Anatomy of a Conversation Part 3: Threading

This is part three of four in a series for the ‘socially challenged’ called The Anatomy of a Conversation. It aims to shed light on what a ‘typical’ conversation with a stranger is like. Also check out the IntroductionPart Two: Opening, and Part Four: Closing.

So the typical “How are you?”s and other introductory statements are finished. Fueled by your new-found conversational energy and a natural inquisitiveness, you have successfully started chatting with  a stranger.

But unless there was a clearly defined purpose for the conversation (e.g., finding a place to eat), how can you decide where to take the dialogue next?

One concept I like to think about is called threading.

Depending on your own and the other person’s comfort level with each other, it could take two ‘exchanges’ to get to the meat of the conversation, or twenty.

However, this idea can start being utilized in conversation as early as the opener, and when listening to the other person speaking–and I mean actually listening and not being so worried about what you are going to say next–this will allow you to keep conversations rolling for a near-infinite amount of time.

Conversational threading is basically picking out a word or topic that the other person says, then relating to it through an anecdote, offering up an opinion or comment, or asking a pertinent question. See just how many conversational opportunities lie in one possible answer to a typical opening question:

[Upon asking someone where they are from:]

“I am originally from Nebraska, but I went to school at Louisville and have lived in Chicago ever since.”

If I wanted to talk more about the person’s childhood or college football (the latter being basically all I know about Nebraska), I would choose to go down the red “path”: “Where in Nebraska are you from? I spent some time in Lincoln for a football weekend and loved it.”

If I wanted to steer the conversation towards college experiences (as it’s a safe bet I’d be asked back at some point where I went to school), I’d choose blue here: “Louisville? I took two college visits there and loved the campus. Why did you end up going there?”

And if I wanted to talk about the Windy City and our favorite places there, I would go green and ask something along the lines of: “Where in Chicago do you live? My brother lived in the Wrigleyville/Lakeview area for several years.”

While many of these example responses are indeed questions, again, the key to a good conversation is a balance between questions, comments, and anecdotes. Too many questions and after a while the person will feel like they are being interrogated—although up until that point, which takes longer to reach than you would think, rapport is usually established if the questions are genuine and well-thought out. Like I said in Part 2, if you want a 99.9% guarantee that someone is going to give you more than a one word answer to a question, ask about themselves. 

The above would  be an extremely fortunate scenario for me, as I have been to all three places mentioned, but what about a less-obvious example of threading opportunities:

[Upon asking someone what they did over the weekend:]

“Oh, I went hiking on Saturday and then cleaned out my garage on Sunday.”

The obvious progression for purple would be to ask “Where did you go hiking?”; for orange, there is a number of directions the conversation could be taken in: “Find anything interesting you forgot about?”, “Are you planning a move/garage sale/making space for something?”, and so on. A certain element of creativity comes into play with all of this, and it gets exciting to see what kind of threads you can ‘spin’ the conversation into off of seemingly mundane subjects.

I recently read an article (that I can’t find again) that likened conversations in the United States to a game of ping-pong—and while everything is dependent on the personality types in the conversation (e.g., an introvert talking to an extrovert will probably do a smaller percentage of the talking than the latter), the best conversations (in my mind) typically have a structure like this:

A: Question

B: Answer, Question

A: Answer, Anecdote

B: Opinion, Question

A: Opinion

And so on.

Without saying, this is one of the major benefits of being a consistent learner–be it through books, newspapers, Twitter, whatever–the more you learn, the more possible conversation threads are going to present themselves to you. Going out and collecting more life experiences inevitably gives you that much more to talk about as well.

And perhaps counter-intuitively, becoming a great conversationalist is more about becoming a skillful listener than an artful orator. Paying attention to the details in the other person’s body language, emotions, and words offers up infinite opportunity to talk for just about ever.

‘Hanging on to every word’ is more than just an idiom–it’s also extremely practical life advice.

So the conversation is flowing, but now it’s time to part ways with your new friend–check back next week for the final segment, Part 4: Closing.


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