What is your definition of a “good” conversation?
A good conversation is a dance, a passing-of-the-ball, a space for mutual understanding and discovery and co-creation.
In other words, a good conversation has rhythm and flow. It’s an exchange where there’s energy moving back and forth between the participants of the conversation, ideally fueled by a sense of psychological safety, an openness to share, and a willingness to listen. Usually there’s some sense of being on the same wavelength and having vibes that match.
Ultimately I think a good conversation is one where you leave feeling different and better than when you entered it. You might leave feeling enlightened or illuminated or inspired, seen or heard or understood, or simply deeply connected with someone. Not all good conversations are transformational, but many of them can be that too.
For me personally, it’s always when I feel like I talked with someone about everything and nothing all at once. It’s when there are so many layers to the conversation that I wouldn’t be able to recreate or even summarize the interaction in a way that fully does it justice. It feels like one of those “you had to be there” instances. One where you kind of lose yourself in the moment — you’re so present and engaged that time just kind of passes you by. It may even feel like there are still a million more threads just waiting to be pulled at.
And there’s also balance: between the people interacting, between focus and exploration, and between revealing yourself and learning about others. The interactions in a good conversation are less transactional, more multiplicative and synergistic. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.
Why did you host your salon on the art of conversation?
Because I’ve always been really interested in the science and art of conversation. Not just what’s said (or left unsaid), but the various ways in which conversations unfold, their impact and how they can make people feel — it’s alchemy to me!
I’m fascinated by how no two conversations are exactly the same, because so many factors — from group size, to the individuals involved, to the setting and timing and prior history and culture and context and platform and medium and language and so on — influence the way a conversation unravels. There are dynamics and mechanics at play. There’s also the role of non-verbals and silence. There are infinite permutations and combinations; I find that so beautiful. And I’m really inspired by the idea that a single conversation can change the trajectory of someone’s life.
There’s this Augusten Burroughs quote I read on a Starbucks cup about fifteen years ago (it was part of their “The Way I See It” campaign, if anyone remembers that) that’s been etched in my brain ever since. It read: “I used to feel so alone in the city. All those gazillions of people and then me, on the outside. Because how do you meet a new person? I was very stunned by this for many years. And then I realized, you just say, “Hi.” They may ignore you. Or you may marry them. And that possibility is worth that one word.”
It sounds kind of dramatic at first (and young Vidhika loved how romantic it was), but it is so, so true. So many fantastic things start with a simple “hi,” a seed of conversation. One conversation can lead to finding an investor, a partner, a mentor, a confidant, a best friend.
Conversation is such an important currency for connection — perhaps the most important one.
I’m also a sucker for things that are meta, so I figured what better way to dive into the world of hosting salons than to have a conversation about conversations? I was excited to get into the weeds of small vs. medium vs. big talk by actually going through all three in a single conversation. And I wanted my first topic to be something that anyone could participate in because everyone in the world has had a conversation before. (Side-note: To my surprise and delight, there were people from all over represented in the salon — six different countries and many different time zones!)
What’s one thing that you remember vividly from the salon you hosted on this topic?
I know it sounds a little cheesy, but what I remember most vividly from that salon was just how effortlessly the conversation flowed and how many threads we managed to pull on without losing momentum.
As a debut salon host, I remember being nervous, but the experience had a certain comfort to it. I felt like I was among friends, even though I was meeting half the attendees for the very first time. I remember how much people opened up off the bat, even as early as in their introductions. And I remember how that openness and vulnerability remained a constant throughout the salon. I’m convinced it paved the way for an awesome conversation and is a big part of what made the salon so fun and special.
So I guess I can say I remember the vibe of that conversation more vividly than any particular insight per se. (Though there were lots of great insights, too, including some on vibe curation itself — the metaness continues!)
One thing that really stood out to me, thanks to the group’s aforementioned vulnerability, was how nearly everyone wanted to get better at having conversations. Turns out, it’s one of the main reasons people were drawn to my salon in the first place. That’s when it hit me: even in a group like the ii — which revolves around people having conversations — conversation still doesn’t always come easy. We’re all just doing our best.
I bet it’s far more common than we might realize to feel anxious about having difficult conversations or to fear being a bad conversationalist. It’s probably healthy to harbor an enduring desire to become more comfortable and skilled in the art of conversation (and to talk about it!).
What is, in your opinion, one very important “ingredient” of a good conversation? Please expand.
Leading with curiosity. There’s a Dale Carnegie quote that goes, “to be interesting, be interested” and in many ways, this sums it up best.
I think people sometimes think that to be a good conversationalist you have to constantly have lots of interesting things to say — and while that might help, the reality is that you can have equally good conversations (maybe even better ones!) if you have earnest and thoughtful questions to ask.
Being genuinely curious about people and their perspectives and experiences — especially if you pair that with active listening — can go such a long way. It helps create a sense of connection and psychological safety, the kind that lends itself to conversations that transcend the usual small talk and perfunctory interactions we all engage in but don’t always enjoy. Better questions lead to better conversations.
Obviously there are a whole host of other ingredients that can make the conversations we have wonderful, but I think leading with curiosity is one of the most underrated ones.
Have you ever had a very good conversation with a stranger? If yes, what do you think made that conversation memorable?
Absolutely. I’ve had several really fantastic conversations with strangers, and those interactions have always left me feeling kind of warm and fuzzy inside. Rejuvenated and more ready to take on the world even. Mostly I think I’m overtaken with a sense of gratitude that I was in the right place at the right time. Maybe it’s because really good conversations with strangers tend to be so unexpected and supercharged with emotion or insight; you’re kind of able to get past pleasantries quickly enough to actually jibe with someone and share pieces of your life with them. Those conversations tend to be seared in my mind (in a good way).
I’ve noticed that many of my fondest interactions with strangers have been either when I’m in transit (whether it’s while traveling or just while going from point A to point B together) or when I’m stuck waiting somewhere (be it at a bus stop or in a waiting room). These settings tend to bring strangers together and get conversations flowing, probably in part due to mindset shifts (e.g., extra openness while traveling or boredom while waiting).
Some of the most memorable conversations I’ve had with strangers have been in Ubers. I’ve had people tell me about what their lives used to be like, about their home countries, their families, their struggles, and their dreams. I’ve left feeling inspired and sometimes even deeply connected with somebody I might have just shared a 20-minute ride with.
I distinctly remember this one woman I had a conversation with on my way to the Denver Airport after a work trip. She told me about how her marriage of 17 years had ended, about how long it had taken her to come to the realization that it had to end, and about how she had been rebuilding herself in the wake of the divorce. I was reeling from a tough breakup at the time, and hearing her story gave me comfort and hope. It also prompted me to open up to her about the relationship between my parents growing up (which was less than ideal), and we bonded over a shared understanding and a shared pain. I think bonding over shared experiences — especially painful ones — and being able to confide in a stranger, feeling like they understand you and where you’re coming from despite not really knowing you much, can feel powerful. I remember we hugged at the end of that ride.
How can we have better conversations?
So many ways!
As I mentioned, being curious — sincerely so — is such a good start. The more you genuinely care about what your conversation partner has to say, the more likely it is that you’re going to create an environment that fosters engagement and safety to share. And you’ll end up uncovering more interesting stories and perspectives.
How our curiosity manifests is important too. We can reframe our questions and prompts to be more open-ended, and dare to ask questions that might invite more unspoken truths. For instance, instead of asking a person you just met “what do you do?”, it can be so powerful to ask them “what do you love to do?” instead. This small shift makes it so they don’t feel like they’re automatically being defined by how they make a living. (What if they don’t like what they do for work? What if they don’t work at all? Why start a conversation on a note that might make someone feel down or defensive?) Instead, they’re being invited to share what they’re passionate about, regardless of any title or lack thereof.
Another tactic, which may sound obvious but is often forgotten, is active listening. A quote that comes to mind (can you tell I’m a quote buff?) is that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.” Really being present and giving someone your full, undivided attention is a surefire way to improve the chances of a fulfilling conversation. When we’re present, not only can we listen more actively, but we can respond more authentically and appropriately. In doing so, we can move conversations forward and build a sense of safety and connection that we couldn’t if distracted.
And of course there’s the idea of “going first” — whether it’s to invite someone into a conversation in the first place, or to take a risk in one. It’s always amazing to me how game-changing it can be when someone goes first and shares something a little vulnerable. It often lays the foundation for the rest of the conversation, making it easier for others to be more forthcoming with their own stories and truths. On the flip side, counterintuitive as it may seem, silence can help us invite vulnerability as well. Learning to embrace silence can help bring out reflection and give another person space to open up.
At the end of the day, conversations are all around us and I think the only way to truly get better is to have more of them, i.e., learn by doing. Observing what you like about the skilled conversationalists around you and reading about how to get better at conversation can be a really helpful start, but nothing beats practice. With more conversations under our belt, we develop a sense of comfort and confidence in our ability to have them well.
Many people swear by improv as a way to improve conversational ability. I think one of the gifts of improv is how it forces you to be present. You have less space to overthink and have to learn to react on the spot, which is what most conversations require.
Oh and — I promise no one from the ii made me say this! — but attending salons can be a great way to both observe and participate, each to the extent that you want. One way to improve the quality of your conversations is simply to have more of them with people you want to converse with and on topics that you find intriguing or exciting or important. The ii is a perfect venue for this.
I’m always up for conversations with new people, so if you ever wanna have a chat, don’t hesitate to hit me up on Twitter and we’ll make it happen!