Let’s be honest, nobody likes talking on the phone these days. At least, nobody in my generation (the infamous Millennial generation) likes it.
One of my good friends — a young woman who’s usually warm and social — greets anyone who tries to leave her a voicemail with the following message: “Don’t bother leaving a message here because I won’t listen to it. Just text or email me. Death to phone calls!”
Hyperbolic voicemail messages aside, many people have a deep negative sentiment toward talking on the phone. I’ve asked both friends and clients how they feel about keeping in contact with people over the phone. The consensus is that calls make us feel anxious, annoyed, and often disappointed in the lack of meaningful conversation that’s possible over the phone.
And it’s not just strangers or acquaintances that we dread talking to on the phone. It seems that calls from those we know and love are some of the most unsatisfying calls of all.
What is it about phone calls that makes young people recoil? There is, of course, the obvious reason: Millennials grew up on asynchronous forms of communication, like text and email, making real-time conversation stressful. The pressure to actually make conversation is felt clearly over the phone.
But I don’t think this accounts for the whole anti-call phenomenon, as many of those same people who hate phone calls say they love in-person interaction. In-person interaction requires making conversation too, right? So what’s the difference?
Somehow, it seems to be the medium of the phone call itself that’s just… awkward. Even when speaking with people we feel totally comfortable with in person, the phone call format makes everything feel more stilted, more forced, and often more shallow.
Is it time to give up on the phone altogether? I would argue that it’s not. The phone call has continuing relevance for one simple reason: it’s still the best way to maintain relationships across physical distances.
If you’ve moved across the country from your family, you need to be willing to chat on the phone from time to time. If your grandparents are no longer physically able to meet up with you, it’s necessary to be available by phone if you want to maintain a relationship with them.
You may never be in love with phone calls, but the three tips below will help make your calls more comfortable, meaningful, and enjoyable.
- Ask questions
The simplest and easiest way to make conversations better — in general, but especially over the phone — is to start asking questions. Questions improve the flow of conversation, show those you’re speaking with that you’re interested in what they have to say, and allow you to focus in on the parts of the conversation you’re truly curious about.
Let’s say your brother tells you he’s thinking of selling his house. Instead of responding with a stilted “that’s cool,” attempt to hone in on what aspect of this fact you’re curious about. How did he decide to sell it? What is he hoping to gain from selling it? These are the questions that will make the conversation interesting.
- Devote less time to niceties and happenings
When talking on the phone, almost all of us fall into the trap of discussing niceties and happenings, like what we did today, what we’re thinking of doing this weekend, and what we’re working on at the office. It’s common for two people to spend their entire conversation discussing these trivialities and walk away feeling like they didn’t connect with each other at all.
Instead, try to spend no more than 50% of the conversation recounting these everyday happenings. This will free up time and energy for Tip #3, which is the heart and soul of satisfying conversations.
- Draw understanding about the other person’s inner life
This tip may sound daunting at first, but it’s shockingly simple in practice. The goal is simply to connect the other person’s happenings — the “what-did-you-do-todays” — with how that person feels about what they’re doing.
For example, let’s say your sister tells you she’s spent the last few days working on an article for publication. Instead of asking “When is the article due?” or “Where is it being published?” ask, “Do you enjoy writing articles?” or “What are your favorite things to write about?”
Do you see the difference between “When is the article due?” and “Do you enjoy writing articles?” The first question is about the article. The second question is about her.
Asking questions about the other person’s feelings, perspectives, and subjective experiences move you beyond just knowing about her or his day. They help you know about the person’s inner life. They help you know the real person.
Red phone photo available from Shutterstock