Conversation – Ten Tips For Improving Your Conversation Skills

Most people are remarkably inept at making conversation. They rely on others to spark the talk, and stimulating verbal exchanges are few and far between. For these folks, a good conversation is an accident, a rare event that takes place when both parties happen to have something in common (their children’s baseball team) and enough food available to fill in any gaps.

You need not rely on chance, however, in order to have interesting conversations. If you apply some simple principles, you will consistently communicate well with others. Here are ten tips for improving the likelihood of entering into a satisfying discussion:

Conversation tip #1: Ask questions

Too many people find themselves bored at parties because they consider nearly everything to be private. If you think that all questions are too personal to ask, you are headed for some tough times at social gatherings. Good conversation is about exchanging questions and answers that lead two individuals to know each other better.

Conversation tip #2: Show interest in the other person

If you don’t care about knowing the person, then at least fake some interest. Insincerity is hard to mask, though, and the other person will make no effort to bridge the gap if your lack of desire is apparent.

Conversation tip #3: Focus on the other person

Most people love talking about themselves, and it usually takes little persuasion to get them to do so. Years ago, as an officer in the Navy, I stood long watches with enlisted men. We had little in common by background or education, but I decided that I would try to learn as much as possible from the sailors accompanying me. To my great satisfaction, I found that each one had a special interest that he was eager to share. I learned about girlfriends, auto mechanics, motorcycles, tattoos, model trains, venereal diseases, fishing, hunting, photography, regional food, and myriad other subjects just by showing interest in their lives.

Conversation tip #4: Listen more than you talk

In nearly every social situation, I try to talk less than half the time. If you want a true dialogue that advances the relationship, however, a 50-50 balance is best.

Conversation tip #5: Be positive about the other person’s life

As you listen, try to put the best construction on everything said. If something negative has happened in the other person’s life, make positive statements about the difficulty of such times and do your best to commiserate. If something good has happened, give a compliment.

Conversation tip #6: Be aware of the depth of your questions

It’s fine to start a conversation with “How’s it going?” or “How’ve you been?”, but such warm-up questions don’t convey much genuine curiosity about the person’s life. More specific questions, like “What did you do today?” or “What trips have you planned for this year?”, go further toward engaging your companion in a meaningful dialogue.

Conversation tip #7: Make eye contact

Once, when I was in San Francisco, I took a date to a restaurant and courteously offered her a seat against the wall. I sat on the other side of the table and could see only her, and that would have been fine had she made eye contact with me. Unfortunately, she spent the entire meal gazing past me at people coming and going, and I felt like a sideshow of her evening. Needless to say, I did not call her again.

Conversation tip #8: Don’t brag

It’s rude to use others to feed your own ego, and doing so rarely contributes to meaningful social intercourse. A little humility goes a long way, but it must be genuine to be effective. I know a man who asks seemingly innocuous questions in a humble tone until he ascertains how much the others know about a topic, and then he hammers them with information he’s gathered for the occasion. I don’t think he has many friends.

Conversation tip #9: Avoid directly contradicting the other person

If you use tactful language, you can make your points without putting the other person down. A subtle version of this comes in the form of one-upmanship. I frequently hear one person say something like “The team played really well,” and the person responding one-ups the statement with “They played great!” If the first speaker had said that the team played great, the second would have replied that they played fabulously. Many people refuse to give validity to another person’s opinion. A more appropriate answer might be, “I agree. They sure did.”

Conversation tip #10: Bring energy to the conversation

I purposely left this point for last, because it’s the most important one. You can fail to put into practice one or several of the suggestions made above, but if you bring energy to the table, things will go fine. I have some friends who are lazy in this regard. They are contented with my company as long as I am the one making all the effort. If I become quiet, however, they make no move to fill the void, and unless I step up again, the conversation dies.

Doing these things will not always get a conversation off the ground. Some people bring so little energy to the encounter that no strategy will save the moment. Generally, though, if you pay attention to the points made above, you’ll find yourself more engaged with people at social gatherings, and you’ll nearly always leave knowing more than you did when you arrived.

See also: Networking Tips – Nineteen Tips For Networking More Effectively

8 comments… add one

  • Andrea September 2, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    I loved the commentary.  I feel I can really take a lot away from it. They are all wonderful tips, I wish my dad had given me a few pointers in this respect, somehow I’d never thought much about the nuances of such a simple thing as conversation, and how they can change your experience for the best!  Thank you.

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  • Jackie June 21, 2011 at 3:55 am

    This is great and I particularly like #9. It can be a real conversation stopper when someone disagrees with what you have said. Some conversations are about that and benefit from more than one point of view- but most social ones are not. It shows strength to accept -in a non-committal way – and can really throw someone with a “one-upmanship” approach !

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  • Justin Mazza February 23, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    Hi Doug,
    Great ideas for improving conversation skills. I find that when I make the conversation about the other person that I have a new buddy in no time.

    There are those folks who have no convo skills at all and it can feel like work just trying to have a dialogue with them.
    Justin Mazza recently posted..Heal the World by Living Your DreamMy Profile

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  • Doug Eikermann February 23, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    So true! When you are the one putting forth all the effort, the conversation indeed becomes work. Thanks, Justin, for reading the piece and for commenting!

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  • rahul March 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    It can be a real conversation stopper when someone disagrees with what you have said. Some conversations are about that and benefit from more than one point of view- but most social ones are not.

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  • Doug Eikermann March 31, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    That is indeed correct. Most conversations are not about taking in various points of view and using them to arrive at a reasoned conclusion. Most folks simply talk about themselves and hope for validation of their views from the other person. People trade stories: “I’ll nod my agreement to your tale if you’ll nod your agreement as I tell mine.” That way everyone stays happy, but no one learns much in the process. In social settings it’s probably OK, though, as long as the story telling is not too one-sided.

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  • Faylinn August 25, 2016 at 11:49 am

    Growing up, I really struggled when it came to my social skills. Even as an adult, I really have to work at showing interest in other people and focusing on them. It’s not that I’m selfish, but more so that I really want to get away from people. However, I have started to work on this by making sure that I ask a question about the other person in every conversation that I have.

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  • duende44 June 22, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Thanks for reading the article and for your comment, Jackie. As you mention in your article, people often become so focused on their own lives that they miss doing the little things that bring conversation to life. Communication is a two-way street.

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