Have you ever left a conversation feeling uneasy because you didn’t say much? Or because on the contrary, you felt forced to do all the talking? What’s a good conversation after all? And what does it takes to be a good conversationalist?
Experts agree that the optimal ratio for talking and listening is 50-50. But in some cases, it’s hard to reach that balance and you don’t want to force it either. Perhaps one person deserves more attention, maybe you or your guests feel shy or tired and prefer to listen. It happens. But if you apply the tips below, you might be surprised at how much balance you will find in your conversations, how much shy people will open up, and how pleasant of a discussion you will have.
As written in this HBR article: “Positive comments and conversations produce a chemical reaction too. They spur the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex.” So if you’re genuinely interested in talking to others around you and want to be a better conversationalist, keep reading.
Whether you tend to talk too much or too little, asking questions is the best way to start a conversation. As explained in this article, the conversation leader is not the person doing all the talking, but rather the one asking the questions.
Good conversationalists know what types of questions to ask and when to ask them. The secret is to navigate from Stage 1 to Stage 3 conversations.
Stage 1 – Small Talk
Many people don’t like small talk. But small talk is often necessary because it helps you find topics for the next stages.
Don’t force yourself to ask further questions if the person you’re talking to isn’t responding much, or if you don’t feel a reciprocal interest. But if you are enjoying the conversation, move on to stage 2 with the information you’ve gathered about the other person.
Stage 2 – Common Interests
This is how you can start to connect with someone.
These questions only make sense in context, depending on stage 1 conversations, and depending on both of your interests. Don’t ask a question if you’re not genuinely interested in the answer. The goal is to have an enjoyable conversation, for both parties. Then, if everyone looks comfortable, tackle stage 3.
Stage 3 – Internal Feelings
Stage 3 conversations are not appropriate for every situation, they’re the deep talks about life, what makes you tick, how you feel about things going on in your life, what you want from it.
These questions require a lot more tact. So make sure you go gradually.
Sharing some personal information is important to form relationships. That’s how others get to know you. So when you answer questions of someone who’s important to you, be generous with your answer. How do you expect others to open up if you don’t?
There are three types of listening that serve different functions in a conversation, as described in The 11 Laws of Likability by Michelle Tillis Lederman. By using them wisely, you will make people feel heard and understood. For example, your friend mentions “I just had the best time of my life in Bali”.
1. With the “basic” level, inward listening, your answer could be:
You hear and respond according to your experience or perspective. This type of listening is good to find shared opinions or interests, a key aspect to likability. But because you want people to enjoy talking to you, you can’t always rely on inward listening.
2. So you should also use outward listening, for example:
With outward listening, you hear and respond according to what you know about the speaker.
3. And when possible, use intuitive listening, for example:
In this case, you hear more than words, you hear their tone and observe their body language.
With outward and intuitive listening, you usually respond with questions to uncover more information.
Stories are a great way to build relationships. “Research shows that people who are different than each other who tell stories, who engage in sharing their own stories, break down barriers and build bridges, even if they might be disconnected,” said Shane Show in his Storytelling course. Sharing a story of how you or someone you know solved a problem or did something is a great way to entertain people, further explain a decision or illustrate an opinion.
The safe types of stories to share are funny or inspiring, short, and adapted to your audience. Always ask yourself if your story is appropriate, and if people around you will be interested in it. And make sure you don’t overwhelm them with unnecessary details.
If you sense that people are getting bored or aren’t reacting as you had planned, wrap up your story and switch topic. Storytelling skills do come with practice. Have you ever noticed how some of your stories get better and better every time you tell them?
What great conversationalists don’t do
Great conversationalists don’t create awkward moments, for example by gossiping, criticizing, making tasteless jokes, bragging or bringing up sensitive topics early on in the conversation or relationship.
What’s more, they don’t have a hidden agenda when they ask questions, and they’re not trying to make the other person look bad by asking difficult questions. At last, they don’t give a compliment if it is not both deserved and sincere.
Did you know?
According to a study from Harvard, talking about yourself activates the same pleasure centres in your brain as sex and cocaine. So talking about yourself and what you like is very pleasurable to you. But if that’s true for you, it’s also probably true for the person you are talking to, so remember the 50-50 rule.
In summary, a great conversationalist makes people feel comfortable and tries to establish a balance. It takes authenticity, tact, as well as listening and storytelling skills. Remember that asking open-ended questions is an easy way to start a conversation and find common interests. And if ever you feel like you’ve tried your best, and the people around you don’t seem to be in the mood to have a real conversation, don’t force things. Let it go and enjoy the moment…or silence!
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