I wish conversations skills were taught at school. We spend most of our life talking, and yet many people remain in the dark on this essential life skill. There are many suggestions for developing conversation skills, but, the most important is a sensitivity to the other person. We need to be able to adapt our conversation to whoever we speak with. We need to develop the right balance between talking and bringing out the best in the other person. If we can avoid being egotistical and consider the interests of others they will instinctively enjoy talking with us. If we offer boring conversation, we will only attract boring people to speak with.
Some Tips for Effective Conversation:
1. Avoiding Unnecessary Detail.
Suppose you are a cyclist and a non cyclist asks you about your new bike. What they are wanting is a brief description – like what colour is it? how much does it weigh? how much did it cost? did it come with free sachets of EPO? In all probability they are not interested in your bike at all, but, are asking out of politeness. Therefore, don’t bother them with detail they do not understand and don’t care for. The 674 gram, 20 gear Shimano Dura Ace STI groupset may be fascinating to you; but, it means nothing to the non cyclist. If you go on about the technical detail it will only bore the other person senseless. If you really feel you have to share the latest Shimano groupset mechanism, at least, find another cyclist. When we talk in great detail about our hobby / work / speciality we feel we are very knowledgeable – that is true, we are very knowledgeable, but, it makes for very boring conversation. Don’t show off with technical knowledge, be considerate of the other person.
2. Communication is a 50 – 50 process.
One of the biggest mistakes is to dominate a conversation and not give the other person a chance to speak. Remember the difference between a conversation and a lecture. If you find yourself dominating 70-80% of conversations you should think very carefully about whether you are not just boring other people. A very effective way to improve conversation skills is to ask yourself – Would I want to speak to myself? i.e. how would you feel if you came up against another person who always wants to have the last word and dominate the conversation? Unfortunately, those who love to dominate the conversation often seem the least likely to engage in critical self inquiry. Avoid the monologue, unless you are very witty or very interesting.
“It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.”
– Yogi Berra
Smiling is a simple but effective strategy to improve any conversation. This helps put the other person at ease; it is a clear signal that you are happy to be speaking with the other person. Smiling also helps ourselves; smiling gives us self confidence and helps put us in the right frame of mind. I would say it is better to force a smile than remain glum and miserable.
4. Avoid Strong Political / Religious views
To impose strong political / religious views is one of the biggest conversation killers. If it is not necessary to state political views and religious views then avoid doing it. Also be sensitive to the opinions of other people, if you know someone has strong opinions on controversial topics avoid challenging them and bringing a divisive element to the conversation; look for topics of shared interest. You are not going to change their long cherished belief’s so at best it will be a futile gesture; at worst they will be upset and avoid future conversations.
5. Criticise by asking questions
Take a tip from great thinkers like Benjamin Franklin and Socrates. Don’t criticise directly. Merely ask questions, which sow seeds of doubt in the mind of the other person. This is a much more effective than directly criticising. With this method you can criticise without causing any offence.
6. Speak Clearly and Slowly
With my Yorkshire accent, other people sometimes struggle to understand what I say. The only solution is to make an effort to be clear and speak slowly. There is nothing more frustrating than having to keep repeating yourself. Sometimes we may not be aware that people cannot hear us. They will just make do with understanding 70% of what we say.
7. Do You Insist on Having the Last Word?
A good conversation is not about proving that you are always right; if you insist on having the last word to every argument then it will make the conversation go on far too long. It is best to be detached and not feel obliged to point every flaw in the other person’s argument. If you come across a divisive topic, steer the conversation onto more neutral territory.
8. Body Language
In a conversation words only count for 50%. You also express alot through your body language. It is important to maintain a calm and poised attitude; avoid fidgeting as this expresses nervousness and insecurity. Maintain the right degree of openness; don’t stand too close, invading someone’s personal space can be very offputting. At least be sensitive to the reactions of others. If they back off, see that as a signal to give more personal space.
9. Be wary of criticising other people.
When we criticise other people, we implicitly put pressure on the other person to agree with our criticisms. This places the other person in an awkward position. Either they have to agree with your criticism (something they may not want to share) or they will have to argue and dispute. If you have to make criticism, do it in such a way that doesn’t force the other person into a corner; allow them to remain silent on the issue. Especially be careful of criticising friends of the other person.
10. Listen To Signals
When people go on a diatribe or lengthy monologue on the failings of the Federal Reserve I try to give other people signals that I’m bored and wish to change the conversation. (Sometimes we are so bored / annoyed we are tempted to just walk away. ) The important thing is that we try look out for these kind of warning signals. If the person starts shifting from side to side, if they keep trying to get a word in, if they start banging their head against a wall – take this as a sign and let the other person speak. If we remain aloof from the body language of other people, we just get wrapped up in our own agenda and annoy other people.
Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.
– Robert Benchley
Peter of Pick the Brain has renamed his personal blog to The Change Blog – Peter Explains his decision in this post on Shredding the Ego and starting afresh. I think it’s a great name for his thoughtful articles on self improvement.
Talking of Pick the Brain. I have a guest post at Pick the Brain on Money and Happiness – not always easy to combine the two
Helping to gain perspective in Life at My Super Charged Life offers a useful look at the importance of perspective in life.
(BTW: If you are interested in my bike I have listed the weight of every accessory here – racing bike. I promise not to bring it up in conversation….)
Photo: Clip from the Great McGinty