares something they’re excited about like a recent vacation or achievement, try not to “one-up” or “me-too” with your own experience. Let them enjoy the spotlight. Ask questions to learn more about their experience or what it felt like for them, instead of jumping in with your own story or experience. I know you want to find ways to be inclusive and like-minded, but in this case, keep the light on them. You can always come back to talk about yourself later.

And here’s a bonus tip:

  1. Look for the eyebrow raise. This is when you say something, and your friend raises their eyebrow(s) in response to that thing you just said. This is a clue that they are really interested in this idea or topic. Remember to pick up on this point again later in your conversation.
  2. As a listener, you can do the eyebrow raise to express your own interest. You might do this naturally, but if you’re normally not too expressive in conversation, try to show a little extra eyebrow flair when you hear something that piques your interest. It will cue the speaker that you are enjoying their conversation.

Remember these tactics to make your next conversation more memorable, more meaningful, and quite frankly, a lot more enjoyable.

So how will you think about conversation less like a bike ride and more like a train ride? How will you engage yourself to be more present and more helpful while listening and speaking? And how will you provide the right balance of give and take so you’re not stealing the spotlight during your next conversation?

These are tough tasks when we are surrounded by distractions both externally (like noises, other people, and electronic devices) and internally (like our own thoughts, beliefs, and desires). But by taking the opportunity to practice and grow, you’ll soon enjoy the ease and comfort of every conversation as you both arrive at the same place at the same time.

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