Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

You Can Be a Better Conversationalist

Shy people can have more fun and get closer if they see conversation as a skill.

In my last post, I covered the signs that you're talking too much. Shy people know they're shy, but they may not realize how their shyness affects others. We all need to be equal participants in starting and maintaining conversations, and in deeper relationships, creating intimacy.

Let's take a common situation, a couple with a talkative woman and shy painfully quiet man.

The quiet man needs to understand that even though talking comes more easily to his wife, she's still working at it. She sees it as her task to make social encounters go well. You're coasting and leaving her to do the work.

After all, why did you pick someone so warm and open and talkative?  Really good conversationalists--not overtalkers--make people feel wonderful. 

On the other hand, try to imagine spending time with someone who acts the way you do. Would you begin to feel lonely and angry? Maybe not as quickly as some others would, but eventually. A partner who doesn't volunteer much or speaks in a montonone or without enough details makes his companion feel lonely, and unseen. The message is that it isn't important to you to get to know her or share your experience.

Chances are, you had a painfully shy person in your own family, so you may not need to think too hard to put yourself in her shoes.

If you're still dating, remember that she's choosing to spend time with you. She doesn't want to feel that your time together is superficial or that you're a distant oddball.

You may be especially cuddly--shy men often are--and make many thoughtful gestures. She's chosen you because she sees that you do care ....but a conversation gap that persists or gets worse will make both of you unhappy.

If as you're reading this, you're the extrovert thinking, "Yes, that's my husband," you might try telling him how his silence makes you feel. That conversation may go better than nagging or peppering him with questions.  You still need to do your part by finding other people to talk to--your husband can't meet your social needs. But that doesn't mean he can't try to do more.  

As the shy husband, you may be tempted to say: I just don't and can't. However, social ability is not innate. It comes from family history, life experience and choices and it can be learned.

Shy people need to practice opening up. They need to keep at it all their lives and they do get better. 

The general tips for public situations apply mostly at home as well.  

Notice your body language. Smile, openly look around, laugh at jokes you overhear and generally look approachable. You can send the message that you're enjoying a conversation without saying much.

If you hear a concept you agree with, always take the effort to say you agree. You may think, "What's the point?" since you're not adding new information. But you'll be talking more and the other person may appreciate your agreement.

If someone is clearly launching a conversation, follow up with "Yeah?" and other noises, like "uh huh...." You'll make the other person feel more comfortable and you'll seem more talkative. If you've had a similar experience, say so, even if you don't really want to go into the details.

Tell yourself that you have to say something every so often. You might even decide on a set number of minutes. Your default behavior is hanging back and listening to everyone, just taking things in, or not paying attention. That's coasting.

Quiet people often say they only want to talk when they have something to add. But if you supply information only on a need-to-know basis, you're treating your friends and partners as if they were busy managers in an office.   

Some tips for finding ways to contribute:

When it's your turn to answer a question, don't side-step it. Think about your opinion. Be descriptive and don't be afraid to "think aloud" the way talkative types to. The key is not to nix the thoughts going through your head. You may be deciding that your remark would be boring, or irrelevant or open you to questions you don't want to answer. You make all these judgments so quickly you don't even notice them. Talkative people may say anything that comes into their heads---that's not always great, but you might give yourself some of that freedom, especially with a partner or close friend. Don't censor. Also don't worry too much that your comments aren't fresh and original. You may need to start off  with conventional remarks until you loosen up and a good conversation partner will help.

You may find yourself speechless if the other person has just said something that turned you off. Don't be quick to criticize or judge, even in your own head. You could ask questions to see if you might have a different reaction with more information.

You'll be a better conversationalist if you read, follow the news, know a little about many topics and look at a variety of sources of information. Take an interest in what she's interested in. 

The more often you speak to someone, the more specific and detailed you can be. With a partner, you can catch her up on new developments since the day before, or new thoughts that arose from previous conversations.

If you're close, you'll be following many threads in each other's lives. Details that would be dull to a stranger will be meaningful. If you think your day is too dull to discuss, you may need to dig a bit more and make the effort to explain the background. Look for the interesting stuff. It may come easily if you make the effort, don't censor yourself, and keep your partner up to date.

If after you've known someone a while, and you're doing your best and still not connecting, you may need to move on. But you won't know that unless you've really tried.

For editing or writing coaching, contact me at expertediting.org.

 

 

 

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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