How to Improve Conversation Skills?
The art of conversation is perhaps the most commonly neglected skill on the globe. This blog explores 100+ Best Conversation skills in English for your conversation improvement.
NORMAL AND EVERYDAY
Conversation! It’s the most common thing in the world – so normal, so natural, so everywhere, so every day. All over the globe, people are talking to each other. “It’s good to talk,” as the advert says. “Talking, talking the happy talk,” to quote the song.
Seeing that we all do so much of it, surely we can all do conversation? Humans talk to each other – we are essentially social beings; that’s what we do. I’m pretty sure the caveman had some way of communicating to his mate, “How does that fire-making thing work?”
Many of us don’t think twice before we open our mouth to communicate – it’s the most spontaneous thing in the world. If you do command the art of conversation when you are young, you have a tremendous advantage in life in all sorts of ways.
The word “conversation” is a humble one. A thesaurus offers a long list of more weighty and impressive words to express the idea of talking to each other. There’s a discussion, exchange, dialogue, discourse, parley, colloquy . . .
You’ve probably seen books on persuasion, debate, tendering or selling. Governments engage in talks; national envoys handle negotiations; the media cover international summit conferences.
But the common ingredient of all these grander concepts is a conversation – it’s the basic building block of our connection with each other. There aren’t many days – depending on your circumstances – that you don’t have several conversations!
Conversation Skill 1:
THE KEY TO MANY DOORS
So if the conversation is the basis of human contact, the ability to converse well with people has a lot going for it. Learn to hold a conversation skilfully and you have a magic ingredient for well-being, success, and happiness in many areas of your life.
Take relationships: how you engage in conversation makes a profound difference to the quality of your connection with other human beings. It’s the basis for building new relationships and making new friends. It’s how you become intimate with someone. “How did Mary agree to marry you?”
I asked a friend. “I engaged her in conversation – I mean, I chatted her up!” came the reply. It’s the way you improve your current relationships and understand other people better. It’s the way you heal relationships that are not working, whether on a personal or a professional level.
Conversation creates good times too. An entertaining conversation is a source of fun and laughter. Did you ever joke in the playground with school friends or whisper conspiratorially in class?
Do you enjoy those special moments of snatched personal conversation by the water cooler at work, or chatting with a stranger in a pub – a place especially conducive to entertaining conversations?
You may find out something interesting you didn’t know before. You may walk away from a conversation fascinated or amused, moved, enlightened or inspired.
In the workplace, the ability to engage confidently in conversation is vital, though surprisingly untapped, a skill that has the potential to take you far. It eases your relationships with colleagues and bosses. It serves you well in interviews, meetings, and reviews.
The ability to talk easily with anyone enables you to enjoy networking and make the most of the opportunities that come your way. It makes you sound articulate and confident, able to hold your own in debate; it gets you noticed, furthers your career and smoothes your path to promotion.
Skillful conversation helps you to uncover the truth and make wise decisions about people. Then you recruit with discernment and give responsibility to the right people. The best negotiators have highly developed conversational skills.
How do you influence and persuade other people of your point of view, or indeed sell them an idea or a product? You’ll probably be most successful through engaging them in conversation.
In today’s world, there are many ways to learn, but it is often said that the best teaching is a conversation with an open channel between teacher and pupil.
Conversation Skill 2:
Conversation is clearly about talking, but talking doesn’t make a conversation. George Bernard Shaw once commented to a young lady that she had lost the art of conversation but not, unfortunately, the power of speech! If everyone talks incessantly without listening to anyone else, there’s no conversation.
It’s just people talking one after another or, more often, one over another. You’ve probably found yourself in a group at some time where everyone's busy expressing opinions and no one’s listening to anyone else. It isn’t a very satisfying experience.
The word “conversation” is made up of the con, “with” and verse, “turn”. Conversation is turned and turn about – you alternate. Conversation is all about taking turns. It’s a dialogue, not a monologue. You share the talking time; you also listen and acknowledge.
One person may talk more than another, just as in a dance one person may perform more complicated steps than another, but there’s equality in conversation. It’s very hard to have a good conversation with someone who intimidates or patronizes you or with someone who is intimidated by you.
The to and fro of a good conversation feels easy and natural, with both parties taking part and responding spontaneously to each other.
In the dance of conversation, both players take part in the steps of the dance with their thoughts, feelings and body language. You don’t shut down your listening to think of what to say next or to make unspoken comments internally. The dance doesn’t stop. The art is as much in drawing out the other person as in airing your own thoughts and opinions.
There’s mutual respect for each other – I’m okay, you’re okay. In most conversations you don’t make it deliberately difficult for the other person to dance their steps – you facilitate their moves, even when they appear clumsy.
When musicians and actors want to describe a particularly satisfying performance, they often call it a “conversation” to describe the feeling of connection that travels both ways.
Conversation Skill 3:
A SUBTLE HUMAN ART
Like music, good conversation is a subtle art. When you converse with someone, you are doing many things simultaneously.
You are listening to what the other person has to say while picking up the nuances of voice tone and the clues in their appearance and body language, and at the same time, you are in a state of readiness to respond easily and naturally with words of your own. No wonder doing it well takes practice!
In 1950, the computer scientist Alan Turing tested to what extent computers could learn how to converse naturally. He published a paper on artificial intelligence, Computing Machinery, and Intelligence, in which he described a test where a subject attempts to have a conversation with a computer.
The computer would be said to “think” if its responses in conversation resembled those of a real human being. Anyone who tries the test finds it doesn’t take more than a few words before you know it’s a machine!
The traditional “conversationalist”
Much advice on a conversation takes little heed of this subtle dance for two. Almost all books on the art of conversation from the twentieth century and earlier, emphasize the need to be articulate and witty and have interesting things to say on any subject. Apart from general advice to be pleasant and courteous, they mostly ignore the complex dance of connection.
The “art of conversation” is still taught with a similar emphasis in some private seats of learning, not as a meeting of minds, but as a tour de force. Thus we get many public figures and pillars of the establishment who are excellent at performing but less good at tuning-in.
This interpretation of conversation is also perpetuated today in television panel games where each panel member tries to outdo the others in wit, entertainment, and erudition.
Remember, the art of conversation is not the same as the art of talking. Wit, eloquence, and knowledge are one thing. Conversational skill is something more.
In these times of mass communication, the brilliance of oratory is not enough. You can’t be a great conversationalist on your own. It’s always dance for two or more, consisting of talking and listening, listening and talking.
Conversation Skill 4:
The earliest commentators on conversation grasped this two-way dance. The Roman writer Cicero, one of the earliest writers on the art of conversation, offers practical and timeless advice:
Take turns in speaking.
Speak clearly and easily but not too much!
Do not interrupt the other person.
Deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones.
Never criticize people behind their backs.
Stick to subjects of interest to both or all of you.
Don’t talk about yourself.
Never lose your temper.
It’s a useful list as you start to think about how to make conversation work for you . . . though I think some of us today would struggle with number 8. Maybe we could put instead, “Don’t talk about yourself all the time!”
What’s a conversation for?
I’d like to ask you two questions before we continue:
What do you think a conversation is for?
What makes a conversation good, enjoyable or satisfying for you?
Jot down your answers before you continue reading.
One frequent answer to these questions is that conversation is about gaining information – for example, finding out interesting facts or learning new things – or getting a result.
In other words, the content – what you actually talk about – is the most important thing. People who give this answer usually enjoy information and ideas and get satisfaction out of the exchange of opinions and debate.
They think of conversation as the means to an end. You might notice that many specialized conversations, and ordinary conversations too, are about getting something for yourself.
Finding out something you don’t know, exchanging information, gaining new business, negotiating to get a sale, influencing people to take up your ideas, motivating them to follow your lead, and so on.
Other people answer differently. They hold that conversation is about getting to know people, making friends, building relationships, understanding each other better or enjoying people’s company. In other words, the connection between the two people is what matters most.
They enjoy the feeling of getting close to another human being, of sharing and building rapport and enjoying each other’s company. The content of a conversation takes second place to the feelings of connection, the tone, and atmosphere of the discussion, and the sense of a growing friendship.
Your view of the purpose of the exchange considerably influences your approach to conversation. Look at the answers you jotted down. Do you find they point more to content and result or to connection?
Successful conversations are about both content and connection in varying proportions. But the connection is always key. Even if you are focused on a particular outcome from a conversation, it will go better if you pay attention to connecting with the other person as well as to getting what you want from the exchange.
The connection is often the means by which you achieve the desired outcome, but can also stand on its own as the sole purpose of an exchange.
Your first and important step, in starting up a conversation with someone, is to make the connection. So how do you do that?
Conversation Skill 5:
CONNECTING IS WHAT MATTERS MOST
The connection does indeed matter. It’s the means of creating a link with another person at the start of a conversation, and it’s the lubricant that keeps it flowing. It’s how people understand each other’s meaning, an essential if you wish to influence anyone. It’s the road to friendship, closeness, and intimacy, irrespective of what you’re talking about.
Good connection creates the necessary trust for a satisfying conversation.
You can usually tell when two people in the conversation are connecting well. If you are close enough to hear what they are saying, you discover that they’ve found a subject that engages them both. If you can’t hear the actual words, you can still detect a musical to-and-fro rhythm and similar tones of voice.
Even if you are completely out of earshot, you can visually catch a flowing dance between the two people as they mirror each other’s physiology and move in harmony with each other.
Many conversations lack this vital ingredient. To clarify what connection is and isn’t, and what gets in the way of connection, I want to give you several examples of conversations where it doesn’t happen. I think you’re going to recognize several of them!
Conversation Skill 6:
When a conversation is just two people talking without connection, the experience can be far from pleasurable. I’m sure you have suffered frustrating or boring conversations in your life – maybe you still do!
Oprah Winfrey was once asked what she wished she had known earlier in her life. She replied that she would like to have been able to distinguish between “radiators” and “drains”.
She explained that “radiators” are people who give out something positive, such as warmth and kindness or energy and enthusiasm. “Drains” on the other hand are people who are negative and self-critical and suck the energy out of you.
You’re probably familiar with what she was talking about. After chatting with some people, you walk away with a spring in your step feeling energized and inspired. Other people exhaust you. After a conversation with them, you retreat feeling that all your energy has been sapped and nothing has been given in return.
Who are the drains in your life and what makes them draining? You may find some of them here.
Robo-chore speakers are like Enthuso-bores without enthusiasm. They don’t want to be in conversation with you at all but feel an obligation. Spend five minutes with a Robo-chore and you are longing for even an Enthuso-bore!
They are just doing what you “have” to do in certain social situations – make conversation for the sake of politeness without having anything engaging to say. And they are not interested in listening to you either, so no connection can be made. Under those circumstances, many people just count their losses and go through the motions.
If you don’t want to proceed in that way, you may want to gently challenge the person to be more real by asking genuine questions and refusing to be satisfied with stock answers.
If you prepare topics and current information to take to networking and social events, beware! Make sure that you find your subjects interesting yourself, and watch out for signs of interest or boredom in the other person.
The Echo-bore takes no risks, introduces not one single idea, opinion or feeling, but just agrees with you, repeats your words or says what’s most obvious so that you are forced to do all the running and don’t get anything in return.
This behavior can stem from nervousness, and if you are able to put the person at ease, there is a chance that you can move on to a better conversation. But if you get stuck at this repetitive stage, the Echo-bore remains unknowable, and neither party gets any value from a conversation.
Echo-bore. You can find various clips of their sketches on YouTube, for example, Smith and Jones discuss the Beatles. You may wish to be pleasing as a conversationalist, but if you risk nothing, you get nothing.
Conversation Skill 7:
QUEEN OF GOSSIP
The Queen of Gossip is very happy to engage in conversation, as long as she (or he of course) can speak negatively about other people. Initially, the shared confidences of gossip can feel bonding, particularly if you secretly agree with the other person’s opinion.
There’s nothing like mutual dislike and a set of grievances to create consensus! But afterward, you’re left with an unpleasant sour taste and the uneasy suspicion that you may become their next victim! So trust is absent, and there’s no true connection.
Beware any feeling of connection when you gossip; it’s skin deep. One of the great arts of conversation is to leave certain things unsaid at the most tempting moment!
Conversation Skill 8:
Finding common ground
What is the magic ingredient of a connection? You connect when there’s a flow or rhythm between you. Like a pendulum, it can swing fast or slow, but there are a rhythm and a pattern.
You don’t find a pendulum swinging slowly in one direction and then suddenly coming back fast. One swing resembles the previous one, and as the rhythm changes, both sides are influenced.
Building a connection with another person is about creating rhythm – or similarity. And the most obvious, though certainly not the only, way to do that is to find a common subject. By common, I mean “in common”, but also “common” – everyday and general.
The conversation will go well if they share their experiences by taking an interest in each other’s comments. So, after exploring cheeses, the boss might well decide to stick with his companion’s experience of Burgundy for a while before telling his own story of the south of France.
Conversation Skill 9:
Steps in Conversation
As you take those first tentative steps in conversation, look out for people’s preferred focus of attention. Whatever the subject under discussion, people like to home in on particular elements, and their preferences tend to be fairly consistent.
Think about your own preferences. Which of the following types of question interest you most?
Information – facts, numbers, and statistics
How does this year’s growth compare with last?
What percentage of the population owns a car?
Technical talk – “widgets”
What new features does your camera have?
How does that app work?
People and gossip
Do you know why David left the company in a hurry?
Guess what she said to her boss?
How did Sophie cope with moving so many times?
How do you feel about the change of leadership?
Conversation Skill 10:
Do you think there can there be peace without equality?
Don’t you find it extraordinary that we can now visualize the activity of the brain in real time?
If you listen closely to what people say and the questions they ask you’ll soon notice their preferences, and that gives you a good idea of how to engage them further and put them at ease. You don’t have to stay with their preferences forever of course!
Conversation Skill 11:
Finding a common language
We all have particular words and phrases we use more often than others. Professions have particular jargons and groups of friends have common turns of phrase. If you just imitate someone’s language you’ll sound like a parrot, but you can tune into certain characteristics of the other person’s language to connect better.
Some people, particularly in a work context, use a large number of abstract terms that lend formality to their speech. Here’s a typical example from a business conference:
The issue of smooth communication channels between our operations is of great importance. Given the lack of regulation of this market and the huge daily turnover, the need to have a well-functioning framework of communication and cooperation cannot be underestimated.
Issue, communication, operations, importance, regulation, market, turnover, framework, cooperation – they are all abstract terms that you can neither see, hear, touch, taste or smell, and they provide a business shorthand for discussion without specifics.
In some context, you’ll find people feel more at home if you introduce the more formal “issue of communication” rather than asking, “So how best are we going to talk to each other and keep in touch?”
People feel you are on their wavelength if you use a similar kind of language. Moreover, different people use one sense more than another, and it tends to show up in their language.
So one person says, “I see what you mean”, while another says, “that sounds like good sense”, and third remarks, “I get it”. If you then respond using similar visual, auditory or feeling language, they naturally feel comfortable with you.
Content is the most obvious feature of conversation, and as we’ve seen, you can build a connection through finding a common theme and language. But connection happens most strongly beneath the surface, in the non-verbal aspects of communication.
You get on someone’s wavelength most easily and surely by tuning in to the sound of their voice and their body language.
Conversation Skill 12:
When people are connecting well they tend to share similar movements or lack of movement. If the speaker is leaning forward and talking passionately about something, the listener is likely to be leaning forward too to connect with the passion. If the speaker is gesticulating energetically, maybe the listener is nodding energetically too.
Thus you find that the body language of the listener mirrors that of the speaker, or at least echoes the movement in a complementary movement. If you are in tune with someone this happens naturally.
When you first meet someone, you can help this natural process along by consciously fitting your body language to theirs. If they keep still as they speak, they’ll feel at ease with you if you are fairly still too. If they gesture a lot, they’ll feel more heard if you are fairly mobile too.
Body language is often obvious; when people wave their arms around you don’t miss it! But there’s subtlety too. Look out for the following when you’re having a conversation:
Is the speaker’s body relaxed or taut?
How often do they look at you?
Is their posture relaxed and open or tight and closed?
To what extent does their skin color change as they talk about something?
How fast or slow is their breathing?
How deeply do they breathe?
If you take on their way of standing, moving, looking and being, you enter more and more into their world, and as you do that you begin to understand them better too.
Watch out! No one wants to be imitated as if you’re making fun of them! Observe people mirroring each other naturally when they’re on a similar wavelength. Then when you match someone deliberately you can do it in a similar, unobtrusive way.
A participant on one of my courses who tried this experiment was stunned after taking on her course partner’s way of being for several minutes. “So this is what it’s like to be you,” she exclaimed. “I had no idea!”
She reported feeling more cramped and constrained – as if she were deliberately holding herself together – and said it made her feel more wary and anxious.
This information enabled her to understand the other person better. There are many ways of being in the world.
Conversation Skill 13:
Tuning in applies to sound as well. If you listen to the qualities of a speaker’s voice and moderate your own voice to make it more similar to theirs, they are likely to feel more heard and understood.
Again, this happens naturally when one person empathizes with another. If a friend of yours speaks of unhappiness in a low voice, it’s very likely that you naturally reply in a low quiet voice to demonstrate empathy and understanding:
(Low despairing voice) I lost my job – after 20 years in the same place. I don’t know what to do.
(Low empathetic voice) That’s so rough – times are hard at the moment, aren’t they?
It works with high energy too:
(In great excitement) I won the trip to Fiji! Two weeks in the best hotel, all expenses paid!
(High enthusiastic tone) That’s fantastic! Wow, a free exotic holiday – you must be thrilled!
Thus the speaker feels that the responder shares her excitement. You can imagine the negative effect if the listener in the second example were to respond in a low disgruntled tone:
Huh. Some people have all the luck. I’ve never won anything in my life, and not likely to either.
Just as with body language, the more you can tune in to the subtleties of the speaker’s voice, the easier you will find it to connect with them.
Experiment with different aspects of voice:
Speed – faster or slower
Volume – louder or quieter
Pitch – higher or lower
Range-wide or narrow pitch range
Often, adjusting even one of these aspects brings you closer to the other person – for example, slowing down to talk to someone elderly, or speaking in a deeper voice to someone authoritative.
Conversation Skill 14:
Connection happens most strongly at a level beyond what you see and hear. You might call it a harmonizing of internal energy. The speaker may move around a lot and you may not, but if you respond internally to the energetic sense of their movement, you’ll connect with their energy even without visible movement.
Finding a meeting place energetically is much more powerful that spotting a subject matter in common – and subtler too.
To practice connecting via non-verbal communication, choose a time when you are in casual conversation with someone.
First, observe the other person’s body language and listen to the variations in their voice tone, with the intention of entering into their world. Listen of course to what they have to say as well. Be especially aware of their breathing, which corresponds closely to their energy.
Then join in their dance, responding to their movement and sounds. You will sense the energy flowing to and fro naturally between you. Then gradually, you will begin to feel their underlying energy and understand better who they really are.
Once you have connected energetically with the other person, then either of you can lead smoothly to a different energy. You don’t need to stay stuck in the same energetic space forever!
Note that matching energy is not the same as copying a mood. For example, when I respond to an angry person whose energy is high and strong, I match their energy and speak my first few words strongly too so that they know I am tuning in to their mood. But I am not speaking angrily myself. I match the energy, not the mood.
When people find an energetic rhythm in common as they speak with each other, they naturally feel comfortable and in tune. As you practice this skill, it helps to have the intention of entering the other person’s world with curiosity, respect, and acknowledgment. Your intention is more powerful than any physical matching of body language or voice.
Conversation Skill 15:
When you adjust to someone else’s wavelength by matching their energy, they are calling the tune, not you, so it can feel as if you are handing over your power to them.
When I introduced this concept to an executive in a coaching session he complained that it felt weak. “If I want my staff to respect me, I need to be strong and consistent”, he said.
We went on to explore the concept of strong and consistent values and flexible behavior. I gave him the metaphor of a tree. A rigid tree falls down very easily in wind.
A live tree that has a strong life flowing through it from root to leaf shows its strength in moving with the wind rather than in resisting. There is a respect in flowing with the energy of another person that invites respect in return and allows you to feel the moving life of the interchange.
If you want an interesting conversation with the potential for a positive outcome, you need flexibility. If one person is in a rigid role – even a “good” role such as “strong and consistent” for example – then the other person gets stuck in an unchanging role too.
Even when a “superior” is speaking with a “subordinate”, the conversation works best when there’s a feeling of mutual respect and equality that allows movement and flow.
Conversation Skill 16:
GOING WITH THE FLOW
Once you are in harmony with each other through your flexibility, you can smoothly influence the conversation and lead your partner in a particular direction. It’s all about going with the flow and influencing within the flow.
It’s harder to go with the flow if you’re in a meeting where everyone is talking at once, particularly if you are someone who likes to reflect before you speak. You may have found in the past at meetings that by the time you have framed your intervention you’ve already missed your moment.
In that case, the first words of your interruption need to be as fast and loud as the general melée: you might use an introductory phrase to interrupt, such as “I’d like to add something here”. Once your interruption has been heard, you can make your point, gradually adjusting to your normal volume and pace, and people will listen.
The ability to join the flow and then steer it to your own pace is a valuable conversational skill. You match, then you lead.
Conversation Skill 17:
Flexibility helps to build a connection. It also enables you to break the connection when you need to move on.
When you’re ready to move on from a conversation, try any or all of the following:
Change your voice tone. A higher quicker tone usually works well.
Stand up – even if the other person can’t see you – as this changes your energy.
Summarize the conversation, if you like, to wrap it up.
Tell the other person what you are going to do as a result of the conversation if that helps to round it off.
(In an empathetic voice) It’s certainly been a troubled few months for you.
(In a brighter voice) I hope the next few months are less eventful.
(Speeding up) It’s been really good to talk to you. I look forward to hearing the better news when I see you next.
(Very brightly) All the very best. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.
Conversation Skill 18:
DEALING WITH “DRAINS”
So if the speaker talks but doesn’t ask questions, then you can take part in the conversation by interrupting to answer all the questions they haven’t asked!
Surprisingly, a monologue speaker is often pleased when the listener becomes a talker too.
There is no need though to join in the conversation that compromises your values. If you don’t want to moan, gossip or engage in conversation that is boring for both of you, then let yourself off the hook.
If a conversation is not going well, it isn’t necessarily your fault. If you refuse to join the game on other people’s terms, the energy of the conversation fizzles out, and they are unable to continue in the same vein. In breaking connection, you gain release.
Just a brief final word on connecting: it is true that you connect by stepping energetically into other people’s shoes, to see the world from their point of view. However, it’s important not to lose yourself in the process. Good honest conversation depends on you being fully present, and unafraid to be yourself. I come back to this important issue later.
Conversation Skill 19:
GETTING IN THE RIGHT STATE
When a conversation is going well, you are absorbing a lot of information with a lively awareness of the other person and are busy thinking on your feet. Both of you are carrying on a silent conversation with yourself as well as a spoken one with the other person. This is fine and enjoyable if you’re feeling at ease.
If you are not feeling at ease, however, it’s not so good. Techniques are useful and a good starting place for improving your conversational skills but they do not address most people’s chief problem in holding a conversation – and that is tension, awkwardness, lack of ease or anxiety, all different aspects of fear.
Such feelings can stop you from thinking clearly, make you talk too much, cause you to dry up or make you sound self-conscious. So, in this blog, I look at an absolute essential for good conversation: the ability to be in a good state.
More than skill, voice, fluency or intelligence, good conversation depends to an enormous extent on your state of mind.
Looking at lack of ease, an anxious state prevents you from seeing and hearing the other person properly; it floods your brain and prevents you from thinking clearly; it cuts you off from feelings of connection and isolates you in self-consciousness.
You may not suffer from anything as extreme as this, or even use the word “fear” for your state of mind, but you may recognize some of the following at times when you speak with other people. See which apply to you:
You feel self-conscious.
You go into the “performance” mode.
You feel dull and uninteresting.
You feel hyper and rush what you have to say.
You find yourself “wittering on” and can’t stop.
You find you can’t think of anything to say.
The interaction feels stiff and artificial.
If you recognize any of these, you’re going to find it useful to be able to influence your state of mind positively.
Conversation Skill 20:
Managing your state
Understand first that your state of mind does not have to be out of your control. It is possible to influence your state.
You are always in a state! It changes from moment to moment. Maybe you’re driving while listening to music on a sunny day, feeling content. Suddenly, the traffic snarls up; you find yourself in a traffic jam and realize you’re going to be late for your appointment.
Your sunny mood evaporates and you become tense and anxious. Or you’re struggling with a piece of work that doesn’t seem to make sense and you look up from your desk to catch a warm smile from a favorite colleague. Your tension melts in an instant.
You can influence your state deliberately by changing your environment or your actions. You can calm yourself by listening to relaxing music, taking a warm scented bath or reading a novel. You might get into a more upbeat mood by dancing or watching an exciting film.
You have a quiet evening before a big event the next day to put yourself in a focused state; you go for a walk to think through a tricky problem rather than trying to sort it out with phones ringing all around you.
You recognize that particular tasks are easier in one state than another, so you don’t attempt to make a life-changing decision after a sleepless night, or learn a new physical skill after drinking copious amounts of alcohol. It will vary from person to person, but certainly, some states will be more productive for you than others in individual situations.
For conversation, you want to find the inner state that allows you to tune in and listen well, think clearly, and have access to your feelings. And that means calming your fears and losing self-consciousness.
There are various ways to influence your inner state – I offer many tips and suggestions in my book Butterflies and Sweaty Palms: 25 Sure-Fire Ways to Speak and Present with Confidence. Here are some fundamental strategies:
Conversation Skill 21:
Tension inhibits the breath, so remember to keep breathing! If you are about to enter a room for a social occasion, take a deep breath before you enter. When you speak, take a good breath as you open your mouth. If you find yourself stuck and run out of something to say in a conversation, take a breath to move on psychologically.
Every time you take a good breath, you absorb calm and courage. Oxygen helps you to think clearly and find your words. Then every good out-breath is an opportunity to relax and find your sense of ease.
Find a place where you can practice without being interrupted.
1. Stand or sit tall, shoulders and chest wide, the back of your neck relaxed, eyes soft, brow smooth. Fear often feels like a shutting down, so keep your body open and soft. Your skeleton stays upright and broad, and all your muscles melt and soften within that structure.
2. Now breathe out, feel your body relax, and let fresh air fill up your lungs again without tension, letting the air enter through your nose or mouth – or both. Repeat this a couple of times more, taking your time.
3. Now breathe normally, and notice how your lungs fill and empty much more fully when you are relaxed.
Breathing is one of the most helpful things to remember if you’re feeling anxious. It comes to your rescue whether you are just feeling a bit shy, or have reached a tense critical moment in a conversation.
Conversation Skill 22:
When you feel awkward your first instinct may be to run away. Then you hear a different inner voice urging you to “get a grip”, and you tense up to keep yourself on the spot.
Even that simple reminder is probably enough to unlock your knees and shoulders and jaw – and, most importantly, your brain. By the way, breathing is movement in itself, so these two elements, breathing and moving, go hand in hand.
Even if you are in a situation where others can observe you, you can always move some part of your anatomy unobtrusively – exercise your ankles and feet under the table, tighten your knees and release again, squeeze your hands tightly together and then relax them, and hollow your stomach, then release again.
Telling yourself to be calm is counter-productive if it makes you tighten up. Movement of the body helps the activity of the mind. You can be standing or sitting.
Try moving your body gently.
Slowly move your shoulders up and back and down.
Round your back and then arch it.
Move one hip forward then the other.
Raise your heels and point your feet alternately.
Shake your arms by your sides and feel your body wake up.
If you are standing, soften your knees and then walk up and down feeling open and relaxed.
If you want to be more energetic, jump up and down on the spot.
Think up your own movements to gently unstiffen all parts of your body – whatever is appropriate to your circumstances.
Tense body = blocked mind. Relaxed body = free mind.
Find a time and place where you can be undisturbed for 10 minutes or so.
1. Give yourself a random subject to talk about. Here are a few ideas: travel, the future, your country, life-changing events, friendship, money. You might like to write some subjects on small pieces of paper and then pick one at random.
2. Without further delay, start to walk up and down at a comfortable pace, and begin to talk out loud on your subject. If you don’t know what you are going to say next, don’t pause, but continue to walk until the next words come to you. Vary your pace by all means, but don’t stop. Notice how the movement helps the words to come to you.
Be aware that with movement, something to say will always come to you.
Conversation Skill 23:
Collecting positive states
Your voice and physiology are affected by your state of mind, and your state of mind is affected by how you view your listeners. If you see them as potential adversaries or judges, you will be on your guard from the word go. If, on the other hand, you see them as friends and supporters, your attitude will be much more relaxed.
So your thoughts have a powerful influence on you. Whatever you think about and imagine changes your state. You can use this concept of imagination to access whatever the state is going to be helpful to you.
What state of mind do you want to access in a conversation? I asked that question of someone I was coaching, and we had the following conversation:
What state of mind do you want to access?
I’d like to enjoy it. I don’t know if that is possible?
Enjoyment sounds good. What else?
I’d like to be able to trust that it’s all going to be okay. Great. Anything else?
I wish it could just happen without having to think too much about it – you know, like when a conversation just flows and everything seems easy. That gave us three states of mind to explore: enjoyment, trust, and flow. So I asked him to collect some memories of all three.
We started with enjoyment. I asked him to remember vividly a specific time when he’d enjoyed himself as if he were back in that time and place reliving the experience. He told me about a summer boat trip that he’d enjoyed and began to describe the trip enthusiastically.
As he recalled the sensations of all his senses on that day, his breathing changed and his body relaxed. When he next spoke, his voice sounded calmer and deeper. “Now you know how to collect a state of mind,” I said. “That’s enjoyment.”
It doesn’t matter that the memory is not in the context of a conversation – it can be from any part of your life. It’s about collecting a state of mind that produces particular feelings, thought patterns, and physiology.
I used the same process with my client to recall other memories of enjoyment, and then to remember the situation in which he had felt trust, and flow. He discovered that the more he exercised his sensual memory of good states, the easier it became to access them at will when he needed them.
Think about a conversation you are going to have, or want to have, with someone:
1. Ask yourself the question: “What state of mind do I want to access this particular conversation?”
2. Write down your answers. (e.g. confidence, calm, focus, enthusiasm, determination, relaxation, acceptance, trust etc.)
3. Take one of the states, and remember a specific time from any period and context of your life when you were in that state. Relive the experience fully, seeing what you saw, hearing what you heard and feel the emotions you felt at the time. Imprint the sensations into your muscle memory.
Then find vivid memories for each of the other states. Learn “in your muscle” how they feel so that you can access them again at will.
4. Run through in your mind the future conversation and bring to it the feelings, images, sounds, and physiology of the states you have practiced. Notice how your change in state impacts on the conversation. Even a slight shift in state changes the possibilities of the conversation considerably.
At some time in your life, you have experienced every kind of state, mood and attitude. Through memory, you have everything inside you that you need for each new situation. It’s great to know that you are not at the mercy of your feelings and emotions, but can actually use them to help you when the going gets tough.
Conversation Skill 24:
Staying present and aware
In conversation you want to be able to use your eyes to see, your ears to hear, and your body to feel – and then you can use this awareness to connect with the other person, and pick up all the hints and subtle clues in their conversation that allow you to respond appropriately.
If you feel self-conscious you are not doing that. You may be seeing, hearing and sensing, but in relation to yourself alone, not to the other person.
You find that your sense of sight is occupied with pictures in your head – of previous occasions when you didn’t know what to say, of negative visions of yourself that you imagine the other person is seeing or other unhappy scenarios.
You find that your hearing is occupied in listening to your internal voice worrying, “Oh, what can I talk about? I’ve never met this person before, so I’ve no idea what subject to choose.
This is so awkward, why on earth did I come?” And your valuable sense of feeling is flooded with how tense, shaky, worried and nervous you are feeling inside.
Conversation Skill 25:
FOCUSING on YOURSELF
So how can you change this state of affairs? You can’t stop thinking and sensing just by telling yourself not to. But you can shift your five senses from the inside to the outside.
Either you can visualize images of disaster, listen to your internal dialogue and feel bad inside, or you can look with your eyes, listen to sounds in the environment and experience physical touch on the outside; you can’t focus inside and outside at the same time. When internal thoughts threaten to sabotage you, external focus calms you and centers you in the present moment.
Make a deliberate intention to focus externally.
1. Look and notice something in your environment: the color of the ceiling, the furniture, the pattern of the carpet or any other detail, and register consciously what you are looking at.
2. Now listen, and focus on the sounds outside your head – may be the drone of central heating, traffic noise or people talking.
3. Now use the sense of feeling external, by feeling your toes touching your shoes or your fingers touching each other.
As you focus externally and continue to breathe steadily, you find that your external senses expand their focus to pick up what the other person looks like and what they are saying. Then your sense of feeling is also able to engage in responding emotionally to the other person, enabling you to pick up nuances of their communication.
You don’t have to think ahead about what to say next. When you are present in the moment, it emerges naturally out of listening. And when your senses are directed outward, you are present.
Though it may sound counter-intuitive, being present when you are fearful is partly about allowing yourself to be fearful, without self-judging. If you make great efforts to get things right – say the right things, put on the right expressions, not look nervous and so on – you will not only make mistakes just the same, you will also inhibit your natural flow.
On the other hand, if you accept your vulnerability and allow yourself to be just the way you are, you find that any barriers between you and the other person dissolve.
When you remain open and say what you are really thinking and feeling, other people feel they have permission to act similarly, and then the conversation becomes a genuine and satisfying one.
Conversation Skill 26:
DEALING WITH SILENCE
You may find that you feel most anxious when there is silence. Many people have a danger alert signal that is set off by even minimal silence, triggering inner dialogue such as, “Oh, no one’s talking! Help! This is awkward! Oh, what now?” At such moments, time plays tricks on you and makes a couple of seconds feel like several minutes.
If you observe people who are engaged happily in conversation, however, you notice that there are plenty of silences. There is silence while one person registers something interesting that the other person has said, and silence while they consider their response.
There is a magical silence of connection, of mutual feeling and companionship. Often, the closer two people feel, the more comfortable they are with silence and the longer the pauses in a conversation.
A conversation thrives on moments of silence, and if you try to fill the space out of anxiety, you break the natural flow. Enjoy silence! It’s as important as speech in conversation.
Conversation Skill 27:
As you settle into yourself and feel more comfortable, and begin to notice the other person more, a wonderful new state emerges
– you start to get curious. Curiosity is the golden facilitator of conversation because it creates questions, first in your head and then in a form that you can verbalize.
All the children are curious. When did you stop getting curious? Maybe you never stopped? Certainly, as children, we all knew unbounded curiosity. We asked question after question. We probably went through several months of repeating endlessly the single word, “Why?” But for many of us, something blocked our curiosity.
Perhaps we were told that questions were intrusive or that the answers were not for us to know. Perhaps the whole business of “educating” us shut down that natural instinct. Perhaps we despaired of hearing true answers, felt we’d never understand or weren’t good enough to deserve answers.
Well, you need curiosity for good conversation. So how do you awaken your curiosity?
Spend a little time reflecting on the following questions. You may like to have a pen and paper at hand to record your answers, or get a friend to ask you the questions and record your answers for you.
You may find you don’t have answers immediately. Just sit for a minute and take your time to let the responses come to you. Get curious about curiosity!
When do you allow yourself to be curious about another person?
What gets in the way of your being curious?
What state of mind allows you to be really curious?
When you have answered the questions, reflect on what the answers tell you about your relationship to curiosity. Curiosity isn’t a means to make yourself look good, or a tool for putting the other person down, or a way to manipulate the other person without their noticing. It stems from a desire to enter the other person’s world and get to know them better.
Genuine respectful curiosity creates connection and trust and opens the way to great conversations.
When you meet someone for the first time, or someone you don’t know very well, respect will lead you wisely to start with questions that aren’t too personal. A good guide is to get curious out loud about things you wouldn’t mind people asking you. It’s one thing to say, “Do you live in the neighborhood?”
It’s another to ask, “Are you married, and if not why not?” The idea is to open pleasant avenues for the other person to chat informally, not to apply the Spanish Inquisition!
Conversation Skill 28:
Trusting yourself and others
If you are sensitive to the other person, you can also be over-affected by their view of you, and spend your time worrying about their thoughts and reactions. Focus on the other person for sure, but don’t lose yourself. In a conversation two important fundamental assumptions support you.
You are okay just the way you are. You are enough. Other people are to be trusted. You can think the best of other people and assume their best intentions. If you believe these two assumptions, that belief will influence your state of mind and work positively for you.
You may resist the first point because it sounds as if you think you’re perfect. Of course, none of us is perfect – but it’s okay to be yourself, without hiding behind some false image of perfection.
It takes courage at times (and how!) not to hide behind a mask, but expressing your own feelings and your own opinions – with sensitivity – is the key to great relationships with others.
Assuming the best of others can sound naïve, but it’s the route to genuine connection. When you assume the integrity and honor of others, that very assumption itself tends to attract those good qualities in other people.
Conversation Skill 29:
GETTING A CONVERSATION GOING – THE BASICS
Breaking the silence
Often conversation just happens. You don’t think about it and just discover yourself talking with someone, maybe responding to their questions and getting involved in some topic.
In this blog, I’m going to look at how you initiate a conversation, not one with an obvious aim and purpose, but a simple casual conversation with a stranger or someone you don’t know well. For many people, it’s the hardest thing. How exactly do you initiate a casual conversation?
Someone has to be proactive if a conversation is to get off the ground. And it might as well be you – particularly as you’re reading this book!
Conversation Skill 30:
MAKE A COMMENT
Most casual conversations begin low key. You sow a seed without putting undue pressure on yourself and then you’re easy about what might happen next. If a conversation gets going, that’s great; if it doesn’t, no matter.
One way to sow the seed is to make a casual comment – just a simple remark into the air, easy to respond to or not, that doesn’t put the other person on the spot or put them under an obligation to speak.
For example, “What a cold day!” – yes, there’s nothing wrong with the weather as an initial subject for conversation! – or, “Busy today . . . for a Monday.”
Any simple casual comment is okay. A person standing by you can pick it up or not without embarrassment. If they don’t, you’ve lost nothing. If they do, you’ve started the ball rolling. Use your eyes and ears to comment on things you notice, any simple off-the-cuff comment so long as it’s not negative or intrusive.
As you go about your daily life, collect comments that might spark a conversation. You can collect examples from remarks that you hear other people make and take note of observations that you think of saying yourself.
Here are a few I heard this week:
Passing in the park: “Good to be out now it’s cooler, isn’t it?”
To the shop assistant: “I like some of your new stock that’s just come in . . .”
To the pub assistant pouring a pint: “It’s a fantastic local beer, this.”
This is about focusing on the kind of things people say to strangers. You might hear something and think, “Well, I wouldn’t say that!” Ask yourself why you wouldn’t make such a comment. The exercise is about listening and reflecting. Make a note of comments that you like.
If you keep up with the news, you could choose to make a topical comment of general interest:
They’ve demolished the old supermarket in High Street, I see.
I understand they arrested those bank robbers quite near here . . .
Conversation Skill 31:
FLOAT IN A SIMPLE QUESTION
Another way to start a conversation is to ask a simple question. Again, take it easy, no pressure – it might get a conversation going, it might not.
In a queue: “Been waiting long?”
At the doctor’s: “Is this seat free?”
At an event: “Have you come far?”
You might notice that these are “closed” questions – questions that can be answered monosyllabically with “yes” or “no” – and therefore are not guaranteed to get a conversation going.
But in practice that is fine – being answerable with just yes or no, they are not intimidating, and serve the purpose of gently breaking the ice. You may get no reply or a brief “yes” or “no”, but more often, especially as there’s no pressure to do so, you’ll find that people tend to expand a little on the yes or no.
You might fear that asking questions is intrusive. This can also be a generational issue – older people are less inclined to “pry”. Think of your simple question as a gift to the other person, an invitation to talk – if they want to.
Conversation Skill 32:
TRY A COMMENT FOLLOWED BY A QUESTION
Putting these two methods together, a comment followed by a question works really well. The comment is just put out there without obligation, and if it is picked up, you can follow with a simple question.
If you feel daunted by initiating a conversation, set yourself the challenge of making a comment or asking a question of someone you don’t know.
Find an easy context – a shop, restaurant or pub, a queue, a meeting or an event – and make your comment. It has to be a random comment to satisfy the challenge. Just stating your lunch order to a waiter doesn’t count!
When you’ve done it, give yourself a pat on the back whether you got a response or not. The challenge was in the doing, not the result. Of course, if you got a satisfactory response, that’s great!
Conversation Skill 33:
INTRODUCE YOURSELF POSITIVELY
At a social or work event, a good way to break into a conversation can be to take a more formal approach. Smile at someone, extend your hand in greeting and introduce yourself clearly: “Hi, I’m John Smith – pleased to meet you!”
Then immediately follow up with a comment or question as before. Your general demeanor will make all the difference – if you look and sound friendly the other person is more likely to respond in a friendly manner.
When you first open your mouth, don’t worry about thinking of something clever to say. Your initial approach doesn’t have to be original.
In fact, the art of small talk – the first important tool in conversationalist’s toolbox – is to start with something simple and every day – and relevant. Great friendships and valuable connections grow from little conversations!
A conversation is like a game of tennis, where questions are the service, and answers the return of the ball. Thus, with questions and responses and questions again, the ball is hit to and fro and the conversation flourishes.
Good questions keep a conversation moving forward positively. If you follow your answer with your next question, you keep the ball in play. For example:
Have you been here before?
No, I haven’t. Have you?
The answer, “No, I haven’t” on its own would close down that particular exchange. “Have you?” sends the ball back to the other person. Even “No, I haven’t” is better than a bald “No” on its own.
Conversation Skill 34:
ADDING A LITTLE EXTRA
In more elegant play you don’t bat the ball right back to the same place it came from, but vary the pace by adding a bit extra each time after the answer.
Have you been here before?
No, I haven’t. Do you know this area well?
No, I’ve never been to Manchester before. Actually, I haven’t even been up north much! We live in Devon. And you?
Oh, I come from the south too. I live right on the coast in Dorset. I love the sea. Do you live near the coast too?
And so a conversation slowly grows from safe and unassuming beginnings into something more interesting, and by the time it is going well, no one is really thinking anymore in terms of comment, question or answer – it’s just flowing.
TAKING IT GENTLY
The art of questioning is to move gently, transitioning smoothly from one thing to another. A question doesn’t work well with someone you don’t know if it is too sudden, intimate, specific or challenging.
Wait until you have a measure of the other person and have built up some trust before you introduce subjects that attract strong views – like sex, religion, politics, and money – unless you like to live dangerously! It’s best to build up to controversial subjects rather than launching straight in if you want the other person to feel at ease.
Be a bit careful of humor too. Mostly humor helps a conversation, but if you have a dry sense of humor or humor with an edge to it, it might take the other person a little while to tune in and cause awkward misunderstandings at the outset. Warm up to humor; get a feel of what the other person is like first.
Conversation Skill 35:
After the initial exchange, you’ll get more from the other person if you ask questions that invite an explanation rather than a yes or no answer.
Questions are essential for conversations, but they’re only half the story. A good conversation never feels like a question and answer session; it’s less structured than that. Conversational partners take a turn in leading, and good listening keeps the conversation flowing. We look at listening to a bit later.
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Conversation Skill 36:
CHANGING THE SUBJECT
It’s a great feeling when a conversation starts to flow and gains its own momentum. Often when that happens, you will both happily move from theme to theme without even noticing how that is happening.
At times though, you may find that you want to move on from the current subject, or you might suddenly want to say or ask something that is unconnected.
In that case, it’s a good idea to pave the way for your new theme so that a sudden change of direction doesn’t jolt your partner or confuse them with its “foreign” content. You can do this by adding an introductory sentence. For example:
Do you know, there’s something I really want to ask you . . .
Completely changing the subject, I’d like to tell you something . . .
Just out of the blue, I was suddenly wondering if . . .
Oh, before I forget, I wanted to tell you . . .
By adding such a sentence the other person – though momentarily surprised by your shift to something new – has time to gather themselves by the time you actually say the core of what you are intending to say.
Conversation Skill 37:
Often a question or comment offers the opportunity for a story. Maybe someone asks about the excitements of sailing. The other person replies It’s certainly challenging at times! Last week it was so rough we didn’t get more than 100 meters outside the harbor. You can’t believe how scary it was! We had to . . .
They are off into an anecdote about sailing. Stories are one of the joys of conversation, and they can be as short as one sentence or as long as a whole narrative.
Of course, you can prepare beforehand various stories that others might find interesting, but nothing works as well as stories from your own experience that spring to mind in the context of the conversation. Personal and spontaneous, they add interest to an exchange.
If you feel daunted by conversation, one of the greatest steps forward you can make is to dare to tell a personal anecdote. Don’t imagine that your story needs to be entertaining – so long as it’s not too long!
If it’s personal and real that’s all you need. A story can inspire other people to think of similar experiences of their own and move the conversation forward positively.
To help you come up with stories, think back through the past few days, and find the following:
Something that made you smile.
Something you read or heard on the radio or television that you found interesting.
Something memorable that you heard someone say.
Something you found surprising.
Now practice telling the story of each out loud. I asked a friend for an example, and he told me this:
“I saw something that really made me smile this morning on the way to work. There was a homeless man outside the station, and he’d collected five large cardboard boxes and written a huge letter on each so that they spelled S M I L E. And people did! There was a really cheerful atmosphere, quite unusual at 8 on a Monday morning!”
This is a good time to remember that conversation is a game of interaction. If the other person tells a story, it might suddenly remind you of something you’d like to tell them.
In fact, you may instantly want to top the other person’s story with your own more dramatic and exciting tale. Going back to the sailing story at the start of this section, having heard about the rough sea, one listener interposes:
“The sea was rough outside the harbor, was it? You’ll never guess what happened to me the last time I went out in my sailing dinghy. It was the most dangerous situation I’ve ever been in – they even had to scramble a helicopter . . .”
If you constantly top each other’s input, a conversation can easily become a series of isolated and competitive stories, with the minimal connection between them. It’s better to stick for a while with the other person’s story and build on it by asking questions about their experience, rather than overturn it immediately to interrupt with your own story.
When people just use the subject matter as a trigger for their own input without any interest in each other’s contributions, that’s not conversation. Mind you, it’s a familiar ritual in many households after a long day – as Andy Cohen describes:
“Dinner ‘conversation’ at the Cohens’ meant my sister, mom, and I relaying in brutal detail the day’s events in a state of amplified hysteria, while my father listened to his own smooth jazz station in his head.”
Conversation Skill 38:
DROPPING CONVERSATIONAL CLUES – AND PICKING THEM UP
People who are skilled in casual conversation often drop the odd comment into an exchange to offer the other person a gentle lead if they wish to take it.
Picking up clues takes curiosity and awareness. They often appear half-hidden in the waft and weave of something else, and it won’t always feel appropriate to follow up on them.
It doesn’t interrupt the flow of conversation if you fail to pick them up, but if you do, you have the opportunity to develop the conversation into something different and potentially more interesting.
Picking up such personal clues is a risk. But, on the whole, someone drops the mention of something personal into a discussion only when they are prepared to talk about it; and if you go gently it may lead you to an interesting discussion and the chance to get to know the other person better.
As a speaker, dropping clues requires you to dare to reveal genuine information about yourself. Go for it. There are few moves more effective in building trust and connection than revealing truths about yourself.
Conversation Skill 39:
Most people worry more about what to say in conversation than about how well they listen. Yet much more than half the success of conversation is in listening.
Eavesdropping on random conversations you might not think so, as you often hear just a sequence of anecdotes with little evidence of listening. But listening well is what moves a conversation forward organically and makes it satisfying for both those involved.
Listening is often mentioned in the context of professional conversations, such as coaching, mentoring, supervising and counseling, but not so much in an ordinary conversation where the emphasis – at least in the West – is more on being interesting to listen to and having stories up your sleeve to illustrate your points than on being a good listener.
It is a wonderful gift to be listened to. It’s even a new experience for some people. You may assume that you do listen, but good listening is a much rarer quality than we might like to think. In essence, it’s so simple.
All you have to do is listen. But to listen without interference: without drifting, judging, comparing, criticizing, labeling, planning, interpreting . . . ah, that’s maybe not so easy!
Conversation Skill 40:
How well do you listen?
Try this questionnaire to reflect on your listening skills. Give yourself 5 points for “a lot”; 1 point for “a little”, 0 points for not at all, and 3 points for “somewhere in the middle”.
When you are in conversation with someone:
1. How well do you keep your focus on what the person is saying?
2. To what extent do you pick up the meaning from the person’s tone of voice, emphasis, rhythm, and silences?
3. How much do you pick up from the speaker through looking and noticing body language?
4. How much do you pick up what the speaker is feeling?
5. To what extent do you step into the speaker’s shoes and imagine what things are like from his point of view?
6. How well do you suspend judgment while you listen?
7. To what extent do you wait for the speaker to finish before interrupting?
8. To what extent do you give indications that you are listening?
How did you rate yourself? A full score is 40! If you score yourself above 20 you’re doing pretty well. If your score is 10 or less, you have work to do – or you’re a hard scorer!
What can happen instead of listening
We do many other things instead of listening well. Here are a few. Don’t feel bad if you recognize yourself in them, I think all of us can. You’ll certainly recognize people you know!
Understanding the various activities, you indulge in instead of listening gives you a better sense of what listening actually is, and points the way to becoming a better listener yourself.
Conversation Skill 41:
REHEARSING YOUR OWN PIECE
Perhaps the most common trait in conversation is to half-listen while you work out what you want to say yourself as soon as your chance comes.
You can recognize when others are doing this as they tend to increase their non-verbal agreement noises (even as they listen less!) when they want to speak themselves, as if their “mmmm” or “uh huh”, increasing in urgency, will stop the flow enough for them to take over.
We have plenty of reasons for wanting to speak rather than listen. Sometimes we have an overwhelming desire to off-load our emotional baggage or were keen to impress and want to be the center of attention. Often we just think that our choice of theme is much the most interesting, or we enjoy talking about ourselves most.
Some people say that the primary impulse to have a conversation at all is the desire to talk, the other person’s spiel existing only to introduce your own lines. But without listening there is no conversation, just people talking in turn.
How often does someone ask you a question because they want to say something themselves? Very often I suspect! The conversation goes something like this:
How are you?
Fine thanks, and you?
A comment so easily triggers a thought of your own. The other person complains about changes brought in by senior management, and you are suddenly dying to tell them of the awful treatment your own boss is doling out to staff.
So, while the other person talks, you run over in your mind all the different ways in which your boss is out of order so that you can recount them when your turn comes.
When your turn comes? Many people won’t even wait for a turn. They’ll burst in with:
Oh, you’re so right, it’s exactly what happened to me too. I . . .
as they seize the baton to tell their own story. Then you might find yourself interrupting back to take the initiative again,
Oh, isn’t that always the way? I did just the same thing when . . .
Note how the interruption can often sound like an affirmation of what the first speaker is saying. It’s not though, it’s a takeover; it’s a coup. Whenever you listen to someone, notice how often you’re thinking about what to talk about when it’s your turn. Listening mantra number one is, listening is not “waiting to talk”. Listening is listening!
Conversation Skill 42:
It’s easy to lose focus when others are speaking if their manner and tone of voice are dull. Even when the other person speaks in an engaging way about something that interests you, you may find that their words trigger a thought process of your own, and you go off into a reverie.
The other person might or might not notice the absent expression that appears in your face . . . you may be there in body, but mind and spirit are elsewhere!
When you find yourself drifting off into your own experience, just notice what is happening and come back gently to listening again. If your internal thought was useful and relevant, remind yourself to pick it up later. You will drift, so don’t give yourself a hard time about it; just note and accept it, and come back to listening.
Putting the boot on the other foot, it’s useful when you’re speaking yourself to remember that people process what you say by referring internally to their own experience. Realizing this, you can allow for it.
Conversation Skill 43:
PRETENDING TO LISTEN
Some people pretend to listen because they want to speak and be listened to when their turn comes but don’t want to offend you when you are talking by revealing that they are not listening.
Parents, overwhelmed by the ability of a small child to talk for England, often become accomplished at pretending to listen.
It’s amazing how skilled you can get at putting on an appropriate expression and making sympathetic encouraging noises as you lend half an ear to the tone of the child’s voice, without attending to what they are actually saying.
People pretend to listen when they’ve lost the plot. If you pretend to listen, you might assume that other people don’t notice. But they probably do. They are certainly aware subconsciously that something is missing.
Conversation Skill 44:
FILTERING THE COMMUNICATION
It’s impossible not to filter what we hear. We all hear only a part of what is said, depending on what we notice and how our view of the world colors what we take in.
The skill of listening lies in hearing as much as we can without putting our own interpretation on it. If you ignore what you don’t want to hear or just listen for what may affect you, you are possibly missing the most important elements of communication.
For example, your sister or brother tells you that they have suddenly been given the chance of an exciting holiday, and it means that they are not going to be able to visit your elderly mother for a month and the responsibility will fall to you.
If you hear only the negative impact on yourself, you fail to respond to the fact that your sibling has the chance of an exciting holiday, and he or she won’t feel properly heard.
Two people never hear the same thing. Begin to be aware of just how much you listen according to your interest, assumptions, values, and beliefs.
We filter particularly through judgment. It’s natural to assess what someone else is saying but this definitely gets in the way of listening.
Perhaps the speaker tells you about a bad experience with a plumber they contacted through Yellow Pages, and you think to yourself that you would never have found yourself in that position as you wouldn’t have contacted a plumber without personal research and recommendation.
So, as you continue to listen, you filter the communication with your judgment and your opinions of yourself and the other person. If you do this, you may well miss the main point of communication.
Judgment often occurs when a conversation doesn’t feel equal. If one person makes it clear that they have a superior role, an essential element of conversation is lost. It doesn’t matter whether I am your boss, your elder, more educated or more privileged than you, true listening takes place in the context of equality.
Sometimes people listen with a negative filter permanently switched on. Whatever the speaker says, they think of all the things the speaker should have said instead of what they did say;
all the things they ought to have done instead of what they actually did, and all the things they should be thinking and feeling instead of what they are thinking and feeling.
Inner judgment very quickly turns into unhelpful advice, in language full of those same shoulds and oughts.
Listen out for the expressions of necessity when you respond to someone, or when they respond to you. For example:
You must get it fixed.
You ought to have told them.
You should have stopped it then.
You’ll have to nip it in the bud.
Listen out too for why expressed sharply. That also suggests judgment.
Why did you decide to do that?
Why did you?
Why didn’t you?
Judgment is often expressed with a label. Beware if you find yourself saying, “You’re hopeless!” or “You’re too sensitive.” It means instant judgment has leaped into play and you’re not truly listening anymore.
This is often a key problem with families that say they don’t talk to each other. When you sense inner criticism the moment you open your mouth, you soon stop sharing thoughts and feelings altogether. Judgment, whether openly expressed or not, severely inhibits free conversation. Get curious instead.
Conversation Skill 45:
PLAYING THE PSYCHIATRIST
Another way people fail to listen properly is when they play mind games and think they know what is going on better than the speaker. Listen out for phrases such as:
I know exactly what you’re talking about.
I know you. You always undersell yourself.
Your problem is, you’re too timid.
Such phrases tend to introduce those familiar statements of advice – “you should” and “you ought”, and “what I would have done”; or moralistic universal statements such as, “That’s the wrong approach . . .” and, “The best thing to do is . . .”. You’re right back in judgment.
You can never really know what is going on for someone else. The longer you can suspend certainty and closure, the closer you will get to the truth.
REASSURING OR DIVERTING
When a speaker is talking about problems, it sometimes makes for painful listening, and you may be tempted to interrupt to make things better – either by trying to suggest that everything will be okay or by diverting the person to take their mind off things.
Such attempts to stop the person from feeling negative emotions can be well meant but in the process negate their experience and stop the flow.
The question is, whose discomfort are you trying to assuage, the other person’s or your own?
Just listening is probably all that’s needed in such situations. It’s often the biggest gift you can give another human being.
Conversation Skill 46:
How to listen well
Clearly, there are many ways we fail to listen to each other in the conversation! So how do you become a better listener? There are many factors involved.
The better you understand other people and yourself, the fewer filters you apply and the better you listen. The greatest listening is to hear all and expect nothing.
Of course, you use your ears to listen, and you hear the other person’s words. In fact, the actual words represent only a small part of the meaning.
The person’s meaning and intention show up in their tone of voice, pitch, variation in tone, volume, emphasis, rhythm, fullness or lack of breath, pauses, hesitations, what is not said and much else besides. Nuanced listening gives you a huge amount of information.
If you can see the person, you can use your eyes to help you understand what you’re hearing as you take in movement, gesture, posture, balance, eye movements, skin color, tensing and relaxing, rigidity and softness.
Body language and voice tone give you the great truth than the actual words spoken, and sometimes even negate the meaning of the actual words. To give an obvious example, imagine for instance the words “Well, that was great!” spoken with slumped shoulders a twisted smile and a flat ironic tone.
Some listeners interpret every statement as if it is logical and focus on facts even when the speaker is grappling with feelings. Doing this they often miss the point and irritate the speaker with their comments.
Listening includes picking up the speaker’s underlying emotions, which are an important part of the meaning. It helps to think of listening from the heart rather than only with the head.
We assume that communication is straightforward, but the language is in many ways a crude attempt to convey what a speaker intends, and a listener can do with a sixth and seventh sense to interpret what is really going on!
Conversation Skill 47:
SHOW THAT YOU’RE LISTENING
If someone comes to you in distress and you give no visual or auditory clue that you are listening, don’t be surprised if they burst into tears and rush from the room! People thrive on being listened to – but they need to know that you’re listening.
You may be listening really well as you move around the room tidying up your files, but if the speaker doesn’t know that you’re listening, they lose the invaluable connection that comes from attention. So, give positive visual and auditory clues that you’re listening. You will probably do this naturally, but check it out.
Consider the different ways you can allow the other person to feel heard:
If you are both sitting down, choose a comfortable way to be in relation to each other
– for example, have chairs at 45° and not too far apart.
Settle into yourself. If you feel comfortable, the other person will too. Sit in a way that makes the speaker feel that you are open to listening – not all bunched up with legs crossed and shoulders hunched over folded arms unless that is how they are sitting.
Look frequently at the person if they are looking at you as they speak. (If they are looking up or a way to describe something, then join them in their focus.)
Nod your head or smile in agreement sometimes. As a speaker, it’s great to feel your listener’s appreciation and encouragement.
Make odd comments or non-verbal sounds to show that you are listening, for example, Really, Oh, Did you? Was it?
Ask a question when appropriate to help the speaker to continue, for example: What was that like? What happened next?
Actively receive their message, by asking questions to clarify what you’re unsure about, reflecting back to them what you are hearing and encouraging further explanation.
All that is really required for listening is your empathetic attention. Your undivided focus on the other person makes them feel accepted and acknowledged – important gifts for them.
Conversation Skill 48:
Freeing yourself to listen
You have probably experienced times when you are anxious or stressed and find it impossible to focus properly on what someone is telling you. Listening well depends to a large extent on your state of mind. It’s different for different people. What allows you to listen well?
Ask yourself these simple questions:
What enables you to listen well?
What gets in the way of good listening?
How are you when you’re really listening?
Take your time to think about it. Remember how you are in yourself when you’re really listening to someone. Consider what blocks you or distracts you from listening well. How are you when you are 100% intent on what the other person is trying to communicate? Jot down your answers if you like, and answer for yourself before reading further.
Here’s what one respondent said: What enables you to listen well?
I think it’s a feeling of being open without prejudice. I listen when I’m curious, and what happens when I’m interested in the person. Actually, I mostly am interested in people – just things get in the way sometimes.
I listen when I’m relaxed and at ease with myself. So I find that if I consciously let go of tension and breathe I listen better.
I also find it important to focus just on hearing the person – where they’re coming from and what their intention is – and not on how I’m going to respond, because when I listen well I’m confident I’ll know what to say next without having to think about it.
I also find it helps to be aware that listening is a whole body activity, not just brain stuff, so I settle into myself and even imagine that it’s my heart and gut listening, rather than my intellectual brain.
What gets in the way of good listening?
Oh, lots of things! Sometimes I’m not in a good state of mind and don’t really have time for it. Sometimes I get a bit judgemental about what’s being said; sometimes I get distracted. If I’m trying too hard to do a good job of listening to I get a sort of performance anxiety and don’t listen very well.
Conversation Skill 49:
We know from neuroscience that when we listen we respond not just with thinking in the brain but with stomach, heart, and gut. When you listen to someone not only with your ears and eyes but also open your heart and gut to them, you begin to hear more of what is going on, beyond the actual words. You capture the deeper story – the message beneath the message.
You discover that what is actually said is only the surface structure of any communication. The deeper truth lies beneath. For example, someone says, “Yes, I want to”, and with deep listening, you hear the underlying feelings too, “Yes, I want to but I’m afraid”, or “Yes, I want to but I feel guilty”.
You sense anger beneath a righteous statement, hopelessness beneath a tirade or vulnerability beneath assertiveness. You also increase your sensibility to the atmosphere. You are better able to read an occasion and respond intuitively to the truth of what is going on rather than what is presented on the surface.
To do this it helps to maintain a soft focus, absorbing the big picture rather than focusing on details or precise interpretations of the actual words. With a soft focus, you pick up messages beneath the surface. For instance, you may hear angry words as the person complains about being let down.
But if you temporarily postpone the desire to make sense of the words, and instead just keep breathing and staying open, you sense a different emotion beneath the anger – sadness or fear for instance. There is frequently a presenting story and another story behind the story.
Be aware of factors that get in the way of deep listening.
Wanting to make sense too quickly of what’s being said.
Wanting answers, and feeling uncomfortable with not knowing.
A desire to lead the situation.
Deep listening is possible when you are fully present in mind and body and at ease. As you breathe without tension, your conscious and subconscious absorb multiple layers of information and you understand more than you hear. When that happens you have a strong feeling of connection and the sensation of being in flow – a great experience.