How many times have you seen this scenario? You’re at a social gathering–say an office party–where people are just barely acquainted with each other. The conversations are a bit strained and are a commingling of “shop” talk, mindless chit-chat and awkward pauses. Your eyes scan the room, and you notice that Jeff from marketing keeps drawing small crowds of people to him. The people are all smiling and engaged, and no one leaves the group.
What’s Jeff’s secret? How does he do it? He’s not telling jokes or performing magic tricks; in fact, he really isn’t saying a whole lot, yet he’s been able to comfortably engage with everyone in the room.
Good conversationalists have perfected their art
Some people are naturally blessed with a dynamic gift of gab and are able to talk to anyone about anything. Meanwhile, others struggle with simply engaging in small talk. What separates the two isn’t just a matter of affability. It’s more about their approaches to communication and their willingness to hone their conversational skills.
Being good at conversation is slightly different than being a good communicator. Communication is just one small component of the very delicate, dynamic and active dance that happens within every conversation.
Here are 6 tips to help you become great at conversing
1. Seed the conversation
The concept of seeding a conversation revolves around the idea of reaching outside of the topic of discussion and bringing in ideas that are thematically or philosophically related. It involves introducing and adding information and relating story excerpts from other domains that parallel the current topic. For example, if the topic is politics and the discussion turns to a particular candidate’s campaign strategy, you could introduce a relevant sports metaphor or relate it to an old war story illustrating a similar maneuver on the field of battle.
2. Know when (and when not) to interject personal experiences
Oftentimes, you’ll find yourself in a conversation with a person you may not know very well, and in an effort to establish common ground and appear relatable, you’ll begin trading stories with them. If they are talking about their dog that died, you might share the tragic tale of how you lost your gerbil in a big-wheel accident. But, while your intentions are simply to relate to the other person, this can come across as attention-seeking, or it can seem like you are trying to “one up” them, which is a major turn-off. Know when to share and when to simply let the moment belong to the other person.
3. Be attuned to the silent conversation (a.k.a. body language)
Being attuned to the moment when the conversation has run its course or is starting to fade is one of the most important skills a masterful conversationalist must perfect. Notice when your audience is starting to drift or become distracted or disengaged, and understand that it may be the time to end the conversation, or at least move away from that particular topic. Non-verbal cues communicate far more than what is being said.
4. Listen more than you speak
At the heart of being a good conversationalist is having exceptional listening skills. Listening is an action. It requires focus, concentration and lots of energy. Listening involves more than just hearing what someone is saying. It also requires interpreting, hearing context and sub-context, and reading between the lines. Listening should be done with both the eyes and the ears. It is an intuitive, active process.
5. Ask open-ended questions and give expanded answers.
Asking yes-or-no questions and/or giving yes-or-no answers are the ultimate show-stoppers. They kill the conversation, or at least stall it, and they cause that awkward silence where everyone is fishing for something to say. Being cognizant that everyone is not adept in conversation will help you work to provide expanded answers and ask open-ended questions. Giving the other person something to work with will help put at ease those who experience social tension.
6. Treat the conversation like a friendly tennis match
Do your part to keep the conversation going. One of the best ways to keep the conversational volley going is by showing emotion. The fact that we are truly engaged is demonstrated through our body language and facial expressions. Ensure that you are laughing at the appropriate places, and show sympathy, horror, or excitement as you actively listen. Your emotions and reactions should be genuine and appropriate for the tone and mood of the conversation. Save the theatrics for a different audience.
Conversations should arise organically – oversteering the conversation will shut it down quickly. Being affable, actively listening and carefully seeding the discussion will fuel the conversation and make you the talk of the party.
Featured photo credit: Linh Do via flickr.com