I love a good conversation. When I think to the most meaningful moments of my life, many of them have happened around a table, talking with the people closest to me.
But we all know some conversations are better than others, right? Maybe you’ve had conversations that felt more like competitions. Everyone around the table is buzzing, yakking, and whispering. It’s impossible to keep up, and it all feels scattered and shallow.
But what if I told you there was one simple way to have discussions that validated everyone involved, made it possible to really connect, and removed all the stress of having to perform?
Several years ago Gail and I had dinner with our friend Luci Swindoll. She told us there was only one rule at her table. What was it? “We have one—and only one—conversation at a time,” she said.
I’m glad I listened because Luci’s one rule has totally transformed the way we do dinner conversations. And that one transformation has led to many others.
The Power of One Conversation
A few weeks ago my team got away for several days to plan the new year. We rented a house in the country and the wife of one of our team members, Julie Cannon, catered breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The food was fantastic. But what was really amazing were the conversations we shared. At each meal we started off with one or two light but provocative questions. Without fail we waded into deep waters pretty quickly.
One thread that stands out for me was about the challenges of staying connected with our spouses. Julie started us going. It was a powerful discussion—and it might have never happened if everyone around the table weren’t focused around one conversation.
What You’re Missing with Too Many Conversations
As I’ve thought about the power of the One Conversation Rule, I’ve identified a half dozen major benefits we can all experience by trying to follow it.
- It gives everyone a chance to be heard. You know how it works. Usually, the most outgoing people run the table. Everyone else gets pushed to the margins, don’t they? And even when they get the floor, side conversations make it impossible to be heard.
Having one conversation equalizes the introverts and extroverts. How? It helps draw introverts out and holds extroverts back. It’s harder to get upstaged and downplayed when everyone is focused on sharing together.
It validates and honors everyone. This relates to No. 1. In free-for-all dinner conversations some people get excluded. Maybe they have something super important to contribute, but they feel edged out.
Because having one conversation tends to be more inclusive, it also shows honor to all the participants and validates their contribution. That brings tremendous positivity and camaraderie.
It sets stage for real connection. When everyone has a voice, there’s a tremendous opportunity for real connection. By circling around just one conversation, everyone gets a chance to know each other and be known.
What I’ve found is that it’s also easier to steer discussions to meaningful subjects. When there’s one conversation, you can ask the kind of questions that drive deeper consideration and engagement. And because everyone feels validated everyone can also risk being vulnerable.
It develops listening skills. Great leaders ask great questions and serve as great listeners. Because there’s no competition and the extra noise is muted, everyone gets a chance to really focus and grow as listeners.
In free-for-all conversations, everyone vies for attention by being the most clever, humorous, snarky, whatever. That fractures the discussion. If you listen to the person on your right, you’ll miss the joke on your left. The result is that no one is really paying attention to anyone.
It takes the stress out of hosting. If you’ve hosted dinner conversations, you know this is big. A good host is responsible to ensure everyone at the table feels welcome and valued. But that’s exactly where things go awry if conversations get out of hand.
The One Conversation Rule simplifies the whole process. A couple of really good open-ended questions is usually all it takes. (And here’s a hint: Just ask your guests a question that lets them talk about themselves.) Suddenly you’re free to lean back, sip your glass, and watch your guests enjoy the discussion. Why?
It makes everyone feel comfortable. The One Conversation Rule provides just enough structure that people know where they fit. They know what’s expected and don’t feel the need to impress or grandstand.
That kills the competitive attitude that easily arises and lets everyone just be themselves. And when we’re discussing the most meaningful stuff in life, that’s a game-changer.
Here’s a metaphor that might help. Sometimes we do conversations like a battle of the bands. Every act gets a shot to stand out and be noticed. Talent and volume are all that really matter.
But the One Conversation Rule works more like a symphony. Everyone is engaged, sometimes simultaneously. But there’s a place for each voice, and each voice adds to the total effect.
As humans, we’re designed to connect and converse. It’s not good for us to feel alone, especially around the table. Having just one conversation might feel limiting, but it can open the circle to everyone and enable us to connect, belong, and be heard.
And how can you beat that?
If you want to pursue this topic further, here are eight practical suggestions for creating more powerful dinner conversations.