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.