Think back to the most enjoyable conversations you’ve had. Chances are, those conversations moved smoothly from one speaker to the next, and naturally from one topic to another. There was no sense of “What do I say now?” or “Am I supposed to talk next?” You and the other people in the conversation felt free to enjoy spending time with each other instead of worrying about how to make the conversation work.

What made these conversations so special? Well, they all had something called conversation flow. Conversation flow happens when conversation is comfortable, effortless and smooth. It’s the way conversations are supposed to work.

Sometimes, conversation flow seems to happen automatically. You and your conversation partner hit it off, and the conversation feels really smooth and comfortable. That’s great when it happens, but what do you do when conversations don’t flow?

That’s where the principle of invitation and inspiration comes in. Invitation and inspiration are the key ingredients of smooth, comfortable conversation.

  • An invitation is when you say something that explicitly lets your partner know it is their turn to speak.
  • An inspiration is when you say something that makes your partner want to speak unbidden. 

Both serve to prompt a response from your conversation partner and keep the conversation flowing.

These two ingredients create the sense of conversation flow. Learn how to include them in your conversations and you will invite conversation flow into all of your interactions.

With a bit of practice, you will find that invitation and inspiration enable you to build enjoyable, comfortable conversation in all of your interactions. No awkward pauses, forced segues, or fakey small talk.

Here’s how it works.

The Deli Metaphor

Imagine that you and your conversation partner are working in a (poorly designed) deli. Half of the ingredients are at one end of the deli counter, and half of the ingredients are at the opposite end. The two of you need to make a sandwich, so you decide to stand at opposite ends of the counter and slide the sandwich back and forth.

Your partner adds some lettuce, then slides it down for you. You add some mayo, then you slide it back so he can add some turkey. It’s a bit of a strange image, but stay with me. This is an extremely useful metaphor.

Now, let’s make the image a little stranger. Let’s say that you and your partner are chatting as you work (normal enough), but that the sandwich you are making represents your conversation (not so normal.)

You ask “How was your weekend?” and slide the sandwich down the counter.

Your partner replies “Oh, it was great. How was yours?” and slides the sandwich back.

You reply “It was fine.” and try to return the sandwich. The sandwich travels six inches and stops dead.

What happened? Well, you didn’t give your partner a clear invitation or a strong inspiration. Without either of those things, your partner didn’t know what to say next (and perhaps was unsure if it was his turn to speak.) So he didn’t respond. The conversation lapsed, and the sandwich stopped sliding.

Remember, an invitation is when you say something that explicitly lets your partner know it is their turn to speak. And an inspiration is when you say something that makes your partner want to speak unbidden. Without an invitation or an inspiration, your partner might not know what to say or whether to respond. That’s why you want to be deliberate to offer invitations and inspirations to your partner.

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. Let’s dig deeper into each concept.

Ready? Dive in!