Can you improve your conversation skills? Certainly.
To not make this article longer than necessary let’s just skip right to some common mistakes many of us have made in conversations and a couple of solutions.
Ernest Hemingway once said:
“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
Don’t be like most people. Don’t just wait eagerly for your turn to talk. Put your own ego on hold. Learn to really listen to what people actually are saying.
When you start to really listen, you’ll pick up on loads of potential paths in the conversation. But avoid yes or no type of questions as they will not give you much information. If someone mentions that they went fishing with a couple of friends last weekend you can for instance ask:
Where did you go fishing?
What do you like most about fishing?
What did you do there besides fishing?
The person will delve deeper into the subject giving you more information to work with and more paths for you choose from.
If they say something like: “Oh, I don’t know” at first, don’t give up. Prod a little further. Ask again. They do know, they just have to think about a bit more. And as they start to open up the conversation becomes more interesting because it’s not on auto-pilot anymore.
Asking too many questions
If you ask too many questions the conversation can feel like a bit of an interrogation. Or like you don’t have that much to contribute. One alternative is to mix questions with statements. Continuing the conversation above you could skip the question and say:
Yeah, it’s great to just get out with your friends and relax over the weekend. We like to take a six-pack out to the park and play some golf.
Nice. We went out in my friend’s boat last month and I tried these new lures from Alaba. The blue ones were really great.
And then the conversation can flow on from there. And you can discuss golf, the advantages/disadvantages of different lures or your favorite beer.
When in conversation with someone you just meet or when the usual few topics are exhausted an awkward silence or mood might appear. Or you might just become nervous not knowing exactly why.
Dr Ben Ogah once said: “Never leave home without reading the newspaper”. If you’re running out of things to say, you can always start talking about the current news. It’s also good to stay updated on current water cooler-topics. Like what happened on the latest episode of Prison Break.
Comment on the aquarium at the party, or that one girl’s cool Halloween-costume or the host’s mp3-playlist. You can always start new conversations about something in your surroundings.
Assume rapport. If you feel nervous or weird when meeting someone for the first time assume rapport. What that means is that you imagine how you feel when you meet one of your best friends. And pretend that this new acquaintance is one of your best friends. Don’t overdo it though, you might not want to hug and kiss right away. But if you imagine this you’ll go into a positive emotional state. And you’ll greet and start talking to this new person with a smile and a friendly and relaxed attitude. Because that’s how you talk to your friends. It might sound a bit loopy or too simple. But it really works.
One of the most important things in a conversation is not what you say, but how you say it. A change in these habits can make a big difference since your voice and body language is a vital part of communication. Some things to think about:
Slowing down. When you get excited about something it’s easy to start talking faster and faster. Try and slow down. It will make it much easier for people to listen and for you actually get what you are saying across to them.
Speaking up. Don’t be afraid to talk as loud as you need to for people to hear you.
Speaking clearly. Don’t mumble.
Speak with emotion. No one listens for that long if you speak with a monotone voice. Let your feelings be reflected in your voice.
Using pauses. Slowing down your talking plus adding a small pause between thoughts or sentences creates a bit of tension and anticipation. People will start to listen more attentively to what you’re saying.
Learn a bit about improving your body language as it can make your delivery a lot more effective.
Hogging the spot-light
I’ve been guilty of this one on more occasions than I wish to remember. Everyone involved in a conversation should get their time in the spotlight. Don’t interrupt someone when they are telling some anecdote or their view on what you are discussing to divert the attention back to yourself. Don’t hijack their story about skiing before it’s finished to share your best skiing-anecdote. Find a balance between listening and talking.
Having to be right
Avoid arguing and having to being right about every topic. Often a conversation is not really a discussion. It’s a more of a way to keep a good mood going. No one will be that impressed if you “win” every conversation. Instead just sit back, relax and help keep the good feelings going.
Talking about a weird or negative topic
If you’re at a party or somewhere were you are just getting to know some people you might want to avoid some topics. Talking about your bad health or relationships, your crappy job or boss, serial killers, technical lingo that only you and some other guy understands or anything that sucks the positive energy out of the conversation are topics to steer clear from. You might also want to save religion and politics for conversations with your friends.
Don’t prattle on about your new car for 10 minutes oblivious to your surroundings. Always be prepared to drop a subject when you start to bore people. Or when everyone is getting bored and the topic is starting to run out of steam.
One good way to have something interesting to say is simply to lead an interesting life. And to focus on the positive stuff. Don’t start to whine about your boss or your job, people don’t want to hear that. Instead, talk about your last trip somewhere, some funny anecdote that happened while you where buying clothes, your plans for New Years Eve or something funny or exciting.
Another way is just to be genuinely interested:
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you. Which is just another way of saying that the way to make a friend is to be one.”
Knowing a little about many things or at least being open to talk about them instead of trying to steer the conversation back to your favorite subject is a nice quality.
Meaning: talking for what seems like hours about one topic. Topics may include work, favorite rock-band, TV-show and more work.
Opening up a bit and not clinging desperately to one topic will make the conversation feel more relaxed and open. You will come across like a person who can talk about many things with ease. As you’ve probably experienced with other people; this quality is something you appreciate in a conversation and makes you feel like you can connect to that person easily.
Open up and say what you think, share how you feel. If someone shares an experience, open up too and share one of your experiences. Don’t just stand there nodding and answer with short sentences. If someone is investing in the conversation they’d like you to invest too.
Like in so many areas in life, you can’t always wait for the other party to make the first move. When needed, be proactive and be the first one to open up and invest in the conversation. One way is by replacing some questions with statements. It makes you less passive and makes take a sort of stand.
Not contributing much
You might feel that you don’t have much to contribute to a conversation. But try anyway. Really listen and be interested in what the others are saying. Ask questions. Make relating statements.
Open your eyes too. Develop your observational skills to pick up interesting stuff in your surroundings to talk about. Develop your personal knowledge-bank by expanding your view of interesting things in the world. Read the newspapers and keep an eye on new water cooler-topics.
Work on your body language, how you talk and try assuming rapport to improve your communication skills.
But take it easy. Don’t do it all at once. You’ll just feel confused and overwhelmed. Instead, pick out the three most important things that you feel needs improving. Work on them every day for 3-4 weeks. Notice the difference and keep at it. Soon your new habits will start to pop up spontaneously when you are in a conversation.