9 Tips to Improve Your Conversation Skills

“In the best conversations, you don’t even remember what you talked about, only how it felt. It felt like we were in some place your body can’t visit, some place with no ceiling and no walls and no floor and no instruments” ― John Green

Talking to other people comes relatively easy for most of us. We open our mouths and words just come out, sometimes faster than we can think. But is what we say effective? Do people listen when we speak or do they tend to tune us out?

Is what we say interesting to people or are we just spewing mindless drivel into the ears of those who are unfortunate enough to be within earshot? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to be a more effective communicator and conversationalist, improve your interpersonal communication skills or just become more adept at communicating simply. The type of person people are drawn to at functions and gatherings.

There are some simple rules you can learn and incorporate into the way you communicate. These steps will make a huge difference to how you are interacted with and how effective you can be.

The Talking Chimp

Humans, like the other 4 great apes, are social animals; we’re hardwired to be communal, which is why gatherings of all types are so popular. Whether it’s at a pub, a work function, at clubs or just chilling with friends, we like to be around other people, we crave company. Even when we go out to dinner with someone special, we would rather have a quiet space in a crowded restaurant than a restaurant all to ourselves.

During the Covid-19 pandemic restaurants would fill seats with mannequins (or blow-up dolls) so that social distancing guidelines could be adhered to without patrons feeling like there were too few people.

A consequence of being around people so much is that we use many types of communication skills, of which verbal plays a small but significant part. Most of the time we use speech as a type of social lubricant or to communicate mundane things. In our ever more busy lives and crowded spaces, we seem to forget the importance of communication skills in life. We become to hurried or lazy and take lazy shortcuts in the way we communicate. Gone are the days of “how do you do?” and “lovely to see you again”, greetings that were common place just a couple of decades ago.

Instead, greetings these days are more hurried and less sincere. We make far less eye contact as we hurry into the office, managing to grunt out a “hey” with a fake smile and little to no eye contact. This counts against us in both business and personal relationships (feel free to visit 14 Steps to Acquire a Partner for more of a drill down into how to talk to women).

The Art of Conversation

Speech itself is a very powerful tool. It’s used to convey emotions, thoughts and ideas. Although it is easy to underestimate the power of speech, we have literally built our entire civilisation on the ability to communicate successfully with one another so, the importance of communication skills in life cannot be emphasised enough.

The tone and cadence of our dialog can also be effective in getting people to pay closer attention when speaking or presenting. “It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it” is a line I was on the receiving end of on more than a few occasions while growing up.

Most people think they can hold a moderately decent conversation, but most would be wrong. There is a vast difference in merely being able to speak words and being an effective communicator. In fact, the youth of today have such poor communication styles and grasp of the English vocabulary that it causes me physical pain to hear.

Your tonality, speed, volume and pitch of speech also make a huge difference in how people perceive you. In his TED talk How to speak so that people want to listen Julian Treasure explains the hidden power we all have in our voices and how to use it.

That Person at a Function

We’ve all met that person, at a party or function, who never shuts up about themselves and who everybody tries to avoid. He/she goes on and on about their favourite subject (themselves) until it’s about all you can do not to slap them. Not only do they believe they are spectacular communicators, but they also believe that everything they say is interesting, because what they are talking about is interesting to them. This is what’s referred to as “failure to grasp theory of mind” and it is alarmingly more common than you might think.

The speaker seems to have little or no concept that others may perceive them differently to the way they perceive themselves. They fail to grasp that others may have an alternate opinion on the subject matter or that they may have dissimilar interests than they do.

Conversely, most of us have had the experience of attending a function where a person we’re introduced to seems to be the warmest, most enjoyable individual to chat with and we leave the experience feeling great about ourselves and the time invested with them..

We even go on to tell others how charming and intelligent they were and how fortunate we were to have had an audience with them.

Typically, in these cases, we’re not even sure exactly what it was about the person that made speaking to them so pleasurable. Nothing stands out, we just feel at ease in their presence and comfortable opening up to them.

However, if you were able to record and analyse the conversation, you would recognise a set of rules this person was following, a type of structure to their interaction with us which they have perfected.

The 9 Tips

1. Silence

Most of us think we’re extremely interesting and we assume that others would find us just as exciting, if we only had the chance to share with them all about ourselves.

But we are all very different people, with hugely diverse interests, and assuming that someone we’ve just met is going to be as interested in the same stuff we are, is like playing them our favourite song they’ve never heard. It’s just noise and words to them no matter how deep and meaningful it may be to us.

If you want to be perceived as a great conversationalist, the way to start is by talking about the other person’s favourite subject – Them!

You tactfully ask them about their lives and their interests and then you shut-up, and listen.

Resist, at all costs, to come back with your interests and take over the conversation. This is not an easy thing to refrain from doing, bite your tongue if you have to, but don’t take over the conversation.

Even if the other person asks us a question, be honest and open but, keep your answers brief (without seeming aloof) and try uncover more about the other person, subtly. You don’t want to make it seem like an interrogation.

Questions like, “You said you’re down from Manchester, that’s pretty cool, have you lived there all of your life?” then allow them space to answer. All you have to do is keep encouraging them to elaborate more and they will do so gladly.

If they only have short abrupt answers, by all means fill in with a short anecdote of your own to get them to laugh but then pass the ball back, always pass the ball back.

2. Show Genuine Interest

The person needs to feel that you are interested in them and what they are saying otherwise they may become self-conscious and begin to clam up.  Turning the corners of your mouth down while raising your eyebrows and slowly nodding just doesn’t cut the mustard.

The technique required here is called “active listening” and it is accomplished in a few ways. The two most effective of these are by remembering and using their names and by asking questions pertaining to what the person has just said, or a question that encourages them to tell you more.

If you get nervous that the conversation flow is coming to a dead end, then there is a phrase you can use to get them talking again while keeping communication simple: “..tell me more about that..”

You might touch on something they brought up earlier in the conversation that was brushed over. You casually mention the item again and follow it up with, “tell me more about that..”

Be mindful not to bring up things that may be painful to them (you may find this statement obvious/redundant but there are millions of people with disorders like Asperger’s who find it difficult to distinguish between subject matter that is appropriate for conversation and which is not)’

A couple good examples of what to say are:

“Hey, you mentioned earlier that you’re in engineering, that’s gotta be interesting, tell me more about that, what type of engineering are you into?”

“so, Tony, you said you’re looking to buy a boat, wow, you must really know your way around the water, tell me more about that, did you grow up around boats?”

Some examples of what not to say are:

“Hey Roger, you mentioned your mother recently died in a car accident, did she die right away or did it take a while?”

Or

“So, Tony, I see you’re wearing a wig, when did you start going bald?”

3. Never Interrupt

One of the most important things you need to internalise on criteria for effective communication is never interrupt. If you’re the type of person who feels like jumping in mid-sentence and telling the person speaking about a similar thing that happened to you, then you’re not alone, but do your very best to curb your enthusiasm for your own life and stories when listening to others.

All interrupting achieves is to cause the person speaking to feel unappreciated. No matter how similar an experience you’ve had or how much worse your misfortune was, the other person won’t care because you cut them off.

If all you are doing is sitting with baited breath waiting for your interlocutor to finish what they’re saying so that you can finally get your turn, then you aren’t really listening, and they will see it.

Once the person has finished telling their story, you ask them something additional about their experience to show you are truly interested. If you then would like to tell a relatable story, do so, but only if your tale doesn’t outshine theirs.

“It’s actually so funny you say that, I had a similar experience driving to work one day when ….”, Is a good way to share your related story.

“Christ, you think THAT’S bad, I was going twice as fast along the same road and…” is going to diminish what the person has just shared and reveal you to be a prat who lacks tact and empathy.

4. Never Speak Ill of Anyone

Sometimes during conversations, a person might begin chatting about someone that you have strong emotions about. The correct thing to do here is to turn your emotions off and put a pleasant spin on your answer. For example, if you are posed a question like, “I was sorry to hear of your break-up, I hope you’re okay?”

Responding , “Yea fuck her, she was Such a slut anyway, I hope she catches something.” will reveal a great deal more about your character than your ex’s and it will garner more sympathy for your ex than it will you, no matter how accurate your statement might be.

In such a case, one might lean more towards an answer like, “Yes, thank you for asking. You know, these things happen, the important thing is that we’re both happier now after the split. Some things just aren’t meant to be”

Even if the person asking the question knows that your ex was tag-teaming half the men in town for sandwiches and raspberry cola, your restraint around the details (and your personal feelings) will cause you to be elevated in the eyes of the conversation partner. And they will surely share how impressed they were with your measured response later when recounting your conversation.

5. Never Argue

The ability to avoid conflict in a conversation may be one of the most difficult skills to master and implement, but it is almost certainly one of the most valuable.

The world is a stressful place, made more so when we argue with each other as a means of solving a difference of opinions. We need to find ways of Managing That Stress, not escalating it.

The need to be right or urge to change someone’s mind is such a primal desire for most of us. It’s only once you pause and break down the encounter that you see how utterly futile and unnecessary arguing really is.

Remember to always respect and never to criticise.

It’s useful, in this case, not to use an actual example, because whichever one I use, you will likely choose a side and contaminate the illustration with your own biases.

Imagine you’re conversing with someone prickly and they say something you strongly disagree with. Your initial urge is to immediately begin talking over them to tell them why they’re wrong and you’re right.

But to what end? The goal here is to leave the interaction and have the other person feel that you are an intelligent, mature and measured person (a deduction they will no doubt share with others). Even if you win the argument, their recollection of you, to themselves and others, for years to come, will be of a rude know-it-all bully who has a hot temper (plus whatever else they embellish with to ensure you are seen to be the asshole).

Keep an open mind and be willing to have it changed. Most of what you believe about yourself, others and the world in general came from having your mind changed from a previous state. This might be another one of those times. I love having my mind changed. I don’t want to go through life for a second longer than I have to believing something that is false, so I am always open to having my mind changed and to growing as a person.

Listen to the other person’s point of view, no matter how ridiculous (I know it’s difficult), then begin your side (in a very calm and gentle tone) with, “in my opinion…” or, “how it appears to me…” and then gently offer your side. 9 times out of 10 they won’t agree and that’s fine.

Try to find common ground and things might end there. If you arrive at an impasse, you can repeat their belief/view on the subject, so they appreciate you understand them and end the sentence with, “I just can’t get there in my head, I’m not sure what it is about my brain or the way I think, I’m sorry, we’re gonna have to agree to disagree this time, but you really made me think..” and then laugh.

The person will also laugh and drop it because they won’t feel like they lost the argument. They may poke fun at you to someone else about your stance later to assert dominance, laugh and let it go. You’re playing the long game. Your strength is in your ability to keep your cool and not be moved by someone else. You are an actor playing a part, that’s all.

6. Focus on the Positives

What people seek-out most in life is freedom from concern. People will go to some extreme lengths in an attempt to achieve this. They surround themselves with lots of people, they binge watch TV shows, they drink, have lots of sexual partners, take drugs, all sorts of things, and all in the name of seeking freedom from concern.

People certainly don’t want to hear or have to contend with your worries in addition to their own.

Lou Holtz once famously said, “Never tell your problems to anyone…20% don’t care and the other 80% are glad you have them.”

If you want to be valuable in an interaction, you must appear to be free from YOUR worries. People subconsciously allow themselves to live vicariously through others. That’s why movies like James Bond and John Wick are so popular, because the characters are totally in control of every situation they find themselves in.

People you’ve just met don’t really care about your feelings; they may think they do, but they really don’t. So, don’t burden them with your issues unless they ask you about something they have learnt about you, in which case you answer fully but with an optimistic slant.

Always seem positive about the future / potential outcomes of your problems or the world’s challenges in general. People post memes and stories about doom and gloom and it spreads like wildfire, but think about your opinions of a person who you’ve just received something negative from. Notice how weak and afraid they appear to you, how the panic and lack of control in their own lives degrades your opinions of them in your eyes.

7. Make the Other Person Feel Good

The saying “A person might not remember what you said but they will always remember how you made them feel”, is pretty accurate.

When a person feels good about themselves in your company, they will feel positive about you. No matter how impressed a person is by your achievements or exploits, not a single one of your tales will make them feel good about themselves, even if you make them laugh.

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that hearing about how wonderful you are might actually make the other person feel bad about themselves.

Here is another, less famous quote: “Whenever a friend succeeds a little something in me dies” – Gore Vidal.

Vidal, never at a loss for a more pessimistic slant on life, wrote this, no doubt exaggerating a feeling that is all too familiar to us.

When we get a new car, new job or new house, the first thing we want to do is show it off to our friends/peers. We are bursting with excitement when we tell them and we are sometimes confused when our enthusiasm isn’t reciprocated. We ask ourselves, why is this person not happy for me?

But it’s because your friends are envious of you, which is completely natural. It’s exactly the same in a conversation, you want to aim to place slightly below whomever you are chatting with. If they are uncouth and ask you how much money you make, your answer is whatever you surmise around 70% of their salary is.

8. Be Ready & Open to Share Your Own Thoughts and feelings

People are only going to feel like they’ve had a valuable interaction with you if they open up a little, and that won’t happen if you aren’t open with them.

Many years ago, when I worked for Samsung, my new director (Steve) was visiting my area from up-country, and I was tasked of driving him around to visit with my clients. He wasn’t very fond of me but I knew he was a really smart guy and I respected him a great deal. His wife had passed from an illness just a couple weeks before so I was trying to be extra kind to him. But he remained very short with me and offered abrupt 1-word answers to most of my questions.

One of our meetings was in a coffee shop with the owner of a large independent audio retail chain, and I remember thinking, if Steve is as abrupt with this owner as he has been with me, this meeting will go down like a lead balloon.

He was courteous when we met the owner and was actually quite chatty which was a relief. But then the owner of the chain said to him, “Steve, I was so sorry to hear about your wife’s passing the other day, how are you holding up..?”

I cringed…

It was a very personal question to be asked so soon after the event and I knew that my director, would likely give an abrupt answer as he had done with me the past couple days.

But to my amazement, he thanked the owner for asking and said, “You know, it was tough in the beginning, and then I thought I was okay, but this last week, I’ve really been struggling with it. Even though I knew it would happen, the loss is still so profound.”

I was completely taken back, not only had Steve answered his question, but the openness and vulnerability which he showed to this relative stranger was something I’ve never forgotten. Needless to say, the meeting was a resounding success and the owner of the audio chain sang Steve’s praises for years.

You don’t have to say very much in a conversation, but when called upon, ensure that you are open and sincere. It will open communication in a deeper, more meaningful way than you can imagine and garner instant trust and respect from the other person.

9. Ask Purposeful Questions

Ill-conceived questions about the weather or a person’s day show a lack of aptitude and depth in one’s ability to conduct a conversation. But questions about their recent colonoscopy may reach too deeply for a first encounter. Do your best to straddle the grey areas between these two extremes and try something related to your mutual friends or their chosen field.

You can often learn more about someone by the questions they ask than the answers they may have rehearsed. It’s easy to offer an answer to a subject you have knowledge about, it’s quite something else to think of pertinent questions to ask on the spot.

Take your time and consider questions carefully before asking them.

In Conclusion

Memorise these 9 rules and implement them in as many conversations as you can. Practise them, even if you have to carry some notes until they come naturally to you, whatever it takes, use them.

You will very quickly find that people are drawn to you more and their opinions of you will become elevated.

Less is more, listen carefully. Don’t get intimidated, no one is above you, everyone has insecurities. Just watch as people are speaking with you, even the people who pretend to be better than everyone, their insecurities leak out in subtle ways.

If you do find yourself becoming intimidated, a trick you can use is to remember that this person standing before you was once a small child who said and did childish things. That little child is still in there with his/her adult suit on pretending, playing dress-up to impress others.

No one is above you, and you have the tools to ensure that any person you chat with will come away from the experience feeling great.

To read about the 7 C’s of conversation which drill down a little more into these rules, feel free to visit World of Work and The 7 C’s of Communication.

Thanks for reading..

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2 Replies to “9 Tips to Improve Your Conversation Skills”

  1. It’s nearly impossible to find well-informed people for this topic, however, you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

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