Great conversations need both invitation and inspiration. A conversation based entirely around invitations can sound like an interview---nothing but questions and answers. And conversations based entirely around inspirations are hard to do---what happens when you attempt to inspire your partner and they don't respond?
The best solution is to move smoothly between invitation and inspiration, depending on the needs of the conversation. Invitations add guidance and structure to a conversation, and inspirations add intimacy and flexibility.
In general, this means you should start conversations with mostly invitations, and use more inspirations as the conversation progresses. If you find the person is not responding to your inspirations, or the conversation has an awkward pause, then return to using more invitations until the conversation is moving again.
In other words, when more inspiration seems appropriate, use more inspiration---but don't be afraid to throw a few invitations in there (or vice versa.)
You should use invitations more frequently:
- When the conversation begins
- When you don't know the other person very well
- When your partner doesn't seem to know what to say next
And you should use inspiration more frequently:
- After your partner has shared something personal with you
- After your partner has asked you a personal question
- After you've gotten to know your partner better.
Moving Between Invitation And Inspiration
You want to start conversations with mostly invitations and then move to mostly inspirations, because this starts with the focus on your partner, not on you.
If you begin your conversation with inspirations, then you're putting the focus first on you. You haven't given your partner any reason to believe that you care about their thoughts, so they're unlikely to respond to your inspiration. Plus, because you've only talked about yourself, your partner might assume that you are self-centered---an outcome best avoided.
But when you start with invitations, the focus is clearly on your partner. Your questions reassure your partner that you are interested in them and want to hear their thoughts, so your partner will feel comfortable chiming in when you eventually give them an inspiration.
Now, once you know someone well, you don't need to worry about this as much. If your conversation partner is a close friend, they'll already know that they can respond to your inspirations. Your friendship lets them know that you care about them and their thoughts, which makes invitations less important. But as a general rule, it's always safe to start with more invitations and move to more inspirations.
Sound good? Ok, back to the deli. (You remember the deli metaphor, right?)
The Deli, Day 2
It's another day in the magical deli where your sandwich represents your conversation. You say "How was your weekend?" and slide the sandwich down the counter. This is a clear invitation, so your partner knows what to say.
Sure enough, your partner replies "Oh, it was great. How was yours?" and slides the sandwich back. Another clear invitation. You and your partner are doing a great job of starting the conversation with invitations to show interest in each other.
Here's where things get different.
In our first introduction to the deli metaphor, you responded to your partner's question with a flat "It was fine." That killed the conversation and stopped the sandwich. This time, let's see what happens when you try a different response.
Instead of saying, "It was fine", you say:
"Oh, it was great. I just adopted a new dog from the shelter, so we went down to the dog park and played fetch. Then I went to the new Transformers movie with my friends. I didn't really like it, but the special effects were cool."
You slide the sandwich back to your partner, and it zooms down the counter---success!
By now, you know what happened: Your reply has become a clear inspiration. Your partner might choose to ask you about your experiences adopting the dog (curiosity), tell you about their favorite game to play with their own dog (sharing their story), or tell you their opinion of Transformers (thoughts.)
Even if you had only mentioned one of those three things, it still would have been a fine inspiration---you don't need to inspire curiosity and thoughts and story-sharing all at the same time. The important thing is that you shared something about yourself, and you created a space where your partner could share something about themselves.
Of course, the sandwich shop is just a metaphor. But the principle of invitation and inspiration works in real life just as well. Combine inspiration with invitation, and you now have the tools to make sure that every one of your conversations flows smoothly and feels natural.
And your instructions for how to use those tools is very simple:
Each time that you speak, either give your partner an explicit invitation to speak, or share something that inspires your partner to share in return.
That's it. That's the core of smooth conversation.