Good news: You can improve the quality of your conversations
By Don Follis
When I served as a campus pastor at the University of Illinois, I had hundreds of meetings with students over a cup of coffee. One of my favorite meeting spots was the cafeteria in Newman Hall at the corner of 6th and Armory in Champaign. The long wooden tables allowed me to spread out all my stuff, as several times a week I would make my nest at my favorite corner table.
I'm sure I owe Newman Hall some money for the hundreds of napkins I wrote notes on while talking with students. At the end of many conversations, I would hand the napkins to the student, with my notes of the conversation written in ink from my favorite black pen.
But not before I wrote at the top of the napkin: "What's the truth?" Then I would say, "Here's what we talked about. Take what you like. Leave the rest."
I still talk with hundreds of people every year, occasionally taking notes on trusty napkins, but mostly I now follow up with an email, or a text message. I don't think writing on cafeteria napkins quite qualifies as part of the social media craze.
Still, in mentoring pastors and leaders, I often do ask the question I've been asking people for years, "What is the truth?" Sometimes people answer by telling me what they think I want to hear.
That usually causes me to try and drill down to see if I can discover what really is going on. I have learned through hundreds of conversations that a true friend tells you what you need to hear. A good conversation is about telling the truth and not about blowing smoke or fudging the facts.
If you want to improve your conversations and you really care for the other person, here's the first thing I'd say to do: Always speak the truth in love. For me, that means being as intentional and fully present in the conversation as possible. It means giving information someone truly needs — information that gets delivered with their best interest in mind. It's about not pretending when there is a huge elephant sitting in the corner and deciding to not mention it.
Telling the truth is not the same as brutal honesty. Don't confuse the two. Being willing to say what needs to be said, however painful, is telling the truth. Brutal honesty feels more like attacking people. It's like the pastor I was with who asked another pastor during their very first conversation, "Have you always been this heavy?" It might have made the guy saying it feel better, but it was at the expense of the potential relationship, which never developed.
When boiled down, speaking the truth in love simply means asking: Are you sincere in your intentions? And are you willing to tell the truth to help, not to hurt?
Second, my conversations with others improve when I am clear with what I am trying to communicate from the start. There are as many different outcomes as there are conversations. So what are you trying to do? Inform? Teach? Get help? Communicate concern? Come up with solutions? I often asking those I mentor, "What do you want to happen as the result of this conversation?"
Good conversations are not about the number of words spoken. Saying more is not the same as communicating better. Clarity truly makes you more concise and keeps you from hogging the conversation.
Third, kindness usually leads to a positive response. And yet, how many times in conversation do people speak out of anger and keep going and keep speaking, even after the dam gets breached? And how many times do we regret it when we see that the flow of words can't be stopped?
A curt reply or a flip response kills a good conversation. It can be very demeaning and sound harsh. The earlier you stop the flow of critical words — preferably before they even begin — the better. Proverbs 17:14 is true: "The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before a quarrel breaks out." Truth is, it doesn't take any more time to be civil and polite than it does to be direct and harsh. So, are you paying attention to how you communicate?
If you are pleasant and upbeat when you talk with someone, you will quickly discover the fourth way to improve your conversations: Talk like a friend. You don't have to be a friend to talk to someone like a friend. They might be a complete stranger. But if you expect the best from conversations, and give your best, you'll raise the bar.
Of course, the opposite is also true. You can talk with significant people in your life like they are strangers, making your conversation void of emotion and merely utilitarian.
Who of us doesn't want people to tell us the truth, to be clear, to be kind, and to speak to us like a friend? I certainly do. And if they also smile pleasantly, look right at me and nod, letting me know they truly are listening, then wow, that raises their grade to an A+.
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via http://www.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.