The Art of Conversation Remains a Missing Skill

Talk with me, not at me.

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04 January 2019, 7:00am

Engaging in conversation is a skill. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This should be a familiar situation to most of you. You’re at a social event, the booze is kicking in and you’re people-watching to your heart’s delight. Maybe you’re even feeling adventurous enough to chat up strangers. You somehow enter into conversation with someone who immediately initiates a drawn-out monologue about their life, at which point you desperately find ways to politely escape.

What is it about people incessantly talking about themselves? If you’re catching up with an old friend and need to update them about life developments, then by all means go ahead. But if you’re a pair of acquaintances or total outsiders, it is just plain rude to presume the other person is interested in hearing minute details about your job, personal life or how you once hooked up with the host of the soiree.

Conversation between two or more individuals must be interactive: it needs to engage everyone present. It is, by definition, a back and forth dialogue with others – not a chance to show off your life (use social media for that). The secret to good conversation is a nuanced combination of attentiveness, transitional phrases and just the right amount of questions.

Here’s our guide to small talk with new faces, especially ones you like.

Don’t talk so much

Getting the listener involved in your conversation topic of choice invites discussion – preventing your listener from getting a word in as you ramble on about giving up alcohol for 2019 invites boredom. Zoning out to a wall of sound can be incredibly meditative if you’re at a noise gig, but not so much when you’re at a party trying to get your thrills. If you’re going to tell a funny story, pause afterwards and let the other person react rather than continue talking. If you find yourself in the middle of a rant, maybe end it by posing a question.

Acknowledge what they just said

Too often, people aren’t listening but waiting for their turn to speak. If someone’s shared an opinion or feeling, affirm it with a sentence that proves you were paying attention instead of immediately jumping to your next anecdote. Slipping in a simple “I agree” or “I feel you on that” is not only courteous, it gives you room to change the topic without appearing self-centered.

Respect the vibe

Being relaxed and making the other person feel at ease is an easy way to win hearts. Be aware of the person’s mood, their approach and adapt accordingly. That doesn’t mean you have to suck up to them but just take note of their attitude and set up a comfortable atmosphere that’s not too aggressive or dull. If they don’t seem talkative, maybe don’t pepper them with too many questions because nobody likes being interrogated.

On the other hand, not asking any questions implies you’re just using them as a verbal punching bag. Ask maybe one or two initial questions to get the juices flowing but if they don’t seem interested in contributing to the conversation, it’s ok to give up and leave.

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