Gichuki Kahome

The Ten Commandments of Having Better Conversations

I have not seen a skill that people in the 21st century have continuously deteriorated at than conversation skills. In the words of Paul Barnwell, “conversational competence is the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach students.”

We have collectively embraced texts and emails over face-to-face conversations. Why? We run away from normal conversations because texts allow us to retain the one thing that we have to give up in normal conversations – control. Moreover, we get the chance to distance ourselves both physically and emotionally from the person on the other end. We get to choose when to reply and whether replying is even an option.


Solving problems at home or work requires discussion and compromise. This is only possible when people listen to one another. In relationships, where we are dealing with second or third parties, it’s inevitable to get into conflicts. It is therefore vital to learn how to go about the conflict and come out with what you want. We must learn to talk to people we disagree with because we cannot unfriend everyone in real life.

Conversations are precious because they require you to share time and focus equally with someone else. You follow the natural flow of human interaction and allow yourself to be led into new, unfamiliar territory. Moreover, conversations are the breeding grounds for friendships and connections with other people.

The quality of your conversations determines the quality of your relationships, which determines the quality of your life.


John Donahue’s description of a good conversation is the best you will ever come across. “When was the last time you had a great conversation? A conversation that wasn’t just two intersecting monologues, but when you overhead yourself saying things you never knew you knew, that you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that found places within you that you thought you had lost, and the sense of an entire conversation that brought the two of you into a different plain and then fourthly, a conversation that continued to sing afterward for weeks in your mind? Conversations like that are food and drink for the soul.”

Good conversations are where you walk out engaged and inspired. You feel like you have made a real connection or you have perfectly been understood. When was the last time you left a conversation with your cheeks sore, your eyes watering and your stomach aching because of laughing so hard? That was a good conversation!



As Ralph Nichols wrote in his book ‘Are You Listening?’, “It can be stated, with practically no qualification, that people, in general, do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but seldom have acquired the necessary aural skills which would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening.”

One thing that makes us all poor in conversations is that as human beings we are all wired to talk. No one wants to come into a conversation to listen.

Scientists at Harvard University found out that talking about ourselves activates the same area in the brain that lights up in response to sex, sugar, and cocaine. Talking about yourself causes the same pleasure as having sex or eating your favorite meal!


The best way to signal how deeply you are listening is to occasionally say something that mirrors what they have said, but in your own words and filtered through your own experience. Review what the other person has said and rephrase it. You will immediately notice if you missed something or if you’re not clear on a specific point.

As Celeste Headlee wrote, “active listening is not just about passively sitting there in toleration while someone else speaks. A robot could do that. Listening is work.”

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.

As Robert Greene famously wrote in his book, ‘Laws of Human Nature’, “learn to put the focus on others. Let them do the talking. Let them be the stars of the show. Their opinions and values are worth emulating. The causes they support are the noblest. Such attention is so rare in this world, and people are so hungry for it, that giving them such validation will lower their defenses and open their minds to whatever ideas you want to insinuate.


In the words of sociologist, Charles Derber, “conversational narcissism is the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking and turn the focus of the exchange to yourself.” This is not anybody’s fault. It happens subtly and unconsciously. Human beings are hardwired to talk about themselves more than anything else. As a result of a neuroscience phenomenon known as convergent information, when someone tells us a story, our brain automatically scans our memory for a comparable experience.

In any conversation, there are often two types of responses;

The shift response

This is where we shift the conversation to ourselves. Someone tells you they visited their dream vacation city and you tell them that you had visited the same place ten years ago.

The support response

They keep the spotlight of the conversation focused on your counterpart.

Someone tells you that they visited their dream vacation city and you are excited for them. You ask them how it was like.

As Celeste Headlee wrote in her book, ‘We need to talk’, “shift responses are a hallmark of conversational narcissism. They help you turn the focus constantly back to yourself. But a support response encourages the other person to continue their story. It lets them know you’re listening and interested in hearing more.”


We mirror others when we repeat the last three words or the critical one to three words of what they have just said. Mirroring triggers, the other person to inevitably elaborate on what they just said and sustain the process of connecting.

In the words of FBI lead hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, “the intention behind most mirrors should be “please, help me understand.” Every time you mirror someone, they will reword what they’ve said. They will never say it the same way they said it in the first time. When you ask someone “what do you mean by that?” you incite irritation or defensiveness. A mirror will let you get the clarity you want while signaling respect and concern for what the other person is saying.”


In any conversation, you want to connect both physically and emotionally with your counterpart. As you may have noticed in some of your best conversations, you find yourself mimicking each other’s gestures and postures. Like both of you crossing your legs.

In the words of Robert Green, “To a degree, you can do this consciously to induce a connection by deliberately mimicking someone. Similarly, nodding your head as they talk and smiling will deepen the connection. Even better, you can enter the spirit of the other person. You absorb their mood deeply and reflect it to them. You create a feeling of rapport. People secretly crave this emotional rapport in their daily lives, because they get it so rarely.”

However, doing this too strongly and obviously can create a creepy effect. The nodding, smiling, and mirroring at selected moments should be subtle, almost impossible to detect.


How do reporters get people to say interesting things? They use well-calibrated, open-ended questions. These set up the tempo for great conversations. They ask for well-thought-out responses. They move the conversation from the shallow end to the deep end.

It’s best to start these questions with a ‘what’ or ‘how’ or ‘why’. If I was interviewing the captain of a team that won the World cup, I could ask, “You were the underdogs when coming into this competition and you went against all odds to clinch the most coveted trophy in the world, are you surprised that you won? Most likely I will end up getting the answer,” Yes we are. We never expected to win this.” But if I ask, “How does it feel like to win the world cup against all odds?” chances are that I will get a more interesting response.

Open-ended questions encourage people to tell their own stories. While close-ended questions allow you to retain control of the conversation, Open-ended questions transfer control to the person responding. In the words of Celeste Headlee, “Asking an open-ended question is the equivalent of throwing the ball to your partner in a game of catch. The floor is open for the other person to take as much or as little time as they like to answer a question that starts with “why” or “how.”

The people with who you have a good conversation tend to ask you well-calibrated, open-ended questions, they help you discover things about yourself or about topics you care about that you never think about. They call you to the party. They let you take center stage.


The output of a good conversation requires the input of focus- two people focusing on the same subject. A good conversation will only happen if the people involved are willing to ignore most of the ideas that pass through their heads. They have to be prepared to filter thoughts that pass through their minds. The random thoughts you have during a conversation will never match the random thoughts of your counterpart. While some can be a great addition- they add tantalizing insights to the conversation, most of them take the conversation to the grave.

Surprisingly, we build our responses when our partners are talking. We listen to someone else while simultaneously crafting our own story.

We can’t listen to someone while crafting our responses. This is what kills conversations. When our counterparts are talking, instead of actively listening, we are always thinking about what to say next. And once we get what to say next what do we do? We stop listening and wait for the other person to stop talking. We even dare to interrupt them before they are done. We listen with the intent to reply not with the intent to understand.

In the words of Celeste Headlee, “A good conversation is a smoothly flowing river. It can even be a rough river, with white water and sharp turns. But it shouldn’t be diverted or dammed up. And you should never jump to another boat and expect your friend to jump after you. You are in it together, through all the twists and turns.”

To keep the conversation going, you must learn to let thoughts pass through your mind without distracting you.


One of the biggest mistakes we make in conversations is approaching emotional problems with logic. We seem to forget that the human species are social beings and our emotions are vital to our existence.

When someone is crying because of a hardship they may have encountered in life, the best response we give is,” crying won’t help the situation.” Or when someone loses their only job, the best response we can give is “that job was not even meant for you.” Winning a conversation requires that you immerse yourself in your partner’s condition and support them emotionally. Instead of escaping into logic, help them emotionally. Tell them that you would also feel the same way if you had lost your job.

Do not ask the wounded person how he feels, become the wounded person!


One of the biggest turnovers is trying to multitask when having a conversation. You are on your phone when someone is talking to you or you are doing someone else.

Or you are only physically in a conversation but you are not actively listening.

if you’re not fully invested in a conversation, there’s no point in having it.


One of the mistakes we make is always trying to sound smart when having conversations. We pretend to know more than we do so that we can impress others. As a result, we end up giving bad advice and preventing our counterparts from seeking guidance from experts.

In the words of Celeste Headlee, “the irony is that when you say things that aren’t entirely accurate, you appear less intelligent than if you’d said nothing at all. It’s like when a young kid uses big words but pronounces them incorrectly.”

Conversations are the basis of any relationship. Any relationship is built on the foundation of trust. The more transparent and honest you are about what you do not know; the more weight people will give to your opinions when you give them.

The words “I don’t know,” never break bonds between people, they strengthen them


As you may have noticed, acquiring great conversation skills calls for a lot of selflessness and sacrifice. You have to be willing to shut your mouth and listen. Like David Perell famously said,” Most of having a good conversation is making the other person feel smart, so they open up to you.”

It asks that you set up the stage, and leave your counterpart to perform while you take the front VIP seats. It asks that you set the table to serve your counterpart and watch him eat every time asking him if he would love some more.

Mastering all the rules discussed above is hard, but when mastering one will take you a long way.

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