Become a Better Conversationalist

Do you ever feel awkward during conversations with neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances or even family members? Join the crowd. Many people feel uncomfortable while trying to form a connection during verbal exchanges – making a point or recognizing what others mean can sometimes be tricky.

If your attempts at personal conversations are less than satisfying, you may wonder, “Is it them or is it me?” Don’t worry – natural communication doesn’t always come naturally, but as experts tell us, it can be learned. One place that helps is Toastmasters. While the Toastmasters Competent Communication manual focuses on public speaking, many assignments in the Competent Leadership manual can help you practice one-on-one communication.

You can also learn the art of small talk by improving your impromptu speaking skills, which will ultimately make you more comfortable with everyday communication. For extra practice, you can hone your conversation skills by speaking with members and guests at club meetings.

Here are some tips to help you be more effective at everyday conversation and experience more satisfying interpersonal communication. They include helpful hints for short-circuiting other people’s annoying habits of sabotaging otherwise perfectly good conversations. 

To Become a Better Conversationalist:

1. Express a sincere interest in the other person. In fact, if possible, learn a little about this person before you have the opportunity to engage in conversation. Dale Carnegie said, “It’s much easier to become interested in others than it is to convince them to be interested in you.”

2. Ask meaningful questions. See if you can get this person to tell you what they think about a topic, event or news item, or how they feel about it. Ask open-ended questions – the kind that must be answered with more than a yes or no. Instead of asking, “Did you enjoy your cruise in Alaska?” try this: “What was your favorite port and what made it special?” or “Which excursion would you recommend in Juno?”

Make a point to ask valid questions while drawing out those longer answers. James Nathan Miller reminds us, “Questions are the breath of life for a conversation.” I once had a colleague who took this advice to a serious extreme: Upon ­leaving a conversation with him, you felt as if you had been interrogated. He typically bombarded you with questions and barely gave you time to respond. If you did respond, he didn’t seem to hear you – he just continued his machine-gun barrage of random questions.

3. Give compliments. There’s always a reason to say something nice, and there’s no better way to attract the undivided attention of someone than to issue a ­flattering remark. In a casual setting, admire a friend’s appearance or home, compliment the food she prepared or praise her work on the elementary school carnival. In a business atmosphere, check some of your colleagues’ bios and, when you have the opportunity for one-on-one conversations, say something complimentary about each person’s achievements.

4. Listen. How many times do you catch yourself paying little attention to what’s being said because you are so busy planning your next comment? While conversations occasionally are one-sided, most of the time we strive to give and take – that is, speak and then listen. Respond and then listen. A big part of ­successful communication is responding appropriately, and how can you do that when you didn’t hear the previous comment?

Remember, Toastmasters founder Ralph C. Smedley said, “Whatever your grade or position, if you know how and when to speak, and when to remain silent, your chances of real success are proportionately increased.”

5. Avoid debates. Sure, there are times and situations that may call for friendly debates. But do avoid turning a friendly conversation into a nasty debate. One way to do this is to graciously allow other people their opinions. Also, stay away from historically volatile topics. You know what they are: religion, politics and any other controversial topic that you are passionately for or against. English statesman Robert Bulwer-Lytton once said, “The true spirit of conversation consists in building on another man’s observation, not overturning it.”
Tip: In conversation, avoid using but. It tends to negate what came before it. Use the gentler and instead. Rather than saying, “He is a good athlete, but he could try a little harder,” try this, “He is a good athlete, and he could try a little harder.”

6. Keep up to date on current events and issues. When it comes to one-on-one communication, it is better to know a little about a lot of things than a lot about one or two things. In fact, you’ve probably noticed that your brilliant friends and acquaintances who have just one area of interest and expertise are some of the dullest conversationalists you know.

7. Use humor. Nothing breaks the ice in communication faster than a little tasteful humor. Try incorporating your natural wit into conversations. Tell a cute story – keep it brief. Smile while speaking. Nothing lightens up a conversation like a genuinely warm smile.

8. Model someone whose communication skills you admire. I especially love talking with certain people. It just seems as though our conversations flow so nicely; they’re interesting and constructive. These are the people I want to chat with, because spending time with them makes me feel good. They know how to communicate effectively. And I always work to sharpen that set of skills so I can have the same effect on others. Perhaps you know people in this category. If so, do as I do: Communicate with them often. Observe, listen and learn.

As a result, I have learned to focus on the following for really effective conversations:

  • Make eye contact.
  • Speak clearly.
  • Use vocabulary that is familiar to the person or group you are talking with.

Handling the Poor Communicator:

1. His communication is tied to his ego. We all want to be heard, understood and believed. We tend to converse better with like-minded people. And this is especially true of the guy or gal who brings too much ego into the conversation. This person might try to monopolize the conversation. He will boast. He may even attempt to engage in a debate as a way to show off. He doesn’t want to hear what anyone else has to say. He may feel inadequate discussing subjects outside of those related to his own accomplishments as a college football player in 1983, for example. 

What to do? After listening politely and making ap­pro­priate comments, attempt to distract, diffuse and ­challenge him by asking, “What do you think about the college football team line-up for this season?” or “What impact did football have on your life as an insurance agent?” or “Would you recommend that parents support their kid in sports when the child doesn’t have much ability?”

2. She talks on and on and on. We’ve all been in conversations where someone is bent on stealing the show. Even when you get a chance to share an incident from your life, this person chimes in with a story of her own. I have a friend who does this incessantly. She rarely even comments on your news or story. Even if you’re speaking with another person in the group, you can count on this woman to interrupt with something from her own experience, as if this is more important than what anyone else has to say. And to her, you can bet that it is. If you were to give her a quiz later, focusing on details of everyone else’s contributions to the conversation, she would fail miserably. She doesn’t care what you have to say. She is a one-sided communicator.

What to do? You can give up and just listen to her. You can interrupt her. Sometimes, I actually call my friend on interrupting me and say, “I wasn’t finished with my story.” If this is someone you know well, and you know you can safely share a frank conversation, consider a gentle intervention – simply tell her that she is a good storyteller – and that she needs to practice ­listening sometimes.

George Bernard Shaw once said of someone who was monopolizing a conversation: “The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.” Remembering this will help put a smile on your face as you listen and nod. The same is true of Truman Capote’s quip: “A conversation is a ­dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: Due to scarcity, two intelligent ­talkers seldom meet.”

3. He doesn’t contribute to the conversation. I think that many wives see this fault in their husbands. One of my friends “re-trained” her husband to be a better conversationalist. She sat him down and said, “We’re getting ready to retire and I need someone who will talk to me. So when I say something to you, you need to respond.” She worked with him in real-time communication. She would say, “It’s a beautiful day outside. I’d like to drive over to the nursery and pick out a new azalea for the front yard.” If he just grunted, she would say, “Okay, it’s your turn to speak.” He got the idea and they are both happily communicating in their retirement together.

Another way to draw people out is to ask questions pertinent to their life or interests. Then let them respond fully. Some people are hesitant speakers. Others readily speak over them because they are slow to respond and speak haltingly. You can help bring these timid conversationalists into the conversation by giving them more time and encouragement to respond.

And of Course, a Last Word...
These conversation tips should help you enjoy many happy chats in the future. Like anything, however, you need some practice before it becomes perfect. As a final thought, I suggest the following: 

• A good place to practice your conversation skills is at your Toastmasters meetings. Strive to speak one on one with at least one Toastmaster or guest at each meeting. You might even ask them to rate your ­conversation skills or to critique your effort. 

If you have a Toastmasters mentor, ask him or her to assist you in honing your communication skills. For most Toastmasters, everyday conversations are even more important to their careers and relationships than public speaking. We should strive to master this area of communication. 

Learn from the best. As William Shakespeare said, “Conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affection, free without indecency, learned without conceitedness, novel without ­falsehood.”

Patricia Fry, ATMS, is the author of 31 books. She has written numerous articles for the Toastmaster ­magazine. Learn more about her work at