Conversations are the lifeblood of interpersonal communication. But, for some people, they’re the equivalent of a trip to the dentist. Here are some tips for breaking the ice and engaging in good, meaningful conversations.
I recently attended a great dinner party. It had everything you’d expect of a terrific get-together – fabulous food, interesting people and fascinating conversations all around the table.
A small group of people seated across from me weren’t basking in the joy of conversation. They fidgeted, occasionally murmured back-and-forth and mostly just stared down at their dinner plates. It looked awkward – even painful at times – and I’m sure it was.
The wildly different experiences at the same table got me wondering… what does it take to create an enjoyable, meaningful conversation?
Unlike other skills that require plenty of work to master – reading and writing come to mind – the ability to speak is one that comes to us naturally. Yet the same can’t be said for its logical extension: conversation.
While some people seem to be born with good conversation skills, most of us need some practice to master this art form. In a world that’s becoming more virtual by the day, being able to converse well – whether for business, social, pleasure, dating or other reasons – is perhaps more important now than ever.
Say No to Yes-or No Questions
So what does it take to create a great conversation? For starters, there a few things you shouldn’t do, like gossip, judge, speak ill of others and be negative. Julian Treasure, a noted sound consultant, provides a complete list, as well as some great insights into how to speak so others will want to listen, in a TED talk not long ago. I’d recommend checking it out.
Beyond his suggestions, there are other rules for a good conversation:
Rule #1: Start small. Starting a conversation is the hardest part, but the most important. Doing it successfully means finding shared experiences. So begin with small talk about the event you’re attending or how you know the host, comment on a food or drink item or point out something about the venue. If you’re desperate, there’s always the weather.
Rule #2: Find common ground. Take the conversation deeper by finding a common interest or topic you’re both passionate about and focus your discussion on it.
Rule #3: Share information. A good conversation requires equal contributions from both parties, which ultimately leads to an understanding. Just don’t share too much and monopolize the conversation. Keep the ratio as close to 50/50 as possible.
Rule #4: Ask questions. Move the conversation along with good, well-timed questions. They show that you’re attentive and interested. Be curious, and make sure your questions are open-ended (rather than yes or no) to keep the dialog moving.
Rule #5: Be polite. You may not agree with everything the other person is saying. That’s fine. Just be respectful of their opinions. Expressing your point of view is fine too; just don’t impose it on the other person, and don’t argue.
Rule #6: Be respectful. Be aware of the other person’s time. If it becomes clear they’d like to move on to another conversation with someone else, politely bring the discussion to a close and move on.
Nothing beats a great conversation, and – as the unfortunate group at dinner knows well – there’s nothing worse than a miserable one. With some practice, along with a few simple rules, we can spare ourselves the conversation-related agony they experienced.