CSU expert: Remember the art of face-to-face conversation on Valentine’s Day

Note to Reporters: The following column was written by Stephanie Seng, director of CSU’s Center for Family and Couple Therapy.

February is the month of love. With 151 million cards exchanged and $18.6 billion dollars spent by Americans for Valentine’s Day, our need for connection could not be more evident than in February. In this technological age, we are more “connected” than ever, and we “talk” all the time through texts, emails, Facebook and Twitter. However, as author Sherry Turkle explains, “All of this talk can come at the expense of conversation.”

Intimate conversation allows for more meaningful connection, it helps us better understand one another and builds our capacity for empathy. It reduces stress and is good for our physical and mental health. Barbara Fredrickson, a social psychologist who conducts research on emotions and positive psychology, says, “If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.”

This Valentine’s Day, consider giving your loved ones – partners, friends, parents, children – the gift of conversation. The following tips can help make your conversation meaningful.

What to do:

• Listen! The best conversationalists are good listeners. Be genuinely interested in the other person and what s/he has to share.
• Use body language. Look your conversation partner in the eye and smile. Uncross your arms and turn toward him/her. When your partner is speaking, acknowledge that you are listening with a nod or an occasional “uh huh.”
• Be comfortable with silence. Rather than trying to think about what you are going to say next, really hear your partner, then take time to think about your response.
• Remove distractions. Sit face to face. Turn off the TV and your phone (no quick glances or buzzing in your pocket). Change the scenery. Go for a walk or to a coffee shop so you aren’t tempted by chores or to-do lists.
• Be prepared. Think ahead about things you would like to learn from your conversation partner, so you can formulate informed questions. Think about the last conversation you had with this person. Are there topics you could pursue further? For example, did he tell you about a trip he was going to take or a new job she started? Note: Be aware of hot-button topics that should be avoided (politics and religion). On the other hand, maybe this person would be comfortable talking about these issues with you — just make sure you know ahead of time.

What to say:

• Ask questions. We are experts on ourselves. Spark conversation by asking your partner about things that are important to him/her. Prepare ahead of time by thinking of things s/he is doing or current events that might be interesting.
• Ask open-ended and follow-up questions. Questions that elicit a response beyond one-word answers will lead you to further conversation. As you learn more about your partner’s experience, be curious, ask more, and share your own related experience.
• Compliment your partner. Compliments make people feel good and set a positive note for the conversation. They can also open the door for topics to continue your conversation. Make your compliments specific and offer details.
• If you are unsure how to respond to something your partner says, reflect what you have heard. “It sounds like you are really enjoying that experience.” “So you are saying school is really hard for you right now?”
• Don’t dominate. While it is good to share your experience, be careful not to take over a conversation. Conversation should be balanced with give and take.
• Watch out for problem-solving. We all know what it feels like when you pour your heart out to another, only to have that person give advice, question your actions, and/or try to come up with a solution. This is an easy trap to fall into, especially when we love someone who is hurting or upset. There will be a time and a place for those conversations; however, it is even more important that your partner feel heard and validated in their experience.

There is nothing more delightful and healing to our souls than to be truly connected to another person. This Valentine’s Day, don’t forget the candy and flowers, but also consider a gift of conversation. Creating space in our lives for others to feel heard, loved, validated and understood is one of the greatest gifts we can give.

Stephanie Seng is director of the Center for Family and Couple Therapy, part of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the Colorado State University Department of Human Development and Family Studies. CSU’s Center for Family and Couple Therapy provides high-quality therapy services to families, couples, individuals, adolescents and children. The CFCT offers services to all members of the Larimer County community, as well as to students, faculty and staff on campus.