It’s an art form, conversation. A good one gets your pulse racing, the ideas flowing and a lovely fizz happening between you and the person you’re speaking with. A bad one, ugh. It sends you plunging. It’s boring. It lacks equilibrium and is unsatisfying.
I got to thinking about good conversations and how to have them recently when I conducted my first interview in more than six months (with Sara Triefenbrun, the head of the School of Life in Australia, where one of the courses is indeed “How to have better conversations”. That interview is for another post, however!). I realised that my style needed a bit of brushing up.
As a journalist, speaking with people in a way that puts them at ease and encourages them to reveal a part of themselves is an integral part of my job. I have learned, over the years, to be able to communicate comfortably with people in whatever form suits them best: in person, on the phone or Skype, via instant messenger or email. I learned the latter point much earlier from my parents: Mum is a devoted emailer and hates the phone. Dad, on the other hand, is a devoted phone person, though in truth he loves a good email too. When living overseas (and even to this day) I communicated with them according to what they preferred and, despite the distance, we had very fulfilling discussions.
Listening back over my tape with Sara, I was reminded of a few tips I was given at journalism school about how to have a good interview, and other bits of wisdom I’ve gleaned over the years, through observation mainly. It’s a good thing, sometimes, to hear yourself having a conversation, though confronting. I certainly breached a few of my own guidelines, resulting in several cringes as I listened back. “Stop interrupting!” I felt like shouting at myself. “Leave a pause!” Well, there’s always room for improvement and, being a chatterbox I know there will be many more opportunities to hone my skills.
13 WAYS TO BECOME A BETTER CONVERSATIONALIST
1. Listen, listen, listen. There’s nothing worse in a conversation than not being listened to. It’s fundamental. I try to remember that I can always learn something from the person I am speaking to – no matter who they are or what they do.
2. Be prepared to learn something and ask questions. Then listen to the answers properly. People love being asked about themselves and, I always think, are generally more interesting than me (though sometimes not, if I’m honest. But I only learn that by asking questions!).
3. Don’t just sit there waiting for your turn to speak. Reflect properly on what the other person has said before you jump in with what you’re going to say. Otherwise it becomes evident that you haven’t really listened and makes the conversation little more than two monologues running side by side. How boring! Not satisfying for anyone.
4. Be careful about interrupting, but don’t rule it out. I come from a big family of interrupters and cries of “let me finish!” and “don’t interrupt!” abound, which can be a bit aggravating. But a well-timed interruption can actually enrich a conversation. It’s generally good policy to start by saying “Sorry to interrupt you, but…”. That really makes you think about whether your point is worthy of an interruption.
5. Allow pauses. This I struggle with. I tend to be one of those people who gets anxious with a big silence, and leaps to fill it because, I think, it makes the other person feel more comfortable. In actual fact, people need time to think about what they’re going to say, and often if you leave it for them to fill the space something really interesting will come out…
6. … But too much silence is not so good. As a counterpoint to number 5, if you’re less talkative or perhaps a bit shy, that’s fine, but be aware of the impact it can have on the person you’re speaking with. It’s give and take, remember.
8. Do something else while you’re talking. Doing something other than sitting opposite one another, eyeball to eyeball, can bring people out of their shells. Walking side by side, washing the dishes together or driving in the car are good ones, particularly for serious or awkward conversations.
9. There’s no such thing as a silly question. This is a good one I learned when studying journalism. Often people are too afraid to ask a really obvious question for fear of looking stupid. But if you don’t understand something, it can distract you from the rest of what the person is saying. Best to interject and get it clear. Nine times out of 10 you’re doing other people a favour, too.
10. Watch your tangents – they can become verbal diarrhea. A certain, very dear, older lady in my life has a terrible habit of going off on long-winded tangents, often about people I don’t know and will never meet. After 10 minutes I can find I’ve forgotten what we were talking about in the first place, and am drifting off because she is rattling on. Ask yourself: “Is there a point to what I’m saying or is this verbal diarrhea?”
11. Dabs, not slabs. If there’s one thing I can’t stand in conversation, it’s a drone. You know the type – the person who can’t do bullet points and talks ad nauseum about something that is, invariably, not as interesting to you as it is to them. A good tip is to monitor the time: if you’ve spoken non-stop for five minutes, ask yourself if it’s time for a pause. You don’t want to be a drone.
12. Do a bit of analysis on your style. Are you animated at all, or so much so you overwhelm people? Would you put yourself to sleep? Do you give as much as you take in a conversation? And how is your energy – is it positive, neutral or negative? A conversation with you could be the best, or worst, part of someone’s day.
13. Do some research and reading. If you want to be really proactive, sometimes it can be a good idea to read up on a person or a topic so that you can have confidence contributing to an anticipated conversation. If you know you’ll be meeting someone particular at an event, research them or what they are interested in so that you can have a meaningful and informed discussion. Or if you’re attending something where you’ll know no one, perhaps scan news and current affairs for some interesting material to use as triggers for conversation.
If you’re really brave you could ask a loved-one what kind of conversationalist you make, and even to let you know when you are displaying your bad habits. Be warned though: if you don’t like the answer this could lead to a heated conversation! Ah, perhaps I need to do a post about “How to have a good argument”…
(Written by Julia)
*Image courtesy of Art of Conversation.