So you’re looking to maximize your conversation skills? Good news: you don’t have to be born with charisma to become a superstar conversationalist. Like all things worth doing, it takes practice. If you want to join the ranks of the few, the proud the cool communicators, check out this course on How Communication Works.
It’s hard to be a decent conversationalist, if you’re not really listening to your companion. Start at the beginning by paying attention when someone tells you their name. Tune in to what they’re saying so you can ask thoughtful follow up questions. “Yeah, yeah, uh-huh, uh-huh…” isn’t going to cut it. You’ll come off a lot better, if you can say, “So John, when you were in Turkey, how was the sausage?” (You get the point.) Use specifics, and ask for more specifics. That demonstrates that you’ve been paying attention and that you’re interested. Don’t worry, if you ask someone to keep talking about themselves, chances are, they will. If you want to be the person that everyone loves talking with, this course on Active Listening is for you.
Heed the Introduction
A proper introduction should include more than just a name. With any luck, a host will tell you something about the other person, like where they are from, where they work, or how they know the host. Use those tidbits as a jumping off point. “Oh so you work at Apple? What’s it like to design an iPad?” If you’re the host, don’t forget this important component of introductions. It’s your job to be the bridge between people, so show them the common ground they share.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, so you can really understand someone. If your companion is a metallurgist and you know nothing of it, ask them to clarify what they do and how they do it. Generally speaking, experts don’t mind informing laymen about their industry, but you’ll look truly ignorant if you say something idiotic about their calling.
If your conversation runs aground, it’s always good to have a grasp on current events, so you can pull out a news headline to get things chugging along again. The science section of a major newspaper is a great place to find politically neutral topics that can appeal to a broad cross section of people. But choose wisely, not everyone wants to hear about the medical miracle of fecal transplants just before dinner. At the same time, people are suckers for emotional connection, so skip the simple facts and dwell on how such an event resonates with you emotionally. “A friend of mine has M.S., and now it’s a whole new ballgame.” If you think you need more help, check out this course on Social Skills for Guys or look at the five-star Social Smartness course, because everyone needs a booster in why people act the way they do.
Taking Your Turn
When it’s your turn to talk, a little self-awareness goes a long way. No point in launching into a diatribe about private schools when you don’t know where your audience stands. Instead, keep it humble and avoid taking firm stands early on unless you want a reputation as a boor. If the conversation is about to run its course, try to create an opening for a new topic: “Do you play tennis?” “Not anymore. After three trophies for Most Improved, I got the hint.” “Ha ha ha.” “I’ll bet you were the guy getting all the MVP’s when you were a kid.” Not only does this flatter your counterpart, it invites them to tell their own story. If it sounds hokey, consider the alternative: “Do you play tennis?” “No.” See? If you want to have good conversation skills, you have to take turns being the driver for the topic or going along for the ride. You can’t do just one part. You’re looking for reciprocal balance.
Whenever possible, piggyback on the last idea for an opportunity to tell an interesting story. Stories are what keep our culture going, and a funny anecdote is of great value to everyone involved in the discussion. However, it’s never nice when someone regales you with stories of people you don’t know and events you didn’t attend. A story about your brother’s wedding need not include the names of every bridesmaid, keep it about universal truths, like awkwardness with the in-laws or parental disapproval (ahem). That gives your audience a chance to tell their own story when you finish.
If All Else Fails: Flatter
If you’re really struggling to find common ground, flattery is a viable option. “Oh I haven’t read your new book, but it is so impressive that you wrote one. What was that like?” Alternatively, “I’ve rarely seen such a beautiful ring. Is it vintage?” Unique compliments always work better than generic ones, and anytime you can notice a detail that others have overlooked, your conversation partner will appreciate it.
Savor the Silence
When there’s a lull in the conversation, the best thing to do is take a drink or take a bite. This give you an automatic reason for extending the silence by a second or two, and it gives you a moment to think of what to say next.
You may be a candid and open person but not everyone is. Avoid asking leading questions that pry too deeply into other people’s lives. Everyone has boundaries. If you see you’ve gone too far, apologize and move on. If someone is pushing your buttons, be frank and say “I’d prefer not to discuss it.” If it’s still uncomfortable, you can always politely excuse yourself to go to the loo.
Obviously, you don’t want to be the dude who’s trying to sell his latest business venture at a charity ball. Keep your small talk small. Your deep thoughts are best saved for a second date, your dad, or a dear friend. Politics and religion can be deal breakers for some people. Don’t go there unless you know what you’re getting into. If some gun toting NRA member is making your green goddess blood boil, simply find a way to excuse yourself politely. “Oh, they just added mini quiches to the buffet, please excuse me.” Most of the time, it’s best if you can furnish an introduction to someone else, and then excuse yourself politely. No one likes to be left standing in the middle of a room by themselves, but you have a right to seek more enjoyable company. Just make sure you’re not the one telling a pregnant woman horror birth stories. If you’re not confident you can read other people’s signals, check out this body language course, so you can move like a pro.
If you’re concerned about your conversation skills, one of the best ways to learn is to study the habits of people who are doing what you want to do. If you really want to know the ins and outs of social excellence, check out this Naked Impact course on confidence and communication. Either that, or watch the latest season of Downtown Abbey for a crash course in old-school chitchat.
You remember the old musical Annie? One of the songs had a line like this: “You’re never fully dressed, without a smile.” And it’s true. A smile will get you out of most social pickles. Very few people are able to relate well to everyone. There are always going to be people who don’t ‘get’ you. Don’t worry about it. If you feel like you don’t have much to add to a conversation, just make a point to learn about the other person. You know what they say: opposites attract.
Anyone who can maximize their conversation skills is also following basic etiquette conventions. Here are a few refreshers in case you forgot all the stuff your mother told you:
- Maintain eye contact. Eye contact is an important way of showing someone you’re actively listening.
- Don’t gossip. Talking about other people is only acceptable if you keep your comments one hundred percent positive. As your kindy teacher used to say: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.
- Don’t interrupt. Most people prefer to finish their own thoughts. Avoid jumping in with your witty one-liner unless you really are hilarious.
Socially deft people can talk about anything from throw pillows to Comic-Con. Generally speaking, it matters less what you say, and more how you say it. Be self-effacing. Be interested in the person you’re speaking to and add to the conversation what only you can.