At the Open University I supervise Conversation Technique courses. We teach students how to advice, how to offer bad news, how to evaluate performance, how to perform an intake, how to do therapeutic conversations. But we don’t teach them to have good conversations or deep conversations with friends or acquaintances. Isn’t that strange? I can’t live without good conversations.
I don’t know what it’s like for others, but I’m really bad at small talk. Chatting about children, the news, the weather, about everything and yet nothing: it quickly drives me away from the conversation. My mother recently told me that she also suffered from small talk and that sometimes it felt like she couldn’t escape those kinds of conversations. That motivated me to list below how you can take care to have the kind of conversations you want to have. Based on my knowledge of conversational skills training and Perceptual Control Theory (PCT), I list the ingredients for good conversations here. Please notice that this post was originally published in Dutch and that the translation may lack the linguistic precision I have in my mothers’ tongue.
How can you give depth to conversations and give space to all the complexity that lives in someone in a conversation? Below I will first discuss general conversation skills and then discuss the questions with which you can involve different layers in the conversation.
Keep both of you in control
Control as understood in Perceptual Control Theory means that you are able to achieve your goals and keep all the values you control at a desired level. Control is not about stubbornly sticking to your plan, but above all about trusting so that the process will go smoothly. This also provides this starting point for interaction: that both sides keep control. Thus, the tips I give here are not meant to convince someone that you are right, to lure someone out of their shell or to force someone to share more than they want. What matters is that both of you are able to have the conversation you want to have. If you notice any signs of resistance, that is a sign that you are going too far. Investigate what is happening and make sure your expectations are aligned, for example by having a meta-conversation. Make sure you know what you want to achieve in a conversation, communicate openly about your goals and adapt if necessary.
- What would you like to talk about?
- What do you think is important to discuss today?
- What kind of conversation are you in the mood for?
- What is important to you now that we speak?
- I like to go into something really deep. How’s that for you?
Of course, this meta-conversation doesn’t have to be this explicit. Often friends have their habitual kind of conversation and you will only have to be explicit when you notice that something is wrong with the conversation.
Ingredients for a good conversation
There are various conversational skills that you can use to make a conversation run smoothly. Below is a small overview.
Keeping the conversation going
If you want the other person to talk fully out, you should provide small encouragements, indicating that the space is theirs, such as short verbal and non-verbal signals or repeating a word that stood out and you want to hear more about.
- Tell me more!
- Go on!
- And then?
- In shock?
Making sure you understand everything
If you want to know if you understand the other person well and if you also want to make sure that the other person has the feeling that you understand him well, then you would do well not to say ‘I understand’ it’ or ‘I can imagine’. It is better to give short paraphrases in which you use your own words to reflect what has just been said. This has the effect that the other person feels heard, and feels free to tell more about that subject.
- Do you feel like you don’t get around to it anymore?
- Does it feel like the pressure is getting bigger and bigger?
You can also add structure to the conversation by summarizing. This ensures that a topic is ‘done’: you check whether you have heard everything and switch to another topic.
- So if I just sum it up then […]. Did I miss something?
Wanting to understand the other person well goes well with a conversation between friends. In a therapeutic setting such as a Method of Levels conversation, the goal of wanting to understand often gets in the way of the client’s natural course of change: the focus shifts from the client to the therapist’s understanding and disrupts the pace of the conversation. In such conversations it is therefore better to leave out the goal of wanting to understand it. You can support the other well without understanding everything.
This skill is in line with the investigation of experiences at the lower levels. With concrete questions you get a much richer and tangible picture. You can also use concretize to together examine an image that someone has in mind.
- What makes it so difficult?
- How bad do you feel that he said that?
- What do you see when you stand on that mountain top?
- How high is that mountain?
- What else is there to see?
Allowing feelings to exist
In many conversations, it is a bit difficult when feelings are added to the mix. Feelings are often uncomfortable because we haven’t learned what to do with them in conversations. We therefore respond with solutions, advice or quickly close the lid again (‘it will be fine’). If the other says: “I find it very difficult” and you see tears in her eyes, what can you do?
- I see you’re hurt!
- Does it make you sad?
- What’s going through your mind right now?
- What is it like to experience this?
- I see you are crying. How’s that for you?
It is important with emotions to understand that they take place in the here-and-now. You ‘felt frustrated’ (in the past) has a very different effect in the conversation than ‘it frustrates you’ (at the moment). When you find you’re talking about then and later, try to focus your attention again on the here-and-now. If you start experimenting with an open attitude in which you are not afraid to leave the lid on and have no inclination to make the feeling small and safe again, you will find that this attitude can quickly deepen your conversations. The feeling that emotions can just be there, in the moment is a very pleasant, in-depth experience for both.
If you notice that the other person does not feel completely safe to express themselves, then you should not press on, but make sure that it becomes safe.
- You seem not sure if you want to talk about this?
- What stops you?
- What happens if you do talk about it?
Get rid of value judgments and assumptions
How sad for you. I can imagine. Sorry to hear. How clever of you! Value judgments and assumptions are not a mortal sin, but they often get in the way of better questions. When you notice them, ask yourself: What didn’t happen because I said this? What did I avoid? Value judgments and assumptions are often premature compassionate responses that don’t quite add up: Can you really imagine? What does it matter to the other person whether you can imagine it or not? Why are you sorry to to hear that? Who are you to hand out a compliment? Can you determine what is good or bad? You can support the other better by listening carefully and continuing to ask questions:
- What makes this especially difficult for you?
- What is it like for you to be in this situation?
- What is it like for you to say this?
- How do you feel about achieving this?
With a meta-conversation higher up
The last superpower that you can apply is a meta-conversation, in which you talk about what is happening in the conversation right now. This is a powerful tool that immediately changes the quality of the conversation and that is why you can also use it to boost stuck conversations. It also offers an opportunity to talk explicitly about the goals you both have in the conversation and thereby adjust the desired direction.
- How do you think this conversation is going?
- How is it for you when I ask these questions like this?
- I notice I’ve lost track. What is actually happening in this conversation?
- What do you want to achieve with this current conversation?
- How did you like having this conversation?
- What did you like about this conversation, and what could I do better?
Bringing up different layers
I don’t know if everyone experiences this, but personally I enjoy conversations that move in different directions, on several layers at the same time, with the corresponding differences in intensity and pace. Conversations that move on only one layer or that keep spinning in circles feel dull and monotonous. We know those layers from PCT as layers of perceptual control, which together ensure that we function as complex systems . Each layer has its own way of looking at things and different questions lead to different layers. Below I discuss the layers with questions their corresponding kind of questions.
Does it fit into your world view?
The highest level of perception is your world view (system concepts in PCT). You are always focused on getting your worldview right. You weigh arguments, visions, principles, and observations you come across and adopt them if they fit into your worldview. If they don’t fit, you dismiss them as false and not true. Between friends you usually strive for similar or at least overlapping worldviews: we look at it the same way. The fact that this is important between friends partly caused the breakdown of friendships during the corona crisis: If one person has himself and his children vaccinated because he wished to stay healthy and the other is convinced that in this way his friend is participating in a worldwide conspiracy, then those worldviews don’t fit together and that tears the friendship apart.
The conversation is about this existential level when you ask:
- Who do you want to be?
- What is true for you?
- How do you think it really works?
- What does that value, that idea, that principle mean to you?
Principles give direction
The level below that is that of the principles, the values. This is a layer that is rich in feeling and you notice that when the conversation is about a principle that is in danger. For example, if the other person is indignant, angry and sad about an unjust situation at work, you will notice when you talk about it how all those feelings are also felt at that moment. This is the zone of psychotherapeutic conversations but also of intense conversations between friends. As long as there is trust that the feeling that has been felt may be expressed. To get and keep conversations at this level, your attitude must be non-judgmental, safe and open.
With these questions you draw attention to the values and principles that guides life choices. With the questions from the lower levels (see sensory experiences below) you can make sure that you are not only talking about values, but also feeling them in that moment.
- What makes you approach it that way all the time?
- What makes this important to you?
- What does it mean to you that you do this?
- What is the connection between the problem we discussed earlier and what you are talking about now?
Endless branching possibilities
The level below the principles is that of the plans. This level is like an endlessly branching tree where each path you choose opens up new possibilities. You are here when you come up with a plan together and explore the possibilities. But worrying and being stuck in a loop of thoughts also take place here. Your internal dialogue when you think about a topic or plan takes place at this level. Together with another person, the pace of the conversation can be very high if you see all the possibilities in front of you and share them with each other.
- What would you do if…?
- And then?
- What do you think will happen if…?
- What are the advantages or disadvantages of …?
- What’s stopping you from…?
- What exactly does ‘a mess’ look like to you?
Each branch of that tree of plans in itself is a sequence: steps that follow each other predictably in a fixed pattern. Where on the levels above you have a sense of distance in which you reflect on what is going through you, from here and below it is mostly being absorbed in your experience. This is a very predictable and familiar terrain, like walking a well-marked route. From one thing automatically follows the other. This is very safe but can also be boring.
Questions that bring attention to this level:
- What happened then?
- What else happened?
- What’s going through your mind right now?
- What do you see before you?
Sensory experiences in the here-and-now
You notice from the questions above that there is more room for our sensory experience. This is much more important in the lower levels. Those levels themselves are less easy to distinguish in a conversation: in the words we use, such as descriptions of images, metaphors, emotions or feelings, several layers go together. Therefore I successively discuss the levels of the categories, connections, events, transitions, configurations, sensations and intensities without sharp distinction.
With these questions you get a much more concrete picture of what someone’s experience is like in all shapes, smells and colors. The layer of meaning lies in the higher layers that were discussed above. The lower you go, the more it is about experiences in the here-and-now. You often get access to imagery that can express something that doesn’t fit well in words, for example ‘I feel like I’m standing in front of a big heavy door’. You can then continue to ask questions about that door: how big, how heavy, open, closed, is there a lock, a handle, what is on the other side? The lowest level cannot be expressed in words but is the experience of being grounded, feeling the floor under your feet or making contact with everything around you.
- What is the difference between … and … when you see them like this?
- What makes … different from …?
- Is there more or less of…?
- How do … and … hang together?
- What happens now?
- What comes to mind now?
- You swallow, what happens?
- Will anything change now?
- What moves inside you?
- Does it affect you?
- What are you feeling now?
- What do you see before you?
- What are you experiencing now?
- What is happening in your body?
- What do you notice?
Moving up and down
In a conversation you don’t have to direct attention to all the different layers on purpose. It’s especially helpful to know that there are multiple layers and that you can use questions to bring another layer into the conversation. With why questions that ask about the meaning of something, the attention goes to the higher layers. You then get a more cognitive conversation that is more about the big abstract picture than about very concrete events. With how questions the attention goes down to the concrete experience in the here-and-now.
You especially get more feeling in the conversation by asking about feeling in the here and now.
- What do you notice now that you say this?
- Where do you feel that anger?
You make the conversation safe if you offer space without wanting to change the current situation and get rid of it painful emotions (“help”). You do that by staying close and by continued questions:
- What makes it so painful?
- How is that for you now?
What is it like to have conversations with this knowledge in mind? Do you get a better grip on conversations, and do you have the kind of conversations you want to have? It strikes me that in conversations I am often the one who asks a lot of questions. That is the bane of the trained listener: most interlocutors are less proficient at probing than I am, and then it is sometimes painful not to feel heard. Perhaps sharing this knowledge is an attempt to get more good listeners, to restore that balance.
Let me know if these questions align with what you need, if it works and what happened.
Eva de Hullu