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Conversation is a more complicated event than you might think. Here are some of the tools in my toolkit when talking with others.

Have more interesting conversations

Starlee Kine spoke in 2003 about getting rid of small talk and getting to the conversation you want to have. Her main point was that we waste time with new people talking about superficial and uninteresting things, like the weather, when we could be getting to know each other in more interesting or meaningful ways. Thanks to this technique, I have my questions I use to get to know new people whenever I go to a party or gathering.

Listen to Starlee Kine on This American Life

Have the difficult conversations

There are times when we can’t walk away from having difficult conversations. We already know there is disagreement, but we have to come to a better place where we can function together, even if we disagree. Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron MacMillan, Al Switzler and Laura Roppe outlines all the conditions and methods for getting through these difficult interactions with people. Even if you can’t do everything at your next crucial conversation, it helps to know what might make it more successful.

Read a summary of the Crucial Conversations book

Understand conversation and attention

The Pursuit of Attention talks about how power and attention go together. It’s important to understand this conversational undercurrent, to better understand how conversation becomes a tool for power. In short, people with more power tend to have more control over when and where they talk to people and thusly who gets their attention. People with less power tend to be at the whim of circumstance as to whether or not they can manage attention (and conversation). In some cases, this may mean being ignored all together and excluded from conversation.

People use conversation to focus your attention all the time, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. They use more common words to help you connect more easily to what they’re saying. They use new words to identify and capture experiences that don’t already have a place in conversation. They use words to get you emotionally involved, so you’ll stop being critical. They use vague words to make you think they’ve answered your question, but they really haven’t. A response is not always an answer, and an answer is not always the whole truth. It’s important to think critically about how people talk about important issues in ways that prevent you from seeing the entire picture.