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Become a Great Conversationalist!

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Have you ever had a conversation with someone you just met, and after your chat it seemed as though you had known the person your whole life?


Perhaps you could not believe how easy it was to share your thoughts and ideas with this person, and he or she seemed genuinely interested in what you said. Was it a fluke? Or did something happen that caused your encounter to go so smoothly?

It may surprise you to learn that your wonderful conversation was certainly not a fluke. For it to have gone so well, you must have been employing—even without realizing it—some of the keys to being a great conversationalist.

The truth is that almost anyone—no matter your age—can learn these keys, so you can enjoy more of your conversations, and can interact enjoyably with a wide variety of people. Here are a few of the most important keys.

Where It Begins

Perhaps the most important key to being a great conversationalist is not so much a technique as it is an attitude or an approach. If you want to enjoy your conversations with people, you must genuinely care about them. We have all experienced what it is like to talk to people who make it clear through their body language and their attitude that they do not really care for us, or for what we want to say to them. Not only are such encounters frustrating, they tend to make us want to avoid future conversations with such people.

On the other hand, we naturally enjoy talking with people who clearly have a genuine interest in us and in what we have to say. Being around people who care about our ideas and our thoughts helps us to feel valued. It encourages us to feel that our words matter. This fosters feelings of mutual respect, which encourage the free flow of conversation.

Dale Carnegie, a famous writer and lecturer in the first half of the 20th century, once said: “It’s much easier to become interested in others than it is to convince them to be interested in you.” If people are not interested in you, one of the best ways to gain their interest is for you to take a genuine interest in them. To do this effectively requires humility, and a respect for personal differences. It requires us to come out of our “shells” and our own private world, and to develop a genuine desire to understand other people and “what makes them tick.” Because human nature is generally selfish, it requires a conscious decision on our part to reach out to others. But if we can develop the determination to do so, it can significantly enrich our lives.

Draw Them Out

Every conversation must start somewhere. Learning some basic “ice-breaker” comments or questions, to help draw the other person out, can go a long way in helping our conversations start well.

Often, the circumstances around us will help us find topics of mutual interest. For example, imagine asking someone in chemistry class, “Have you ever blown anything up?” The use of humor is often an excellent way to start a conversation, as long as your attempted humor is not insulting or negative. Another approach may be to ask someone his or her opinion about a topic currently in the news.

Questions are not just for the start of conversations. They can be asked at any time, to keep an exchange flowing. And you should not be shy about asking for clarification if you do not understand someone’s answer. When people know you are genuinely interested in them, they are usually quite happy to clear up your misunderstanding.

Continued questioning can help keep the conversation lively, and will encourage the other person that you are taking an interest in what he or she has to say. And do not lose sight of the fact that you are not just giving the other person an opportunity to feel valued; you are also gaining by getting to know the other person. By understanding other people better—finding out what they think, what matters to them—you are essentially learning who they are. Asking questions is more than just a conversational technique; it should be one important way in which you are growing to know and appreciate other people more than you did before.

Listen Carefully

We all like to talk to people who pay attention to what we say. They make us feel that what we are talking about is worth something. You can be known as a great listener—someone people enjoy talking to. Here are three strategies to help you become a better listener:

  • Maintain eye contact. According to one old saying, “the eyes are the windows of the soul.” You can discover much about a person’s attitude and emotional state by looking at his or her eyes. Eyes tell the story behind the words. In some cultures, eye contact is discouraged, but in most Western settings people expect to make eye contact during a conversation, and may feel irritated or even disrespected if you are looking elsewhere while they are talking to you.
  • Concentrate. Listening can be hard work. Distractions will fight for your attention. Try to focus on what you are hearing. Even if you think you are not personally interested in the subject, you will find it more interesting if you concentrate on what is being said.
  • Be patient. Many overeager talkers squelch conversations by cutting people off before they are finished talking. Not only is this rude, you can draw the wrong conclusion if you have not heard everything the other person was trying to say. King Solomon of ancient Israel observed, “He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13). Let the other person finish what he or she is saying, then add your own comments.

Listening is an important, though often neglected, part of being a great conversationalist. If all parties are not listening, the conversation is incomplete. A great conversation is a two-way street.

Put It Into Practice

Perhaps you consider yourself too shy, and do not believe you could ever be a great conversationalist. Maybe you have mostly kept to yourself, and not tried it. Either way, if this is you, you are missing out on one of the best ways to know people more closely and to develop friendships.

If you are unsure of yourself, try these ideas out first on someone you already know fairly well—perhaps a grandparent or a relative you would like to know better. If you are shy, try writing down and practicing your first few questions until you feel confident asking them. Then, give it your best effort. After you have become comfortable starting conversations with people you already know well, you can try it with other acquaintances at school or in your workplace.

A word of caution: be careful starting conversations with strangers, especially in potentially dangerous environments or when you are alone with one other person. It is safer to strike up a conversation when other people are around, as at a restaurant or a sporting event. Use wisdom when trying these techniques.
After starting a few successful conversations, you will find it easier to have more. You will also enjoy getting to know others, and you will probably gain some friends along the way. With just a little effort, you can become a great conversationalist.

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