Have you ever been part of a conversation where you went “Wow that was a great conversation!”? I know I definitely have. It’s true, great conversations can help you leave a lasting impression.
So what got me curious was why I sometimes find myself wanting to run away from some conversations? In pursuit of an answer, I uncovered a whole lot of truths. I found people that actually enjoy talking to others, but don’t because they’re too self-conscious. I found others that find it difficult to come up with things to say. Then there were others that fear judgement if they come off as awkward or boring.
Here’s the thing – none of us are perfect conversationalists. There is always room to improve. And the first step in the right direction is to recognize what could be getting in the way. This coupled with some regular practice can make transform how we converse!
So let’s look at a few key things that you need to do to have better conversations.
You need to relax to have a great conversation
I am starting with this because more often than not this is an issue. Being able to speak to other people in a way that makes you both feel relaxed and confident is a skill you need to hone. Unfortunately, if you’re shy by nature this is often the hard part. Let me remind you, though, everyone gets at least a little nervous. Even if it momentary. Yes, even the most outgoing and confident of people. So if you need help relaxing here are some tips to help you ease your nerves:
- Picture the other person naked. Okay no – please don’t do that! But thinking of something random could help ease the nerves. Heck, picture them in drag – if you want!
- Take five deep breaths (and count them down) – I do it all the time. It simple. It works.
- Ask for an opinion or make an observation. For e.g: Such a gorgeous day isn’t it? Let them respond and take control.
Give others a chance to talk about themselves
Most people aren’t braggers and most aren’t comfortable speaking about themselves. This is especially true if they do not have a relationship with you. So make it your responsibility to help them open up. You can do this by asking neutral non-invasive questions that need little effort.
Two approaches here: You could use simple questions, for e.g “Have you watched Breaking Bad yet?” or “Where did you go on your last holiday?” The alternative is asking thoughtful questions that need more elaboration. For e.g “What was your most memorable vacation?” Either option helps put the spotlight on the other person.
Stop one-way conversations
Hate talking to someone who doesn’t know how to carry a conversation? Try talking to someone who thinks they do! I, for one, have been on the receiving end of these one-way conversations. It’s awkward! I am always looking for an exit.
How do you know if you are a one-way conversationalist? Ask yourself this – is the other person nodding and smiling a lot? If yes, you can be sure it’s time to shut up. So if you happen to be the one-way talker stop and ask the other person for input. Ask a follow-up question once they respond. It helps to balance things out.
Don’t fill the dead air with “Ummm”
Not everyone has a silver tongue. But this isn’t a licence to use “umm” and “ahh” for every other word. Academics have a term for this: it’s called ‘disfluencies’ or crutch words. The more crutch words we use the more we dilute our message and the less credible we get.
I’d like to say that it’s easy to get over this bad habit, but in reality, it can be a difficult skill to master (we know this). Here are a couple of suggestions:
- Get comfortable with pausing in your conversation. It is okay to be silent while you think. But make sure the pause is under 5 seconds though. Great speakers use between 2 to 4-second pauses.
- Want a longer-term solution? Then you need to plan your behaviour out. Check out how I used the science of Habit Change
- Another trick – Every time you catch yourself saying “umm,” pinch your hand. Once you’ve become aware of your crutch words, begin forcing yourself to go silent.
Use open questions to encourage others to talk
Open-ended questions are ideal for encouraging others to talk. They are questions that don’t need specific answers. Using them gets you more than a one-word response.
The great thing about using open-ended questions is that it can help you get to know the other person better. It helps you encourage them to share information about themselves. They’re also good questions to ask when you want to encourage someone to talk more about a specific subject.
Open-ended questions can also make you more memorable. The reason for this? They allow you to appear interested in what your conversation partner has to say. So how do you ask open-ended questions – you are safe using “What” and “How”.
Here are a couple of examples and substitutes I use:
- Instead of “Does that work for you” I use “What did you think about that?”
- Instead of “Do you think you would use this?” I use “How would this fit into your work?”
Don’t be overbearing
This relates to point 3. You may be a skilled conversationalist, but you risk alienating people when you talk too much. I know no one that enjoys being captive to someone else’s monologue.
Like I said before, the best way to deal with this is to take the focus off yourself and put it on the other person. And if you can make a joke, that helps, too. It’s fine to share your opinions but talk about other people’s stories and interests, too. Do not dominate.
Kill the negativity
We all know at least one person that can find something negative to say about anything.
If you happen to slant to the negative, listen for audience cues to help you to stop. If you find yourself in conversation with someone that is negative – feel free to call them out on it. For example, if you are listening to someone ripping into a tv show – interject and say – “Now tell me what you liked about it?”
Become a better listener
Do you find yourself asking questions but not listening to the answers? If you answered yes, then that’s a cue that you can work on your listening skills. Listening skills are an important and often forgotten part of a strong social skill set. When you’re a good listener, you’ll have better conversations and better relationships. It helps when you make others feel like they’re “being heard”. It builds trust and respect. Remember listening isn’t about waiting till it’s your turn to speak.
Listening helps you to understand what others are feeling and how they view the world. You can learn from them. I would argue this is the first and most crucial step in effective communication. When you do it right, you’re communicating that you’re interested. You show them that you are open to what they are saying.
Ask better questions
We all understand how to ask questions. But asking great questions is a skill. The only way you get better is through constant practice. A top salesperson’s life, for example, depends upon the quality of their questions. If you are serious about getting better then make this a priority.
So how can you get better?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Make the responder feel valued. Your questions need to give them confidence that their response is of value to you. This requires preparation.
- Ask questions that inspire. If the other person isn’t stopping to think or pausing to consider then it’s not a great question.
- Change the “Why” to a “What” – I try this at home with the kids: Instead of “Why didn’t you finish your writing?” I say “What will help you finish your writing?” This gets them more engaged.
Lighten up – don’t take yourself too seriously
You have definitely been in conversations where debates have turned heated. The usual culprits seem to be – Politics or Sports. Differences of opinion lead to verbal shouting matches. Throw alcohol in the mix and you have a conversation spoiler.
So, if you find yourself being too serious during a conversation know that it can be a big turnoff. Also, if you notice someone get too serious, feel free to bring them down a notch. There are several ways to do this, but none better than to make them laugh. After all, laughter is the best medicine. Humour can cut through the silliness and can lighten the mood. If that doesn’t work then change the topic.
Having better conversations will always require continued practice and experimentation. So I’ll end with these quick reminders:
1. Continue to ask for feedback
2. Don’t be afraid to ask your family and friends for help
3. Keep practicing and trying new conversational approaches
Let me know in the comments which point resonated most with you and why.