HAVE YOU ever thought that some people are just natural conversationalists? No matter whom they’re talking to, no matter the topic, they seem relaxed and comfortable. I used to envy their skills—I wanted people to listen to me and ask me questions. It took some time, but gradually I learned several different techniques for making conversation (and me) more interesting.
Now that the holiday season is at full tilt, you’ll likely find yourself in situations where knowing how to keep the conversation going will come in handy. Here, a dozen talking points:
1) Learn to listen. To some people, listening means planning what they are going to say when the other person stops talking. Real listening means focusing on what the other person is saying. One way to stay engaged is to respond to what they’re saying: “What you’ve just said is interesting. Please tell me more about that.” Or “Excuse me. Can you explain that again? I didn’t quite get it.”
2) Redirect the conversation. Some people talk non-stop. One effective way to interrupt is to interject questions, such as “What got you so interested in this in the first place?” “Why are you doing this now?” Another technique is to preface your questions with comments, such as “I’ve never understood the intrigue of visiting Siberia. I’d much prefer to see another part of Russia. Why did you decide to go there?” Before you know it, you are having a conversation that’s interesting to you.
3) Smile and make eye contact. We are drawn to people who appear to be in a good mood and are open to meeting others. Making eye contact is another signal that shows interest and self-confidence. That doesn’t mean staring into someone’s eyes. You only need to make contact for 5 to 8 seconds before looking away. By making eye contact again, you show continuing interest.
4) Assume rapport. By acting as though you are talking to a friend, you’re signaling that you like them and are interested in them. That makes people more likely to respond to your openness by opening up in return. You establish a connection. You then can tell your story, tailoring it to correspond with the other person’s interests.
5) Watch the way you talk. Make it easy for people to hear and understand you. Speak clearly. Enunciate your words. Speak with emotion. Do people tell you to repeat something you’ve said? Take the hint! It means you need to speak up and probably slow down.
6) Improve your delivery. An energetic voice, along with pauses and expressive facial expressions, does wonders for a conversation. Remember, it is not what you say, but how you say it.
7) Remember three words: What? How? Why? If you add them to your conversations, you will be amazed by how much more you learn. Also, by asking for explanations, opinions and descriptions, you have a chance to redirect the conversation.
8) Be entertaining. Telling a good joke can break the ice or clear any tension. (Keep your joke or story short and practice telling it.) Stay away from stories about badly behaved children and annoying in-laws. Avoid talking about personal problems. People have enough of their own.
9) Be curious! Before you go to a social occasion, read up on what’s in the news, sports highlights, weather forecasts. Become familiar with trends in your community. Ask for opinions on the subject. This all can be fodder for a good conversation.
10) Avoid controversial subjects. Save your political discussions for like-minded friends. Don’t argue, even when the other person wants to. If the conversation continues to go down hill, simply excuse yourself. You are under no obligation to engage in a heated exchange.
11) Develop a range of small-talk topics. Talk about a fun trip you’ve taken, a good movie you’ve seen, an exciting book you’ve just finished. Remember, make sure it’s not all about you. End your comments by asking questions about the other person’s favorite trip or most recently read book.
12) Don’t monopolize the time. Forty-five seconds is a good parameter. If you lose track and suspect you’re talking too much, just look at the other person’s eyes. If they are wandering, looking down or worse yet, closed, chances are you’ve talked too much. Stop and ask a question.
A good conversation is a wonderful tonic. Listening well, asking pertinent questions and engaging with friends and strangers give you exposure to new ideas and different attitudes. Life becomes much richer. Can’t beat that!
Susan Morris was a freelance reporter/producer for several news organizations, including NPR. She currently teaches “The Art of Conversation” for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Carnegie Mellon.