How to Create Engaging Conversations

By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member

It’s funny, when we are around certain people, we feel like we can talk all day! Yet in other situations, thinking of something to say is like pulling teeth.

In each Free Thought Forum, it is our goal to help all guests and members feel like they can speak freely and enjoy participating in the conversation. Yet creating and maintaining an engaging conversation takes a little skill and practice. Today, we will go over five things you can do so that when you are talking with friends, family, coworkers, and fellow free-thinkers, everyone will be able to get a lot more out of the experience:


1. Help Others Feel Welcome to Talk About Themselves and Their Ideas

When the stakes are high, we tend to keep quiet. After all, who can risk making a bad impression among people who are judgmental, overly-critical, or close-minded? But when surrounded by open-minded and friendly people, we are much more likely to open up.

We would all do well to better communicate to others that they are welcome to share what they have to say. Take a break from saying what’s on your mind and invite them to go on (and on) about themselves. By default, most of us can feel misunderstood, especially by strangers. Allowing someone the time to put their perspective into words allows them to feel more like you “get them,” and that they are free to be themselves.

Some first-time guests to a Free Thought Forum may have not had the chance to really speak their minds in the past. As a result, they have something of a back-log of ideas that have never been expressed! It is perfectly reasonable to expect a newcomer to finally give voice to months of pent-up thoughts. If we are doing our job in creating an inclusive and friendly atmosphere, then they will be able to do just that.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many people consider it impolite to share their opinions and ideas unless they’re asked. So ask! A good invitation to participate should be warm and casual, giving the other person the sense that they have all of the liberty in the world to respectfully decline.


2. Actively Listen

Once someone feels included and welcome to speak their mind, then it is our job to listen, and listen well.

A good listener doesn’t worry too much about sharing their own perspective. We should trust that our chance to speak will come, so we don’t let that distract us from what someone else has to say. We don’t think about what we will say next, and we don’t distract ourselves with internal commentary to the thoughts expressed.

Make eye contact, nod along, and let the other person know that you understand what they mean. All these little things show that you actually care about what they have to say.


3. Ask Genuine Questions

For a conversation to be truly engaging, there must be a real intercourse of ideas. After someone feels welcome to talk (and that you are listening), it is important to show interest in their chosen topic of conversation.

Adding questions to a discussion is like adding logs to a campfire. Without them, it will quickly fizzle-out. Avoid asking yes-or-no questions. Focus on questions that open up the topic, rather than close it off. Rephrasing what the other person has said by putting it into your words is incredibly effective, especially when you follow that up with something like, “… is that a fair way to put it?”


4. Keep Personal Stories Short

Once in a while, telling a story can add humor, relatability, and a personal touch to the overall exchange. But there can be too much of a good thing.

Short stories work very well in group settings. Yet, on the rare occasion, you may have a great memory you want to share! In that situation, your audience will probably request more details. Naturally, you would do well to indulge them. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that everyone probably has something to say. Therefore, keeping things short is a practical solution to the problem of limited time.


5. Show Gratitude

For some of us, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to say what we need to say, even if we look calm and collected on the outside.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to facilitate an engaging conversation is to clearly and reliably thank the participants for sharing. Doing so can relieve their anxieties that they have said something wrong or that their comment was disliked. Even if you disagree with their position on the given topic, thank them for their input.

The truth is that a conversation can only take place if its participants actually participate. A date without discourse tends to go poorly, a teacher that prohibits questions may limit the learning of their students, and a forum of free-thinkers can only take off when everyone is able and willing to think out loud.


© 2019 Free Thought Initiative