How to Have Better Dinner Conversations

In one of the comments regarding yesterday’s post, my friend, Ron Edmondson, said, “I would love to sit at your dinner table sometime. Great conversations!” As I read that, I thought, We do have great conversations around our dinner table! Then I realized that these don’t happen by accident.

A Group Having a Great Conversation at a Restaurant - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #11543182

Photo courtesy of ©[Photographer]

Over the years, my wife, Gail, and I have developed a set of conversational rules that we use at the dinner table. We have never written these down. They are largely unarticulated. However, over the years we have done our best to maximize these opportunities and to make eating more about the discussion than the food—though we certainly enjoy good food!

Here are eight things we do to create engaging dinner-time conversations. I have found that they work at home, with friends, and even at work.

  1. Consciously seek out conducive environments. In order to have meaningful conversations, you must be able to hear one another. We don’t mind background music. In fact, it can help create the right atmosphere. But it cannot be so loud that you find yourself struggling to hear.
  2. Have only one conversation at a time. We learned this from Luci Swindoll. We went to her home for dinner one night. As we were sitting down to eat, she graciously said, “I only have one rule, and that is that we have one—and only one—conversation at a time. We can talk about anything you like. I really don’t care. But just one conversation.” This one rule transformed our dinner conversations.
  3. Ask open-ended questions. As the hosts, Gail and I have a singular goal: we try to ask interesting questions. We try to make these questions open-ended, so that people must elaborate and give us some insight into them as a person. For example,
    • What is your idea of a perfect vacation?
    • If you could design your ideal job, what would it look like?
    • What is the best book you have read in the last 12 months and why?
    • What is the most important lesson you learned from your father?
    • When is your very favorite thing about your spouse?
    • If you were by yourself, and could listen to any music you want, what would it be?
    • If you could spend a day with anyone on the planet, who would it be?
    • What it is like to be your friend? or to be married to you?
    • If you were suddenly the President of the U.S., what would you do first?
    • Looking back over your life, what would you describe as your proudest moment?
  4. Ask a second question. The most interesting conversations come after the initial answer. It takes extraordinary discipline to refrain from answering your own question and, instead, ask a second question. Yet this is where the deepest conversations occur. I like to ask questions like these as follow-up questions:
    • How did it feel when that happened?
    • Can you elaborate on that?
    • Why do you think that is important to you?
    • Do you think you would have answered the same way five years ago?
    • What emotion do you feel when you describe that?
  5. Draw out those who are reticent to speak. In any group, there are people who are naturally talkers and those who are content to listen. I try to draw out the latter. As the saying goes, “Still waters run deep.” Sometimes your best contributions come from those who won’t answer unless you ask. I simply say, “[Name], what do you think about that?”
  6. Pay attention to people’s physical needs. When we have guests in our home, I am constantly scanning the table to see who needs drink refills or who might like a second helping. I don’t want my guests to think about these things, so the conversation can be the primary focus. This requires that you see yourself as a facilitator and a servant.
  7. Do more listening than talking. You must cultivate self-awareness before you can get good at this. You must be aware of the rhythm inherent in any conversation. How much are they talking? How much are you talking? Focusing on asking questions is the key. If you do this well, you will find yourself talking less and listening more.
  8. Affirm people, even if you disagree with them. I am actually more interested in people I disagree with. I think this is because I have the potential of learning something new. I am intrigued by the fact that they hold a view different than my own. As a result, I try to “see” what they see and experience life from their perspective. Even when I disagree, I find myself saying, “That is fascinating. How did you come to that conclusion?” or “Wow. Can you elaborate?”

The older I get, the more I relish great conversations with friends. I love getting to know the people in my life and learning from them.

Question: What things have you found helpful in generating more meaningful conversations?
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  • Ary

    I just wanted to say thank you so for your blog and thanks to your wife Gail for her twits. I am learning so much about writing and about life from you both. I feel like I know you and you are such wonderful people showing the love of Christ through your words, actions and life. Thanks to you both. God bless you.

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  • @mattstephens268

    OK. So it seems like these are applicable largely to group conversations. With the second one, my mind immediately went to the first topic that usually comes up at our dinner table: work. For us, dinner is debrief time. Few topics are as boring as accounting (no offense all you accountants!), so I usually try to interject a different topic before dinner is through.

    On tip #3, those are great questions! But as I read through them, I couldn't help but wonder, how would I answer these? And I wasn't sure how forthcoming an answer would be, because honestly, they aren't the type of question I'm used to thinking about. I think some people are just better at talking about themselves than others.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  • Patty

    Great Post Mike, Like you said it is important to be a good listener. I hate when someone walks over someone else when they are speaking. I especially hate it when I catch myself doing it.

    You guys had dinner with Luci Swindol? How awesome was that?

    God Bless

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  • Todd Burkhalter

    Stumbled upon this older post. Great topic that caught my interest since I was just at a dinner last night that had excellent conversation. I was thinking about the people I was with, and thought about one of my favorite questions when meeting someone in this setting. What keeps you busy when your not working? To learn about their hobbies and passions away from the office.

  • Paul Cahill

    Fantastic post. I thoroughly enjoy good dinner conversation and I am going to put some of this into practice, especially the one conversation rule.

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  • John Gallagher

    I simply love this post…Don't know what else to say… Would love to particpate in one of these conversations… I even want to use questions similar to this with my kids.

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  • avonia photography

    Totally agree! I find myself following these rules at weddings also, where I know no one but like to get to know the guests.

  • Simon Joe

    Hei, very nice tips:) This is cool tips for date too, because sometimes I have no idea what I should ask. Im nervous or just, you know, dont know how to find the right words:) Have you got any tips for dinners? cooking etc.? Im watching here and there are some good tips, but I want something more “loveful”, thanks for your tips:)