Conversations are life itself. They help us connect, inspire, learn, solve problems, and create relationships of all types.
So if there’s one valuable thing each of us ought to learn most, it’s the art of having constructive conversations.
For this reason, we’re going to discuss 11 core principles you must master to habitually have constructive conversations. Let’s get started!
Let’s dive right into it.
Have you ever argued with someone and forgot why you started the conversation in the first place? Commonly, it’s because you had a misplaced purpose for the conversation.
But to have a constructive conversation, you must know why you’re having it in the first place.
- Are you looking to show off your knowledge?
- Do you want your conversation partner to validate your ideas?
- Or, do you desire a healthy exchange of ideas?
Commonly, we fail in having productive conversations because we go into them with purpose one and two above. Sometimes we desire to show off how much we know, other times we desperately want someone to value or confirm our ideas — often, a little bit of both.
Yet conversation in its definition is “a talk in which ideas are exchanged.”
So going into a discussion to exchange ideas is the only purpose that breeds a healthy conversation. If you focus on that, you’d be able to apply the following vital principles.
In her video above on how to do a constructive conversation, Ted speaker Julia Dhar, a behavioral science consultant, introduces these key aspects by recommending that you should choose “curiosity over clash” in all conversations. What does this mean?
First, you need to understand that everyone, no matter where they’re from, knows something that you don’t. Having this in mind helps you get into the talk ready to amass new information.
Therefore, whenever the other person says something that clashes with your beliefs or even what you know to be facts, refrain from “correcting” them yet. Instead, say, “I’ve never viewed it that way before, can you help me see it the way you see it?”
This curiosity in their opinion pleases them and prepares them to listen to your ideas, see sense in them, and even adopt the ideas.
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“The less you talk, the more you’re listened to” – Abigail Van Buren
Many people advise you to not interrupt the speaker so that you may fully listen to what they say. So many of us keep silent while the other person is speaking. But the question is, do we really listen?
You can keep silent because:
- You want to appear polite or wise
- You’re thinking of how to respond when it’s your turn
- You’re distracted in your thoughts
- You’re waiting for for the other person to finish so you can get back to your tasks
Clearly, silence isn’t necessarily listening. Listening is paying attention to hear and understand someone through silence.
So at all times, be fully present in a conversation so that you can listen. You can follow up your curiosity with simple questions of “why”, “how”, and “what” which make the exchange of ideas even easier.
As you understand the perspectives of the speaker, you can even spot unspoken emotions, a tactic useful in involving this next aspect.
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Empathy is the ability to understand or feel the way someone else does. In conversations, empathy helps build trust between the speaker and listener as they switch turns exchanging ideas.
However, to understand what empathy is, you must understand what it’s not:
- It isn’t talking about an experience you had similar to the speaker. For example, narrating how you lost your spouse immediately after someone talks about how they lost theirs isn’t empathy.
- It isn’t about pointing out facts and showing them a silver lining. This is sympathy and it makes the speaker feel you’re superior rather than in their team.
In a conversation, being empathic is about listening to understand how someone thinks or feels while asking questions and visualizing their perspective.
You can say, “I can’t imagine what you feel/how it made you feel — Is there something I can do?” Often, the speaker just wants to be listened to. But they can also ask for your advice.
5. Common Ground
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One of the best tools that drive engaging conversations is mutual ground. This common ground shatters differences, misunderstandings, and even overlooks mistakes.
Think about it; when you’re going into a difficult conversation with someone, it creates discomfort in you mostly because you’re thinking of how different your thoughts are — how they might not understand you.
But when you get into talking and realize you share a particular experience or perspective (even if it’s irrelevant to the topic), you get relieved and the conversation becomes less tense. That happens because you realized a common ground to operate on.
But how can you reach a mutual ground?
- Stay fully present in the conversation
- Notice and vocalize things you agree on
- Respect your conversation partner and their perspectives
- Remember the purpose of the conversation
You’ll have to try a couple of times to establish common ground in discussions. But even when you notice you’ve failed, ask your counterpart, “I noticed I didn’t handle that well, how could I have said this differently?”
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Studies reveal that the simpler you explain something, the easier it is for the listener to believe what you say is true.
Conciseness is therefore vital to not only make your ideas believable but also keep the attention of the listener which is estimated to be as short as 7 seconds.
To understand this further, think about the people who often over-communicate. Your friend who repeats stories. Your colleague who mansplains instructions often. Your partner who keeps complaining about the same thing over and over again.
Do they make you listen better each time? Probably not. In fact, it makes you feel like you’ve heard what they’re about to say even if they have something new to say this time. So you don’t listen.
The same thing happens if you keep over-explaining stuff to your listener. They’ll switch off before you finish your first sentence assuming they know what you’re about to say.
So explore your ideas well before expressing them. Pause before rushedly explaining half-understood ideas. This will take time to master.
But ultimately, bear in mind that fewer words cut deeper.
One of the main conversation breakdowns is pretense. Where there’s no genuinity, empathy is lacking and purpose is misguided by cunning intentions. With these three key aspects of the constructive conversation missing, things can’t go productively.
But if even only one of the participants is genuine, it’s highly possible to have an effective conversation.
So that genuine person must be you first. And when your counterpart senses your authenticity and clear motives, they’ll be inspired to be genuine as well to progress the open conversation.
Related: How To Say What You Mean – 9 Ways To Clear Communication
8. Idea Sharpening
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We already discussed that productive conversation is about a healthy exchange of ideas. Another aspect of how to do it is by being ready to sharpen your existing ideas through conversation.
“What does this mean? My ideas are already crisp!” You might argue.
But think about it, what makes your ideas shakeable? Isn’t it criticism? Isn’t it when someone else challenges the ideas that you start rethinking them?
The problem is, often when our ideas are challenged, we become defensive and develop a destructive conversation. We end up frustrated, hurt, and possibly, the same happens to our listeners.
But when we get into a conversation knowing well our listener might challenge us and that’s good, we get ready for a chance to learn, a chance to improve on our ideas. We express our ideas, the listener objects, we rethink and re-adapt the ideas, the listener criticizes the new point of view — the process repeats and we become smarter as we explore the different perspectives around our ideas.
So next time someone challenges you; accept, rethink, and adapt to sharpen your ideas.
9. Emotional Awareness
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Communication goes deeper than logic. In fact, one of the major aspects that affect the direction of the conversation is emotions.
It’s best to identify what your counterpart feels at the moment. Vocalizing it would even be better. It makes the other person feel heard which inspires them to listen to you.
You can vocalize your counterpart’s emotions by saying:
- “It seems like you’re feeling let down because you believe things could have turned out better. Is that right?”
- “It sounds like you feel I don’t love you anymore because I do not text you daily, did I understand you correctly?”
Vocalizing the emotions you think your counterpart is having can help both of you steer the conversation towards finding solutions, making it productive.
Similarly, you need to be aware of your own emotions so that you can learn how to carry on conversations more positively.
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If there’s one powerful quote by Nelson Mandela, it’s this:
“Humility is one of the most important qualities you must have because, if you make people realize that you are no threat to them, then people will embrace you”
When one views you as humble, they become ready to be vulnerable. They feel you’re harmless and hence don’t see the need to be defensive.
That’s why you need to stay humble during a conversation. To make someone feel free to express themselves, to listen, and accept your ideas.
Here’s how you can be humble in conversations:
- Admit your limitations by using the power of powerless communication
- Accept your mistakes
- Avoid touting your achievements and great qualities
- Appreciate the other person
- Listen as much as possible
- Ask questions about them
Humility inspires. It helps progress conversations into solutions greater than ourselves.
11. Multiple Truths
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“There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying.” Robert Evans
Another aspect of constructive discussions that many ignore is multiple truths.
While your perspective may be correct for whatever reason, imposing that perspective on others ruins discussions. That’s why you have to learn how to accept multiple truths in any conversation for it to be productive.
When you and your counterpart have different perspectives about one issue, instead of stirring a debate, use the statement, “I’ve never viewed it that way before, can you help me see it the way you see it?”
This way, you can reply, “I see what you’re talking about. It makes sense when I view it that way.”
You can then explain your perspective and if they understand that truth and it seems better than theirs, they can adopt it. But even if they don’t, you can accept that both your perspectives are truths depending on where one views the situation from.
When you settle on multiple truths, you shall always have constructive conversations where you both learn from one another. Furthermore, taking your perspectives and theirs, you can diplomatically reach a middle ground both of you are comfortable working with.
How to Have Constructive Conversations Questions
Before you go, check out more questions on constructive discussions,
How do you engage in constructive conversations?
- Stay grounded in purpose
- Be curious of others’ perspectives
- Listen to understand
- Practice empathy
- Create a common ground
- Be concise
- Be genuine
- Accept and sharpen your ideas when challenged
- Recognize and vocalize emotions
- Stay humble
- Tolerate multiple truths
What are the elements of a good conversation?
The elements of a productive conversation include purpose, curiosity, listening, empathy, a common ground, conciseness, genuinity, acceptance of criticism, emotional awareness, humility, and multiple truths.
Rules for constructive conversation in a relationship
To have positive conversations in a relationship, you need to:
- Be receptive rather than defensive
- Call out the bad thing not bad person
- Listen attentively and ask for clarification
- Say what you mean and mean what you say
- Take responsibility for your words and deeds
- Avoid attacking your partner’s feelings
- Control the tone of your voice
- Request instead of complaining
Go to the Best Relationship Advice When Fighting to learn more about having productive conversations in relationships.
Constructive conversation topics
Productive conversations can be about family dynamics, spirituality, romantic relationships, nature, professional life, and other personal life topics. It all depends on the time and place.
Some conversation starters include:
- What are you most grateful for about your family traditions?
- Why do you like your hobby?
- What instances make you feel God exists?
- Where do you want to travel most and why?
- How would you want your partner to treat you when sad?
- What’s one thing you’d change in your career?
- Why do you think some friendships end?
Closing Thoughts on Constructive Conversations
Whether it’s small talk on the elevator, a professional conversation with your boss or a difficult discussion with a family member, the key aspects of constructive conversations remain consistent.
As you use these crucial elements in your daily conversations, you become a better friend, sibling, colleague. In a nutshell, you become a better person.
Which key aspect of constructive conversation are you looking to master? Why? Let’s chat in the comments!
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