Mastering the Art of Conversation
Whether you want to win over a roomful of people, exchange important ideas, or simply have an interesting talk with the person sitting next to you at a party or other gathering, good conversation is a critical social skill. Even if you weren’t born with the gift of gab, mastering the art of conversation can be easier than you think—if you use a few simple tips and techniques for breaking the ice and communicating with others.
Getting the ball rolling can be the trickiest part of any conversation. Here are a few tips to take the lead in starting a good conversation:
- Introduce yourself. The fastest way to get a conversation going is also the simplest: When you want to start a conversation with someone, look him or her in the eyes, smile, extend your hand, and say, “Hi, my name is ---. What’s yours?”
- Ask questions and show interest. When you meet new people, ask them to tell you about themselves. You’ll begin to establish a comfortable rapport, without putting yourself immediately in the spotlight. “Where are you from?” is a great ice-breaker.
- Put a unique spin on a traditional talking point. Rather than asking “What do you do for a living?” offer a more thought-provoking question, such as “So, do you like what you do for a living?” Your goal is to intrigue the other person and spark an answer that tells you a little more about his or her personality.
- Be spontaneous. Saying the first (inoffensive) thing that comes to mind can be a memorable and funny way to start a conversation. And, it can help you seem more confident than you actually feel when talking to someone for the first time.
- Say something complimentary. Compliments like “Hey, I like your tie!” or “Great haircut!” are excellent ways to get a person’s immediate attention and make him or her eager to hear what else you have to say.
- Think like an old friend. Mental role-playing can set the stage for a great conversation. Tell yourself that you’ve known this new person forever and that you can’t wait to find out what your long lost friend has been up to. You’ll feel more comfortable and confident, and so will the person you’re talking with.
After you’ve kicked off the conversation, the real communication begins. Here are some tips for keeping the discussion flowing:
- Listen. Asking questions sparks a conversation, but listening provides the fuel. Listen to learn how best to communicate with the other person.
- Highlight mutual interests and experiences. Don’t view every comment as a springboard to talk about yourself, but do establish common ground. If the person you are talking with says, “I just got back from Hawaii” you might say, “I’ve been there, too, isn’t it a beautiful place to visit?” or “I’ve always wanted to go there! What did you like best about your trip?”
- Move beyond “yes” and “no.” Ask open-ended questions that require an explanation rather than a “yes” or “no” response. For example, “So, how was Hawaii?” instead of “Did you like Hawaii?”
- Fill in the blanks. If the conversation stumbles to a halt, make a comment that reflects your interest in the other person’s previous statement—something like, “That must have been a beautiful trip for you” or “Really? Tell me about it!” You can use this last statement as a response to just about anything that someone tells you.
- Make positive observations. If she says something pleasant, you can say, “That’s great!” Or if he says something humorous, say, “That’s so funny!” Always avoid negative judgments or criticisms when you’re trying to spur on casual conversation.
- Bring others into the conversation. If the conversation is limping, scan the room to find someone else to join in. You might say something like, “Hey, Terry, we’re talking about vacations. Come tell us about your trip to Spain.” This maneuver can enliven the discussion while letting someone else help carry the ball.
- Use body language. Be sure to smile and nod occasionally to show that you’re enjoying the conversation and want it to continue. Failing to look at the person you’re speaking with or standing rigidly with your arms crossed are signals that you want the conversation to end.
- Avoid sensitive subjects. The old advice remains true: Sexual innuendoes, sarcastic remarks, and topics such as religion, politics, and money are best reserved for discussions with people you know well.
Wrapping up a conversation takes some social skill, as well. Here are a few tips for ending a conversation gracefully:
- Use a polite cue. When you’re ready to move on from the conversation, offer a pleasant “wrap up,” by saying something like, “It was a pleasure talking with you.” (This statement is especially useful if you can’t remember whether this is actually the first time you’ve met or spoken with this person.)
- Say good-bye. When people continue talking after you’ve indicated that you’re ready to stop the conversation, look them directly in the eyes, smile, give them a firm handshake, and say, “Good-bye.” This tells the other person that your conversation is officially over.
Mastering the art of conversation takes a bit of practice, but it offers many rewards. By learning to strike up and carry on lively discussions, you’ll feel more comfortable in any work or social situation and gain more pleasure from the company of those around you.
by Dr. Jeff St. John