By Susan Dunn, MA, Emotional Intelligence Coach and Consultant
We aren't born knowing how to talk. Nor are we born knowing how to make conversation. It's not a science, where we can memorize rules. It's an art, where we must intuit the rules.
One good way to learn to become a good conversationalist is to study someone who is. Another is to work with a coach.
It's a combination of being present and engaged; having the non-verbals under control; being truly interested in the other people and curious about them; taking responsibility for holding up your end ("Don't sit there like a bump on a log," my Dad used to say, and a consummate conversationalist he was!); and having an interesting life yourself! After all, good conversation requires that you talk about something.
Here are some tips for the conversationally-challenged. Work with a coach if you want to become proficient.
1. You can never lose by being a good listener.
Most people would rather talk than listen, and they need an audience. All you need to do is stay with it - maintain eye contact, smile, nod occasionally, say "uh huh," "really?", "oh my goodness," "I understand exactly what you mean," and "yes, I see."
2. If you're unsure of yourself, join existing groups where conversation is already in progress.
Until you're confident about what you're doing, don't initiate the conversation. It's too much work, and you don't need to be the center of attention at this point.
3. Before you leave for the gathering, prepare yourself intellectually.
One woman I know who's an excellent conversationalist finds out what she can about the others who will be there, and then does some reading. She really works at it. For instance, if she knows another guest at the dinner party just moved from Boston, she'll get on the Internet and get herself informed. You can also research other people's professions and hobbies. Then if you're seated on the cruise next to a woman from Seattle, you can ask her if she's got a Chihuly and sound like a pro.
4. In any social situation, asking about people's children is a sure winner.
There's nothing most people would rather talk about than their kids, unless of course there's a problem that you know of.
Not always good for business networking, but at a cocktail party or dinner party, get them started talking about their little darlings (or grand-darlings) and you'll never get a word in edgewise, which is what you want when you're a newbie conversationalist.
5. Follow the conversation. Don't butt in, and don't get controversial, even if you don't agree with what's being said.
Generally speaking, avoid controversial topics. Save giving your own opinion, when it differs, until you have your sea legs.
The old rule used to be "Don't talk about sex, religion or politics." (Talking about money wasn't even a remote possiblity.) Now there isn't much that's off-limits, but until you're a seasoned professional, don't start out with, "What do you think about Bush's policy?" Too hot to handle and you could get in over your head!
6. Write out a list of conversation-starters.
Nice safe topics (weather, current events, family plans, light work topics). Open-ended works best, but isn't essential. People know they're supposed to be talking. Here are a few I would use here in my hometown:
ˇ We sure have had a lot of rain for this time of year, haven't we?
ˇ Did you get to watch the Spurs' Finals?
ˇ Have you been down to the River lately? I heard there's a great new Mexican restaurant down there where Paesano's used to be. What happened to Paesano's? (Several threads gives them several options and fills air time.)
ˇ Have you got a vacation planned for this summer?
ˇ Did you see what they've done to the old Baptist hospital? (If they have, they'll comment. If they haven't, you can inform.)
ˇ Mary told me you're a personal life coach. What is it exactly that coaches do?
ˇ Where do you know Alan and Sue (the host and hostess) from?
ˇ Isn't this house lovely? I like the eclectic / modern / rustic / décor. I wonder where she got that painting.
ˇ What were doing last Labor Day?
7. Write out a list of conversation-closers; that is when it's getting sticky or worn out, or you simply want to exit-stage-left.
It's courteous to end with acknowledgement of the other person and the pleasure of the contact, whatever else you say beforehand.
ˇ "Well, I certainly have enjoyed talking with you. We'll have to get together some time." (This means absolutely nothing. They'll say "Yes let's do" and you can leave.)
ˇ Extend your hand and say "It was a pleasure meeting you." Follow whatever their reply is, generally with smiles, nods, agreement.
ˇ "Well, I guess I'll go check out the buffet. I heard the Cassata alla Siciliana is delicious. Do you mind?" (Doesn't matter what they say ... this is ritual.)
ˇ "Will you excuse me please?" With a slight nod of the head.
ˇ "I think I'd better go find out what my husband/wife is up to."
ˇ "I think I'll go see if Mary needs some help in the kitchen."
ˇ "Time to go powder my nose. Do you know where the ladies' room is?"
ˇ "I just saw my old piano teacher over there. I hope you won't mind if I go over there. I haven't seen her in years."
ˇ "Oh, please excuse me. I've got to get this ____ off my hands."
8. Learn some of those grand old "civilities" and "fillers." These are things like:
ˇ "I hope you won't mind if"
ˇ "Please excuse me"
ˇ "The pleasure is all mine"
ˇ "I must tear myself away now"
ˇ "I'm sooo glad."
ˇ "It's just been wonderful seeing you again."
ˇ "What a treat to find YOU here."
ˇ "What an honor this is."
. "At last we meet!"
. "I've heard so much about you. All of it nice, of course."
Use people's names; it's perceived as an indication of self-confidence. Smile and nod. Breathe deeply.
If you're at a loss, repeat back what the person said for clarification, but change it enough so they know you were listening, i.e., "Did you say you were from Southern California? I missed that - the band, you know."
9. Think it through before you walk in. Compose yourself.
You don't want to charge into a room (which you're likely to do if you're nervous) and find yourself where you don't want to be. Enter slowly if you can, and take it all in. You can pretend to be looking for a place to put your coat, or become fascinated with a painting on the wall.
Take the temperature in the room. Notice the [noise] level of the conversation; how the people are standing; whether they're uni-sexed or mixed groups; how much touching is going on (Shaking hands? Hugging?) If it's business-oriented, notice if it's segregated into management v. non-management. Whatever you observe, do the same.
10. Manage your voice and your hands if you're nervous.
Hold a glass of water and take small sips. Don't try to juggle both food and drink. For heaven's sake stay sober! If your voice is shaky, don't say much. Occasionally wipe your hands on pocket, pants or napkin if your palms are sweaty. Excuse yourself and go to the restroom and splash cold water on your face.
The next get-together you attend, be mindful about the conversation process. It's really quite predictable. In fact at our family gatherings, we play a game where we write down predictions of phrases that will be said, and whenever one of the guests says one of them, they get a prize. (Things like "Wasn't the traffic awful?" and "Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet?" and "Hh, he looks so much like you" and "Shaken not stirred.")
If you have a bad experience, keep in mind that it takes two to tango. If you should end up with another conversationally-challenged person, heaven help you, but at least you'll know it wasn't your fault!
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