Improving my conversations

Talk less. Listen more. Put the screen away. Enter every conversation assuming you have something to learn from the other person.

There is no shortage of conversational tips to be had – tips that I have personally found helpful since my own conversations have an ongoing need for improvement, whether with family, friends or in personal ministry. As I’ve reflected on how to keep growing, there’s a diagnostic question I’ve needed to return to time and time again that isn’t usually found on the how-to lists.

It’s the question “Why?” Why might we want to improve our conversations? If I were to honestly answer that question for myself, my motives are too often less than godly. I want people to think well of me. I want to be esteemed for my listening skills. I want to be known as the one who asks insightful questions and draws out the hidden depths of the heart.

So before I’ve even begun to consider the how of improving my conversation, I often need to confess the subtle ways I seek honour for my own reputation. I need to ask the Lord to realign my priorities with his and help me ascribe the glory due his name (Psalm 29:2). Perhaps the single most important way we begin to grow in our conversational abilities is confession and repentance – naming and owning any sinful motives for what they are and asking God to transform our hearts to desire what he desires.

As for how to improve those conversations, look around you. Who does conversations well? Who might you want to imitate?

The late David Powlison was one such person for me. As many have testified, David excelled at conversations. John Henderson captured his manner perfectly: “I can recall so many moments at conferences and leadership summits when I would look over and see David sitting in a corner with a little group, listening intently, speaking gently, lost in the conversation as if nothing else mattered in the world. He knew how to zero in.”

When I pause and consider what it was that caused David’s interactions to stand out above the crowd, it wasn’t some conversational tip he had picked up along the way. No, the very best characteristics of David’s conversations were patterned after those of Jesus Christ himself.

The Gospels have recorded Jesus’ interactions with many different individuals. Some sought him out, some he pursued. Some were intrigued by what he said, others wanted to trip him up and bring him down. But with all of them he demonstrated perfect conversational skills. He listened. He asked heart-searching questions. He understood people – “Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done” (John 4:29). Such skill flowed out of a perfect love for people, a calling to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), the authority to judge the hearts of those he spoke with (John 9:39) and the mandate to establish and build the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) for the glory of his Father’s name.

While we will never have the authority in our conversations that Christ did, our conversations improve when they become a little more like his. That leads us back to confession and repentance again for the ways in which they fall short.

Perhaps a list of questions could help here:

  • Do I often struggle with boredom in conversations? Jesus, forgive me. Help me see the value of other people as you do.
  • Am I often distracted in conversations? Jesus, forgive me. Help me to remember you ordain the interactions I have and you have good purposes in them.
  • Do I tend to avoid difficult conversations? Jesus, forgive me. Help me to grow in entering uncomfortable conversations for your glory and the good of those relationships.
  • Do I tend to talk about myself more often than asking about the other person? Jesus, forgive me. Help me to grow to be more concerned about others than myself.
  • Do my conversations tend to stay on the surface and generally lack relational depth? Jesus, forgive me. Help me to grow in intentional and Gospel-saturated conversations.

No matter where you feel your conversations are weak, no matter how mixed your motives are for seeking to improve them, how good it is to know we can begin by acknowledging our failures and struggles to the Lord and trust that he loves to hear and answer such prayers.

Learn from people in your life who converse well. Above all, learn from Christ and delight in the conversations the Lord brings your way.