Only a few things about people truly matter.
These are the things that make them most deeply who they are: their hopes, dreams, fears, loves, joys. To me these are the really important things.
I’m not much of a people person. I don’t like crowds, and I don’t say much. But I do often like people, as individuals.
(Not all people, of course. I try not to engage with those who act as if everyone else owes them a living, with those who delight in power plays, with those who try to force their beliefs and opinions on others, or with those whose hearts and minds are closed. But most of the people I encounter are perfectly fine by me.)
This to me is the essence of the art of conversation: knowing what not to say, and knowing how to listen.
What I don’t talk about
I try never to talk about politics, social issues, or religion. I don’t think these subjects make fit material for conversation. I have my own opinions on these matters, but I prefer to let my actions do the talking.
Because these subjects are divisive. People get very emotionally attached to their perspectives on these things, and discussions on these matters generally tend to become about how right one is and how wrong everyone with a contrary opinion is. And so these discussions often devolve into attempts to impress listeners (“Look how much I know!”) or to denigrate, judge, and put down those whose opinions one doesn’t agree with. They become attempts to demonstrate one’s own righteousness, to win control of the moral high ground. They encourage an oppositional us-versus-them dynamic.
So I don’t talk about these things, and I move on quickly when others do. Why? Because I am much more interested in drawing closer to people than I am in pushing them away.
What I do instead
When people talk about themselves, I listen. I listen when they share their hopes and dreams and fears. I listen when they share their latest discoveries and insights. I listen when they tell their stories or talk about their pleasures. Nothing impresses me quite as much as technical skill, and I love listening to those who have mastered their disciplines: cooks, dancers, athletes, ornithologists, calligraphers. (I love people of skill and action, not people of ideas and chatter; I much prefer Odysseus to Plato.)
It’s true that people don’t generally start conversations by talking about these things, but when I ask about what they’ve been up to lately their answers often say a lot about the things they value and care about. And little by little, if I stay quiet and allow them to, they open up and tell me more.
And when they start asking questions in turn I try to respond in kind. That’s the kind of conversation I prefer: mutual sharing, giving, laughing.
So I don’t try to impress, I don’t get into arguments, and I don’t try to get others to conform to my views. I choose to accept people instead of judging them. I’m not interested in convincing or persuading. Only in helping to close the distance between us.