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Become a Better Conversationalist

How to talk to anyone any time.

By Patricia Fry, ATMS


Do you ever feel awkward during conversations with neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances or even family members? Are you a little anxious this time of year when thinking about the holiday gatherings and parties that are coming up and your lack of confidence in these situations?

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. The Toastmasters program offers many opportunities to practice one-on-one communication. For example, you learn the art of small talk by improving your impromptu speaking skills through Table Topics. This will ultimately make you more comfortable with everyday communication. For extra practice, you hone your conversation skills by speaking with members and guests at club meetings.


 
 

Here are some tips for 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:

Express a sincere interest in the other person. In fact, if possible, learn a little about this person before engaging 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.”


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 by 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 Juneau?”

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.”


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 they prepared or praise their work on a project.


Listen. How many times do you catch yourself paying little attention to what’s being said because you are busy planning your next comment? While conversations are occasionally one-sided, most of the time we strive to 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’s advice, “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.”


Avoid debates. Some situations call for friendly debates, but avoid having it turn nasty. 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 topics that you or the other person 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.”

“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.”

— TRUMAN CAPOTE

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.


Use humor. A little tasteful humor goes a long way. Try incorporating your natural wit into conversations. Tell a cute story—keep it brief. Smile while speaking. Nothing lightens up a conversation like a genuine friendly smile.

Before you can entertain and delight others in your everyday conversation, dust off your own sense of humor. Open yourself up to the small wonders around you—the adorable things a child or a pet does, the funny things that happen throughout your day, and the amusing stories you read about. I knew a woman who kept a small notebook in her pocket to jot down stories she could later tell.


 

Handling the Poor Communicator:

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. 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 and say, “I wasn’t finished with my story.” If this is someone you know well, and 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.

Irish writer 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 put a smile on your face as you listen and nod. The same is true of author 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.”


He doesn’t contribute to the conversation. One way to draw people out is to ask questions pertinent to their lives and/or their interests. And 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 your everyday communication 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 Toastmaster 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 is. And 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 affectation, free without indecency, learned without conceitedness, novel without falsehood.”


The videos How to Command a Room and How to Interrupt Politely were provided by communications expert Karen Friedman. Learn more at karenfriedman.com.