How to be a Good Conversationalist

Here at The Conversationalist, we’re obsessed with the art of conversation. We believe in the power of dialogue to bring people together and connect humans in a deeper way. We know that everyone, introverts and extroverts alike, derives joy and meaning from exchanging ideas and words with other people.

But the way we communicate has changed. If you look around a public place, you’ll notice most people looking not at each other, but at their phones. And if you listen in on people’s conversations — like we have a habit of doing — you’ll notice that conversations play out differently in real life than they do in a book or on TV. People talk over each other, they interrupt each other’s thoughts, they skip each other’s ideas.

In fact, most of us simply talk way too much. There’s a prevailing belief that chattiness equates to being a stellar conversationalist, but that’s far from true. The proliferation of personal soapboxes online — from Twitter to Facebook Newsfeed to personal blogs — makes the Internet feel like a monologue everyone wants to listen in on. But it’s evident that even the most loquacious among us could use a refresher on how to have better conversations.

Here are some of the ways anyone can become a good conversationalist. For those of us who dread idle conversation, who find small talk loathsome and awkward, these small tweaks can render small talk bearable, even enjoyable. Given that small talk is nearly impossible to avoid unless you’re a recluse, being a better conversationalist can reduce your anxiety and enhance your social experiences.

(1) Listen.

We put listen first because it’s the hardest, and perhaps the most crucial, way to become a better conversationalist. Listening, contrary to what you might have been told, is not the opposite of talking. In fact, listening and talking equally are the qualities that make good conversation. It’s important not only to talk and move the conversation forward, but also to really listen and integrate what the other person has to say. Give them space to talk, and take the time to appreciate what they have to say. The more attentively you listen, the better you can understand what that person means and respond incisively instead of merely talking over them.

(2) Be present.

Be present in the moment. Don’t look at your phone, or your watch, or dwell on that sour interaction you had with a coworker. Instead, focus entirely on the conversation and the person you’re listening to. Be in the moment with them. Take the time to give thoughtful responses and ask questions they’ll want to respond to. Don’t talk over them and push your own agenda; give them equal space to talk and contribute to the conversation.

(3) Embrace silence.

Even the most extroverted people shouldn’t feel they have to fill silent spaces with chatter. In fact, silence is often as meaningful as talking. When there’s silence, you can appreciate and assimilate what others are saying, and take time to formulate a considered response. Silence is uncomfortable at first, but with practice, you will become accustomed to it and wield it to enhance your conversation skills. Remember: silence is only awkward if you perceive it as such.

(4) Take genuine interest.

Often, when we talk to people, we are more interested in getting our own words out than listening to what that person has to say. We are eager to jump in and offer our opinion, or talk about ourselves. But what that shows is a lack of genuine interest in the other person. Instead, we need to think: who is this person we’re talking to? What motivates them? What’s important to them? What are they trying to convey to us? Being genuinely interested in someone is essential to being a good conversationalist. We connect to people’s stories, to their motivations: that’s what we remember about people in the next conversation.

(5) Ask better questions.

Asking questions is an art in itself. After all, questions drive conversations forward, introduce new topics, and display genuine interested in what others have to say (see #4). The key to good questions is asking questions that are open-ended and will elicit a response that’ll enrich the discussion. Don’t ask questions that prompt a yes or no answer. Those are an instant conversation killer. The trick is for your questions to be purposeful, to hit below the surface. You want your questions to encourage critical thought — not so you’ll put your conversation partner on the spot, but so that your conversation will blow open in an interesting way.

(6) Deepen the conversation.

That brings us to the next way to have better conversations: don’t be afraid to deepen your conversations. This means shifting from small talk to medium and large talk. Deepening the conversation starts with asking open-ended questions — but it ends with pushing the conversation into more profound, and more real, terrain.

For example, you might ask someone what they do for work. Then, you might follow the question by asking why they chose that profession, followed by asking what they aspire for their career over the long term. Or you might ask someone if they’re from here originally, and if they answer no, you might ask what their hometown is like, and if they would ever move back there or what the biggest differences are.

(7) Read widely.

Good conversationalists can talk about a wide swath of topics. They have diverse knowledge that allows them to speak confidently and keep up with a variety of discussions. One of the best ways to expand your knowledge base is to read widely. And we’re not just talking about nonfiction here: according to research published in Science Magazine, literary fiction can make you more empathetic, which will make you better able to take genuine interest (#4) and deepen the conversation (#6). The research posits that literary fiction enhances readers’ abilities to “comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s own beliefs and desires.” Reading also improves your vocabulary, which is certain to make you a better conversationalist.

(8) Discuss, don’t debate.

A conversation is not a debate and it’s not an argument. Life coach Celestine Chua, in a piece for Lifehack, describes a situation a lot of people can relate to: a conversation with a combative person. This person harped on several nuances of their conversation and demanded Chua defend them. This quickly devolved into a full-blown argument, and the conversation ended on a sour note.

A conversation is not a battleground to pit one’s stance against another’s. It’s certainly not a political debate. It’s fine to chat and explore ideas amiably, but arguments are draining and unenjoyable. They’re the opposite of what a good conversation should be.

(9) Cultivate a diverse circle.

A great way to become more compassionate is to surround yourself with people who are different than you. Like reading widely, exposing yourself to diverse people is a great way to become more empathetic and relate better to others. Surround yourself with people from different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, national, educational, and professional backgrounds. The more different from you the better.

Do you have any other conversation tips? Let us know in the comments!

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