How to Be a Great Conversationalist

How to keep a conversation going in the right direction. Are you an interrogator, a braggart, a know-it-all or the perfect conversationalist?

By Lybi Ma, published on August 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Everyone knows a conversation stopper. You know, someone who kills the smooth flow of conversation through interrogating, monopolizing, or interrupting, among other no-nos.

Interrogators bombard you with questions that barrel along like a Mack truck. The funny thing is they don't ask probing questions to find out real information, nor do they offer specifics about themselves. The upshot is that their tactics make for a dissatisfying exchange. And if you're the interrogated one, you wind up so exhausted you can offer only one- or two-word answers.

There's an easy way to avoid being an interrogator, observes Debra Fine, an expert on conversation and small talk. First, you need to ask open-ended questions, the kind that can't be answered just with a yes or no. Then you follow up by digging deeper. And above all, be patient.

Interrogators are only one type of conversation stopper she defines in her book, The Fine Art of Small Talk. Braggarts kill conversation for many.

The Braggart loves to boast and exaggerate, and the bigger the audience the better. She'll tell you all about how she negotiated a killer deal that will bring in millions. Or she'll regale you with the story of how she will be in the company of the Queen of England. And she's certain to tell you that her daughter is in the gifted program.

What do you do when you find yourself in the presence of such a person? You can find someone else to talk to, or you can be a conversational hero and bring the discussion back to more general topics. You might want to toss out into the discussion something that is happening in the news today.

We've all met a Monopolizer—someone who takes the spotlight and doesn't give it up. He will talk and talk about himself with no relief in sight. Sure, most of us enjoy talking about ourselves; that's human nature. But a little goes a long way.

It's best to hand over the attention after sharing your story—five minutes is ample time to telling your tale. If you find yourself in the company of a monopolizer, you can try to change the topic or ask someone else in the group a question that is on topic.

Then there's the Interrupter. He's the one who will not even let you finish your story. He thinks he knows what you are going to say and thinks you are wasting valuable time. He has a short attention span or is completely impatient.

The only instances where interrupting is acceptable are when you need make an exit, if the conversation becomes uncomfortable—or if a monopolizer is holding forth.

Last but not least is the Know-It-All. She can tell you everything you need to know about anything. She usually isn't interested in other people's opinions; she's just interested in blasting you with hers.

Often the know-it-all has no qualms about cutting other people down. So it's futile to bother venturing into the spotlight to wrestle with someone who knows everything.

If you fear you may be a know-it-all, make the effort to ask this simple question of others: What is your opinion? People enjoy being asked.