I like a bit of self development, me. I am by no means perfect (debatable, I know) and now I’m open to learning, unlike when I was a child, I am embracing all the wonderful things there are to learn.
That’s why I thought I’d like to learn how to have better conversations.
I know what you’re thinking – what, you Kim, better at conversations? Surely that’s not possible. You could talk for England! You talk so much your tongue probably has a six-pack! And other such statements.
But actually, I suck at conversations. I love the sound of my own voice too much – hence this blog, a one-way conversation if ever I had one. I always forget to ask people how they are in reciprocation when I’ve been asked how I am. And as for actually taking information in – even if what I’m hearing is really, really interesting, my mind sort of goes off on a little wander. My brain says to me, ‘Sorry, Kim, mind if we sit this one out? It’s just it’s your friend’s birthday soon and I’ve just thought of a really good pun for her card, so I’ll just be over here cracking myself up over that, let me know when I’m supposed to trigger the ‘I’m really interested in what you’re saying’ facial expression.’
When my sister found the School Of Life (can there be any better name for a school?) were running an evening class, conveniently called How To Have Better Conversations, I jumped at the chance.
‘This is going to be so exciting,’ I enthused. ‘We’re going to learn some great skills!’
‘I bet they’ll teach us how to talk less and listen more,’ Tam was saying. Of course by then my mind had drifted off to think up some puns so the conversation dried up, but suffice to say we were both eager.
The day came. Tam is a bit more confident in social situations than I am, so as we walked towards the doors of the School of Life, I made her promise to sit next to me in the hopes that the only person I’d have to practice my new conversational skills on would be her. She promised.
We entered the School of Life and made a beeline for the wine. Free wine! (£35 each to attend but FREE WINE!)
Of course, the free wine was tremendously helpful in boosting the old confidence. I’ll talk to anyone after a wine or two – even strangers on the tube. Someone once commented to me how refreshing it was, amongst all the lost souls in London, to meet me, for I was actually talking to him on the tube. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was mildly drunk and would never have given him even one of my words had I been sober.
Tam and I got chatting to a lovely Dutch girl called Julia, who, she told us, was called Duke by her friends. I decided we were now friends enough that I’d call her Duke myself, as it was just about the best nickname I’d ever heard. Tam called her Julia, respectfully.
Duke, Tam and I exchanged pleasantries. I got a bit overexcited when Duke told us she was setting up a charity playing classical music on her cello to the infirm and bed ridden. She was calling it ‘Bach to Bed.’ ‘I LOVE PUNS!’ I exclaimed, touching her arm.
Things were going well. I didn’t need a lecture in how to have better conversations, I just needed wine! The social lubricator – at all times. On tap.
Then the lecturer, John-Paul Flintoff (a Sunday Times journalist) came over to speak with us. Softly spoken but sharp as a pin, he explained how the evening would work and said he hoped we’d have a good time. Seeing as I wanted him to know I was going to be his best pupil and in fact was so charming it was a bit of a paradox that I was even there, I quipped ‘I’ll be front row centre, sir,’ or something similar that I never would have said at school.
Flintoff stopped me in my tracks, questioning my banter. Oh bloody hell. He’s one of those conversational perfectionists who is actually listening when I talk. I’m not even listening when I talk! Don’t ask me why I just said what I said. I don’t know! Maybe because there is free wine?
Tam and I polished off another glass of vino destructo and then we were called downstairs to a quaint little room where Tam promptly ditched me in favour of ‘chatting to new people’ and I was left alone. Although I did have Duke, my new best mate who also loves puns.
Without the notes I made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I learned in the next hour or two. But luckily, I was as keen as a duck on a June bug, so here you go, relayed as freely as the wine did flow that night:
It’s all about how we talk, Flintoff explained. Any child can talk but having conversational skills is different. We were asked to think about what kind of conversations we found difficult. You know, confrontation, that kind of thing.
He explained what makes a bad conversationalist. People who are just waiting for their turn to speak, or in my case, make a pun. Crap. I wanted to be his Number One student. I also wanted to not need to learn anything, bolstered as I was from the wine.
Ok fine, don’t wait for your turn to make a pun. Listen to people and try and control what you’re thinking about while someone is talking. Get out of my head, Flintoff! This guy was good.
He taught us about the power of silence just before we had a tea break. He suggested we try it – just shut up for a minute, see how you feel. We began the break in silence. I wasn’t talking to my sister anyway as she’d broken her promise, but it was hard not to make pleasantries with the other 20 people in the room. We helped ourselves to tea and biscuits in silence. Then, one by one, we started whispering to each other.
By the time Flintoff came back, the room was alive with chatter. The power of silence was never going to win over a bunch of socially awkward Brits who couldn’t bear not to make small talk lest we look rude. If only we were on the tube.
Try letting someone talk about what they are passionate about for three minutes without interrupting them at all, he suggested, as the night wrapped up. On the journey home, Tam and I decided to try out the three minute no-interruption game. I presume it is supposed to be a game. There’s no way I’m never going to interrupt people ever again, let’s face it.
Tam went first, talking about her passion – martial arts – for three minutes. She spoke so fast I thought to myself: Ha! She’s definitely going to run out of things to say! What is she doing?! She needs to slow down. Oh wait, shit, I’m not listening, I am thinking about how fast she is talking. What did she just say? Oo, I’ve thought of a pun! Some people get into martial arts just for the kicks. Ha ha! Oops, I almost interrupted her to tell her about my great pun. Bollocks, I’ve only just left the bloody lecture, I am rubbish at conversation.
The timer went off. Tam was still going.
My turn. I wasn’t quite sure what in my life I could confidently say I’m passionate about, which in itself is a sorry state of affairs, but I decided I’d talk about writing, cos I like writing, I do. I wasn’t going to compete with Tam’s breakneck speed of verse – oh no, I was going to speak slowly, think about what I was saying and explore every avenue of my chosen subject carefully.
One minute twenty seconds in, I checked the clock. ‘I’m done,’ I said. ‘I like writing. You know I like writing. I’ll write about this instead.’
Have my conversations improved since then? Let’s see. I had a fiery argument with a friend about whether cool girls should get to go on a stag do, during which I just shouted in his face for about two hours and interrupted him every time he dared try to explain why girls and stag do’s don’t mix.
I made a girl cry by accusing her of not having thought through her plans to elope with my friend, just because I don’t much want him to leave, and I left the post office the other day while the post master was still talking to me because I just find him a bit creepy.
All in all, not going well. But I did get free wine, so I win.