How to Have a Great Conversation
The art of conversation takes practice, but it's not as hard as you might think. Whether it's at a dinner party, your school, or over the phone, a great conversation starts when two or more people are on the same page and feel comfortable talking with each other. By following the steps in this article, you can learn to relax and have a great conversation with just about anybody.
Having Your Own Great Conversation
Find out a few things about the person you'll be talking to (if you can) before you actually start a conversation. Websites as well as Facebook and Twitter profiles can be good sources of information, as long as you're careful not to come across as a stalker. Kick off the conversation with some interesting information that's not too personal.
- "I was looking at the biochemistry department website and saw that you're working on a pretty interesting thesis! How did you come to choose that topic?"
- "I saw on the office memo that you're working on the outreach project for local schools. How's that going?"
- "Is it true that you just went skydiving?"
Ask questions so that the other person can talk about himself or herself. "What do you like to do?" "What sort of things have you done in your life?" "What is happening to you now?" "What did you do today or last weekend?" Identify things about them that you might be interested in hearing about, and politely ask questions. People love having a chance to discuss their passions or their subjects of expertise.
- Ask questions for clarification. If your conversation partner is talking about an occupation or activity you do not understand, take the opportunity to learn more.
- Make sure that your interest appears genuine. Maintain eye contact and nod your head or interject comments like, "That's interesting."
- Use open-ended questions. Skip the simple "yes" or "no" questions. Instead, ask a question that will allow your partner to talk extensively. "So you love to go hang gliding. What made you get into it in the first place?"
- Start superficial. Ask more generic questions at first. Then, gauge your partner's comfort level. If your partner seems willing to open up, then you can ask some more personal questions.
Inject invitation and inspiration.
- An "invitation" happens when you say something that lets your partner know that it's his or her turn to speak. Generally, invitations come in the form of questions.
- "Inspiration" means that you come up with a great topic that makes your partner want to have a discussion. For instance, you could share a funny story that will remind your partner of a similar thing that happened in his or her life, or you could share your thoughts about something and inspire your partner to respond.
Comment on a general interest topic. Some people briefly read the current events section of the news so that if the conversation runs dry, they can comment on something of general interest. "Did you hear about the new underground park being built in uptown?" is both interesting and informative.
Listen actively. A conversation will go nowhere if you are too busy thinking of other things, including what you plan to say next. If you listen well, you'll identify questions to ask based on the other person's statements.
- Paraphrase back what you heard the person say. "So you're saying that skydiving is the biggest rush you've ever experienced?" Doing this shows respect for the other person and gives him or her the chance to correct your understanding, affirm it or embellish upon it.
- Encourage the other person to do most of the talking. Your conversation partner will feel as though you are attentive and engaged, and you will get the credit for being a great conversationalist.
Forget yourself. Dale Carnegie once said, "It's much easier to become interested in others than it is to convince them to be interested in you." If you are too busy thinking about yourself, what you look like or what the other person might be thinking, then you will never be able to relax. Your discomfort will make the other person uncomfortable.
Voice disagreement with respect. When stating a difference of opinion, remember these points:
- Acknowledge your common ground before disagreeing, and try to omit the word "but" from your statement. Instead, try substituting the word "and." Many people find it less antagonistic.
- Don't manipulate the talk to serve your own agenda and steamroll your counterpart. Never use a conversation as a way to boost your ego.
Accept occasional silences. Take a drink or a bite of your dinner while you think of the next thing that you want to say. Did something that was said generate a new thought or topic in your mind? Use the pause to transition smoothly into further conversation.
Occasionally, ask the question that is looming over the conversation. Humans are social creatures, and society has etiquette that's based on rules. There's so much etiquette it would be painful to list, but it's worth noting that sometimes people enjoy stepping beyond etiquette and talking about the things they thought they weren't allowed to talk about. It can be really refreshing, and pave the way for great conversation.
- There's a rule out there about not discussing religion and politics, and it's generally a good one. If you think you can have a discussion with someone without making them feel threatened by your beliefs, go for it!
- Love is another forbidden subject. We don't want to pry into other people's personal lives, just as we don't want others prying into our own. Sometimes, however, people want an excuse to talk about their love life. If your conversational partner says something like "I don't think that's an appropriate topic," apologize and move onto another subject.
Tell stories, preferably funny ones. Stories are the spice of life. Joan Didion famously said "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," and many people happen to believe her. There's something about an expertly told story that takes us to a different place, allowing us to escape our tiny lives and live a grander existence. Don't be afraid to go to that place in your conversation. A couple things to remember in your storytelling:
- Take it slow. Don't rush your story. Pause for dramatic effect when you need it. A steady, measured approach will draw out the story and keep your audience enthralled.
- Transition into your story. "Funny you said that," or "Speaking of hoaxes," or "Actually, something similar happened to me not too long ago" will help the story feel like a natural evolution of the conversation.
- Tell a reality-based story. In other words, something that actually happened. Truth has a way of being stranger than fiction, and a story that's been fabricated just feels a little more empty than something that actually happened.
In a pinch, comment on the awkwardness of it all. If you're really at a loss for words and the conversation is shrinking faster than cellophane under a bit of heat, comment on how awkward the conversation has become; be humorous about it:
- "I'm sorry, my awkwardness juts out at such...awkward times. Enough with the formalities. What do you really want to talk about?"
- "We're trying pretty hard, aren't we. There must be something essential that we're missing. You're not a cat person are you?"
- "I'm sure we have something in common. How about we get a drink and let some of the alcohol do the talking? You look like I need a drink."
Know when the conversation has ended. Even the best conversations will eventually run out of steam or be ended by an interruption. Smile, state that you enjoyed the conversation and say goodbye. Ending on a positive note will make the other person want to talk to you again.