Practicing my conversation skills

November 14 2018

Historically I have been very bad at having regular conversations about normal stuff (ie. non-work stuff). I don’t know what to say, and I tend to ramble. Sometimes I ramble about things that are way too personal, and I’ve embarrassed myself many times because my ADHD keeps my filter from engaging, and I just keep on going.

In the moment, it’s difficult for me to discern whether a thought will follow the flow of the conversation, so (to be safe) I jump on board, spill my heart out, and soon learn that I have no idea where I’m going with this. Commence awkwardness as I backtrack and reorient myself.

This year I made a point to practice talking, and that feels strange to say. A part of me feels like practicing to talk is unnatural, like something a robot does when they’re learning to be human. I feel like I should already know how to do this.

So when I commute alone, I started repeating certain phrases that I stumble over. I learned how to add emphasis to consonants over the vowels to help me articulate past my Louisiana accent. I purposefully started adding pauses in the middle of sentences, rather than in between sentences to give me time to manage the next idea, and to judge whether or not I should allow it to escape into the world. 1

Operationalization. Operation-nali-zation. We focus… on operationalization training… for employees. Operationalization.”

There’s a major self-care part of this.

When someone leans in because they can’t decipher my mumble, or when they jokingly repeat my syllable misstep in the Dumb Southerner™ caricature, my heart sinks, and I fight back a wave of emotions. Bringing me into the light like that isn’t particularly funny, and I frequently feel ashamed.

This year something changed though. For the first time in my entire life, people have started complimenting me on how I speak.2 

The first time was after CreativeMornings. After the main speaker, I was given the opportunity to show my concrete sculpture and say a couple things about it. Before I went up in front of everyone, I practiced. I repeated problem words, went over tough phrases, and practiced pausing.

Afterwards, someone found me and said they love how I spoke to everyone. You were engaging, funny, and had the attention of the room. And I like your concrete stuff.” I nearly cried. That’s never happened before. Quite the opposite usually.

And yesterday, at the end of an actual 45-min conversation (back and forth, not just me rambling about how we’re in a simulation), me and Sarah walked out of the gym and she said I’ve been coming here for two years, and you’re the first person I’ve had a real conversation with.” 

Both of those women gave me a wonderful gift. Something changed for me in those moments. 3

If you find yourself unhappy with how you interact with people, or how people interact with you, take a small step in a direction that makes you the happiest. Practice everything you want to improve, even if it feels silly.

And when you see the opportunity, give those gifts of support to everyone around you. You may never know if someone has practiced saying the phrase gargantuan” everyday during their morning commute.

  1. Lara Hogan’s book Demystifying Public Speaking is very helpful, and I have lent my copy to everyone on my team.

  2. These compliments are on the conversation itself. My wife however, gets all the compliments on how NPRsounding her voice is. Listen to the latest episode of Art Funk podcast to hear it! People are totally right.

  3. Other big moments for me: knocking on doors for Beto, having successful phone calls with clients, having relationship-building 1:1s with my design team, and when I give talks.