My mother-in-law for decades enjoyed hosting dinner parties with guests who could engage in stimulating conversation. I recall one statement that she made some thirty years ago that still intrigues me. "He's a great conversationalist," she said. Hmm. What makes someone a standout at the simple art of talking with people? Do the habits of great conversationalists dovetail or differ with the skills that I teach couples in marriage counseling?
The impetus for this post actually came from a lovely note I received from a reader. Her comment, "I'm very lonely and want to fit in with some people I'm trying to meet," reminded me of the many people who feel uncertain of themselves in conversations, especially at social gatherings and with new people.
On the flip side, after a conversation with an old friend I reconnected with when we were eating at the same restuarant, I became aware of the reality that far too many people feel over-confident in social groups. My friend had no idea that he continually violated the rules for good conversations.
The guidelines below combine what I know as a marrriage therapist who specilizes in helping couples develop better talking-together skills with what I have observed in social situations and read in the literature on communication skills.
Score yourself: 0=Rarely or never do this skill; 1=Occasionally; 2= I'm Ok at this; 3=I'm excellent at this.
1. Use the two magic words How and What to launch your questions.
My reader wrote to me: "I would like to ask good questions, but I seriously don't know if I always can quickly come up with a good one. I used to be in a marriage with a husband who stomped me down. I learned to "keep your mouth shut" so I feel inhibited when it comes to asking questions."
So here's the number one key to talking with people in a way that makes them want to converse more with you: Ask open-ended questions.
Almost any question will be a good one if it starts with one of the two magic open-ended question words, What or How. These words launch open-ended questions that draw out further information from the prior speaker. Use those starter questions in response to whatever caught your attention in what the person you are listening to just said.
Here's an example:
"I'm from a small town in Kansas."
"Interesting. I've actually never been to Kansas. As you look back on your growing up, what stands out for you about living in Kansas?"
By contrast, starting sentences with "Are you...?", "Did you...", "Have you...?" tends to evoke just yes or no responses.
"Did you like living in Kansas?"
"No, not really."
While occasional questions starting with these words can be fine, starting the majority of your questions with how or what will from the get-go set you ahead of the pack as a conversationalist.
My reader's note added a further important dimension to the issue of asking questions. She wrote, "At what point is a question too personal? For instance, if I'm in a group and many are women -- and I've just met them, do I ask if they are single, divorced, widowed??? "
That question highlights that in the subtle dance of getting-to-know you, starting on more arms-length topics is a good idea. From there gradually proceding to more personal territory will feel safer than a too-quick darting into personal spaces.
In addition, for sensitive issues, talking about yourself first can make asking questions about the other person feel more appropriate. That guideline is counter-intuitive. At the same time, it's true.
For instance, "Since my divorce five years ago I've found that ...." Odds are then that the other person will volunteer their marital status, since most people mirror each other in conversations,
2. LIsten to learn: Follow up by digesting aloud and building on that.
In the example below did you notice that before the question there was a comment about what the listener heard. "Interesting. I've never actually been to Kansas," was an example of thinking aloud about what you have heard so that you could build, either with a further comment or with a follow-up how or what question.
Most people miss here by listening to hear how they can turn the conversation to being about themselves, or to listen to disagree.
"I've actually never been to Kansas. I'm from ...", by contrast would have missed the opportunity to listen to learn, the chance to explore more about the other person's life.
Adding comments about yourself is fine, provided you first explore more about what you have heard from the other person. Follow up by thinking aloud about what you have heard and expanding on it. Then, once you've gone a distance down that road, changing the focus to yourself will add instead of taking away from the conversation.
3. Avoid But.
"But you don't have a Kansas accent.." could be playful, and at the same time risks turning the conversation into oppositional dialogue.
But deletes whatever came before. Do you like when others dismiss what you say? Probably not. But sours what could have been a fascinating discussion.
4. Say what is, avoiding negative words like not and n't (don't, isn't) and never.
Which would you rather hear: "I don't like adventure movies." Or "I prefer comedies to adventure movies."
My reader who wrote such an insightful note on this subject to me wrote, "If someone is speaking of something and I want to show great interest, do I say a negative about how 'I've never thought of this. I'll want to definitely try this.' Or will that sound like I have nothing to contribute? In the past people have seemed to drift away after I act ignorant about something."
In general, negative words do turn listeners off. "I've never..." is far less compelling than second sentence in this comment, "I'll definitely want to try this..."
Negative attitudes toward yourself or toward others also can be off-putting. The writer was probably correct that "acting ignorant" is unappealing, as the term ignorant has negative connotations. If by contrast you think of yourself as interested, that way of regarding yourself is positive and therefore will feel attractive to others.
5. Aim for symmetry of air time
One simple test of being a good conversationalist is whether you talk more, less, or about equally to the person you are talking with.
A corallary of this principle is to aim for dialogue, not monologues. One somewhat lengthy anectdote may be fine. More than one will quickly establish you as hogging the conversational floor.
Conversations that feel engaging tend to proceed in a series of short chunks. Follow the 3-sentence rule. After 3 sentneces, it's the other person's time to talk.
6. Seek out topics of common interest by asking questions about the other person's life.
The more you feel genuinely interested in learning from or about the other person, the more genuinely the other person will respond with interest in the conversation.
7. Alternate adding information and asking questions.
My reader asked, "How many questions does one pose before the other person feels bombarded....I guess practice will tell me."
Yes, experience helps, and so does the general rule of alternating saying and asking. It's especially important to respond to the other person's answer to a question from you by discussing their answer and adding to it. Immediate follow-up questions begin to create the feeling that you are putting the other person on the witness stand. Digest the answer you have received by commenting aloud on it or expanding on that information before moving foward with more questions.
8. Friendly interruptions add to good conversations, provided the other person can handle them.
My reader wrote: "I'm told (or was by my exhusband) that I interrupted people all the time ... so I really want to be on guard for that."
Actually, linguistic studies have concluded that in the conversations that most people find most satisfactory, both participants interrupt. Conversations feel lively when each person speaks briefly, so interruptions can help keep clear of monologues, especially for participants who lack a good off switch once they start talking.
If you are interrupting to disagree, that's another story. Interruptions to ask an interested question or to react positively and digest what you've heard so far though are hallmarks of gratifying dialogues.
Not so however if the person you are speaking is "cognitively rigid" or is narcissistically interested only in talking, not in true dialogue. These folks have a difficult time with the interruptions that other people in fact enjoy.
9. Connect with your ears and your eyes as well as with what comes out of your mouth.
My reader wrote: "I try to give eye contact, but concentration, comprehension -- why don't I have that down pat? Am I too into myself?"
Yes, eye contact adds to feelings of connection. Yes, listening attentively means that when the other person is talking, you need to be tracking what they say, not thinking about yourself or about what you are going to say next. Bravo for these insights.
10. Interest in others often goes with interest in the world in general, giving you more to say.
The more you read, watch informative TV programs, or observe sensitively the world around you, the more you will have interesting ideas to add in a conversation.
People enjoy anything new. By adding new input, you will be stimulating to talk with.
At the same time though, what you add in the way of new information is only a part of what makes you fun to talk with. If you comment and build with genuine interest on what the other person is saying, that's equally important in what will make you a great conversationalist.
How did you do in this assessment of skills? If your total score was 20 or above, you are probably okay. The closer you are to 30, the better you are as a conversationalist.
If you are satisfied with your scores, then you probably are fine in any conversational setting. If you would prefer to get an upgrade, the good news is that paying attention to the 10 skills listed above could make a significant difference.
The skills that make you good at the art of conversation turn out to dovetail very strongly with the skills that can make you good at couple relationships. Go for both!
Dr. Heitler, a Denver psychologist, specializes in skills for successful couple interactions.
Learn more about the skills for strong relationship interactions from Dr. Heitler's book The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage and from her website based on the book, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.