Some people have the gift of gab, and can talk to anyone about anything. And some people struggle to make small talk. What separates the two isn’t knowing what to talk about; it’s polishing up your communication skills so you can keep a good conversation going.
"Good conversations require a give and take, just like keeping a ball in the air during a game of catch," says Anne Green, president and CEO of CooperKatz & Company, a communications and media-training firm with clients that include Richard Branson. "When someone directs a question your way—when the ball is thrown to you—you should always respond with an answer that will continue the flow of dialogue, passing the ball back and never letting it drop."
If a musician is asked, "What kind of music do you play?" for example, Green says the response "many different kinds" will shut down the conversation. "The key is to answer and elaborate," she says. "A more effective response to that same question would be, ‘I play many different kinds of music, but I spent my early twenties in the South playing a lot of country music, which I’ve since brought to my music career in New York City.’ That gives the other person something to work with, creating a more stimulating conversation."
Thinking of a conversation as a game of verbal tennis will keep things flowing, but becoming a good conversationalist requires having more skills in your communication toolbox. Here are six habits that the best conversationalists have mastered to practice every time you enter a new situation.
The irony of being a good conversationalist is that talking isn’t the most important piece; listening is what makes you memorable. Unfortunately, listening is a skill that not many people master; most people would rather talk, said Celeste Headlee, host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s On Second Thought.
"When I'm talking, I'm in control. I don't have to hear anything I'm not interested in. I'm the center of attention. I can bolster my own identity," she said in a 2015 TED Talk called "10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation."
The other reason we’d rather talk is because it’s easy to get distracted when we listen. The average person talks at about 225 words per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute, said Headlee. "So our minds are filling in those other 275 words," she said. "It takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone, but if you can't do that, you're not in a conversation."
Good conversationalists don’t interject themselves into the topic when it’s not needed. If someone is talking about having lost a family member, don't start talking about the time you lost a family member, said Headlee.
"If they're talking about the trouble they're having at work, don't tell them about how much you hate your job. It's not the same," she said. "It is never the same. All experiences are individual. And, more importantly, it is not about you. You don't need to take that moment to prove how amazing you are or how much you've suffered. Conversations are not a promotional opportunity."
A good conversationalist isn’t afraid to show they don’t understand, says Mark Levy, president of the branding firm Levy Innovation and author of Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight and Content. "So many people shoot themselves in the foot, because they’re trying to come across as all-knowing or perfect, but letting the other person in on your lack of understanding can actually be flattering to them," he says.
If you’re confused, Levy suggests asking, "I want to make sure I really understand what you mean. Can you say what you just said in a slightly different way?"
"Not only will the other person feel heard; they’ll likely love having to explain their point in a way that’s different than normal," he says.
Be a person of interest by reading and informing yourself on a variety of topics from world affairs to business and culture, says Suzanne Bates, author of All the Leader You Can Be, the Science of Achieving Extraordinary Executive Presence.
"Be bold in getting beyond pleasantries to introduce high interest topics likely to enliven a conversation," she says. "Be attuned to each person to meet them where they are and be curious about their views."
Being well read allows you to introduce ideas and stories from other domains, adds Levy. "When a businessperson wants to make a point in conversation, they’ll often rely on an idea, opinion, or story from the world of business," he says. "After a while that gets old. We’ve all heard the same business stories, and we start to mentally check out."
Good conversationalists "seed a conversation with jolts," says Levy. "If you’re talking about, say, workplace productivity, it’s fine to talk about [the Civil War battle] Pickett’s Charge or black holes or an idea from an Elizabeth Gilbert book that, in some way, relates to workplace productivity. Bringing in ideas from other domains keeps people awake and interested, and it’s actually how paradigm shifts are born."
Good conversationalists listen with their eyes, looking for body language or changes in mood that provide information about the other person’s interest level in the conversation. This can help them redirect or improve the conversation in the moment, says Parker Ellen, professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern University.
"It also would equip individuals with an awareness about other parties, including their goals, as well as any underlying motives the other party had for the conversation," he says. "Apparent sincerity would enable individuals to present comments and pose questions in a manner that seems genuine, such that it builds trust." This could be crucial to getting other people to open up more and build rapport.
We've all been in a conversation where the speaker derails the topic by struggling to remember a date or name. Small bits of information add verbal clutter, and good conversationalists don’t burden the subject with years, names, dates, and tiny details, said Headlee. "[The listener doesn’t] care," she said. "What they care about is you. They care about what you're like, what you have in common. So forget the details. Leave them out."