We know that social interaction and strong bonds with others improve people’s quality and even length of life. Part of developing and deepening relationships is communicating.

A few years out from the social upheaval that began with the Covid-19 pandemic, we continue to conduct some conversations over Zoom or FaceTime or in other mediated forms. We continue to experience talking to others in a politically divided environment. Mental health struggles and loneliness are still affecting many people. How do these factors affect the way we converse with one another? How can we have good conversations with loved ones, acquaintances, and strangers? Understanding how to improve our interpersonal communication can potentially improve our mental health, happiness, and life satisfaction — and it can do the same for those with whom we converse, giving them love and attention.

Students talk in front of the art department at sunset at PLNU

What Makes a Conversation Great

Lisa Raser, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication at PLNU. Among the courses she teaches is interpersonal communication. Raser tries to impart to her students that a big part of what makes a conversation meaningful is whether each participant feels that they are seen and heard.

“Even in something like small talk, you can feel like some kind of connection was made,” she said. “So many of us walk around wanting to be acknowledged, wanting to be seen and heard. If we make that a goal, that can make our conversations more meaningful.”

Everyone has been in a conversation where they don’t feel heard. Distraction, interruption, misinterpretation — many things can derail a sense of connection. To avoid this and to help others feel seen and heard, we have to listen during conversations.

PLNU students walk to class on a sunny day

Everyone has been in a conversation where they don’t feel heard. Distraction, interruption, misinterpretation — many things can derail a sense of connection. To avoid this and to help others feel seen and heard, we have to listen during conversations.

Listening and being present sound easy enough. However, these are practices that require effort and awareness. Raser noted that some of the barriers to presence include being focused on ourselves rather than the other person and concentrating on what we are going to say next rather than on what the other person is saying. We may be distracted by our environment, stray thoughts, worries, anxieties, or devices as well. Conversations where there is conflict or triggering subject matter may also lead to barriers or blockades against presence, she said.

“With the students that I teach, they get a little nervous sometimes about doing it just right — communicating empathy or listening well,” Raser said. “I try to communicate to them that it’s mostly about being present.”

Though staying present can require us to bring a level of focus to our conversations, it is well worth the effort. When we find our focus drifting to planning our next statement, story, or response, we can take a breath and realign our attention to the person speaking. Perhaps, we can ask one more question before offering our own thoughts in order to show our interest in what the other person is saying.

In the New York Times guide “How to Be a Better Listener,” the author, Adam Bryant, says, “The best kind of listening is about being comfortable not knowing what you’re going to say next, or what question you might ask. Trust that you’ll think of something in the moment based on what the other person just said. That will send a powerful signal to the other person that you’re truly listening to them.”

“The best kind of listening is about being comfortable not knowing what you’re going to say next, or what question you might ask.”

And, of course, we can avoid looking at devices or trying to multitask. Though it sounds obvious, allowing our attention to wander to screens or our surroundings is a habit many people fall into, sometimes without even realizing it is happening. Bryant’s guide suggests, “If you’re at your desk, turn off your monitor or turn your chair around so you’re not distracted by the screen.”

Navigating Conflict

Even when we aim to be present in a conversation, disagreements and differences of opinion may arise. Whether the subject matter is a tense political issue, a work or family challenge, or another issue, there are several strategies Raser says can help.

First, she said, it’s important to acknowledge “the pressure that we feel to know everything and be an expert in everything.” We may feel that we need to be up to date on all the latest news, research, and ideas out in the world, but it’s simply not possible. Accepting this and being honest about it can lead to better conversations on challenging topics.

“One piece of that is humility,” said Raser. “Being able to acknowledge when you don’t know something can create connection. Rather than me defending my opinion and you defending yours, it allows a conversation. Instead, we often feel like we have to have an opinion [when we are talking to someone about an issue.]”

Another strategy that can be helpful is to look for points of connection and agreement or to acknowledge common values. Perhaps two people both agree that a problem needs to be addressed; what is different is each one’s idea for how to do so. “If a faculty member and administrator disagree about a decision that was made, they might at least agree that it would have been nice to have more time,” Raser offered as an example.

Two people sit and have a conversation on PLNU's Caf Lane.

In addition to being willing to express when we don’t know something and seeking points of agreement, a helpful approach to challenging conversations can be simply asking for a pause when it’s needed. Raser teaches her students this strategy and even has them practice it in dyads.

“During a difficult conversation, we might get flooded emotionally; we might feel our heart rate increase,” Raser explained. “It’s okay to come back to it later. We might say, ‘I’d love to talk to you about this after having some time to think about it in order to give an honest answer. Can we talk about this tomorrow?’” Setting boundaries like this — and following through on following up — is healthy.

“Difficult dialogs should be about learning,” she said, “not dehumanization, criticism, labeling, or naming. Asking for a pause is a really tangible strategy [when we feel overwhelmed].”

“Difficult dialogs should be about learning. Not dehumanization, criticism, labeling, or naming. Asking for a pause is a really tangible strategy [when we feel overwhelmed].”

Finally, Raser shared an idea she recently came across while reading an article in the Greater Good Science Center Magazine about Monica Guzman’s new book, I Never Thought of It That Way.

“A tip for meaningful connection through division is sharing snapshot opinions,” she said. “We can share our opinions in a way that is loose, flexible, and could be changeable. We might say: ‘Here’s what’s coming to mind right now for me.’ or ‘Here’s where my head is at right now.’”

By framing our opinions as being tied to the specific time of “now,” we convey that we are open to receiving new information, learning more, and potentially even changing our point of view. This posture of openness to learning and hearing from others is a great way to make conversation productive and respectful rather than tense and heated.

Two students sit on a cement wall and talk.

Going Broader and Deeper

In the Los Angeles Times story “Why talking to strangers is good for your mental health,” the author argues that forging connections, however brief, with people we don’t know is an important, uplifting experience. Raser agrees, even though she admits that as an introvert, “it takes a little bit more work and energy.” Nevertheless, she says that the research around day-to-day interactions with strangers and acquaintances suggests that these encounters do contribute to our mental health.

“I’ve thought about it a lot, and it’s helped me personally be more open,” she said.

As far as tips for talking to people we don’t know, Raser notes that our body language plays a role.

“A big part begins non-verbally,” she said, “With an open posture, presence, making eye contact, smiling, saying hello, how are you?’ That kind of thing is brief, but it’s surprising how much impact it has. There really is something to an openness of nonverbal posture and an openness of heart.”

Engaging with a broad range of people is beneficial for our well-being. At the same time, we also need depth in our relationships and conversations in order to thrive. It can be easy, even with loved ones, to keep our conversations functional or superficial. However, challenging ourselves to go deeper can strengthen our connections and make our relationships more meaningful. One path to deeper conversations can come through the practice of empathy.

“In my interpersonal communication class, students are required to meet in empathy practice groups,” Raser said. “They meet on their own outside of class. The idea there is to get deeper in conversation. I give them a loose guide, or they can go off course. They start with a check-in, asking about each other’s highlights or lowlights of the week. The goal is to identify feelings or needs. One key challenge is that they can’t give any advice unless it’s asked for.”

Rick Kennedy and his students chat while sailing in the San Diego Bay

When students write reflections after experiencing the empathy groups, they often write about the significance of staying out of problem solving and simply listening to one another. Although it is challenging to do, it helps bring the conversation to new places. People begin to discuss what they are looking forward to or what they are dreading; they begin to speak from the heart.

In addition to practicing empathy in conversation, we can also go deeper by being more thoughtful and intentional about the questions we ask.

“Sometimes I will give thought to those [questions] in advance,” Raser said of her own conversations with friends and family. “I think: what’s something I can ask her that is going to get deeper? Even over text, I can ask something like: what are you reading right now?”

Raser suggests aiming to be curious about the other person and their interests. Follow-up questions might include asking how an experience made someone feel.

“It’s about holding a container of presence rather than having a toolkit or advice.”

“It’s about holding a container of presence rather than having a toolkit or advice,” she said. “We can show we are interested in their humanity.”

Making the Most of the Medium

In 2023, many of us are experiencing a combination of in-person and online interactions. Of course, texting and social media conversations continue to be a significant place of dialog for many people as well.

Much has been made of the value of face-to-face conversations, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic pushed so much of our communication to digital platforms in 2020. Worries abound that digital communication limits our ability to decode nonverbal cues and results in greater social isolation despite more frequent communication. Nevertheless, digital communication is part of our lives. So how can we make the most of the platforms we have available to us?

For Raser, what can be helpful in our current context is acknowledging the benefits and limitations of whatever platform we are using for conversations.

“Naming the awkwardness and naming the benefits can be really helpful,” she said.

One thing Raser likes about Zoom is that there are options for multiple ways of communicating, from speaking on camera to using the chat feature. In classes or meetings, participants might be able to contribute to a mind map or project while on Zoom.

“In some ways, there are more opportunities for diverse voices and for people who have high levels of apprehension around conversing,” she pointed out.

By appreciating what’s good about the way we connect and acknowledging the limitations, we can set the stage for good conversations in more contexts.

Remembering the Why

Even though conversations can be difficult, our relationships with strangers, acquaintances, and loved ones are worth the effort.

“What I love about teaching this work is that it is so integrated with faith,” Raser said. “This is the work of Jesus that we are doing here on earth right now, wanting to help other people feel seen and valued.”

In a world where many are lonely or struggling with their mental or emotional health, offering a listening, empathetic ear and a meaningful conversation is a place to start making a difference in the lives of others.

Christine is the editor of the Viewpoint magazine at PLNU.