Simple Tips to Improve Your Conversational Skills
Author: Esther Wei, MA MFT
Have you ever felt the discomfort of an awkward pause in a conversation as you nervously wondered what to say next? Or has anyone, as you were talking, abruptly turn away from you, leaving you to wonder if it was something you said? Maybe there was a perfectly good reason for these perplexing moments. Or has it become a pattern for you? Maybe, your conversational skills, and thus your ability to connect with the other person is in need of some sprucing up. If you’re like most people, you desire to have meaningful interactions with other people. However, many of us find it challenging to consistently initiate or continue satisfying exchanges. Whether you are trying to meeting new people at a wedding or enhance your relationships with your co-workers or friends, developing good conversational skills can be the key to begin experiencing satisfying interactions, and ultimately cultivate meaningful relationships with others. Being able to have a meaningful conversation with another human being is one of the most rewarding ways that we find meaning and satisfaction in our lives. Here are 5 quick tips of do’s and don’ts to assist you in improving your conversational skills.
Stop pelting information. DON’T use a “machine gun” style of sharing. Avoid rattling off fact after fact, detail after detail. Especially about yourself. But also about any topic. People who employ this style of conversation rarely take a breath in between statements or take time to check if the other person is at all interested in what is being discussed. Sometimes the person talking might have insecurities about the amount of time that another person will pay attention, thus resulting in a rapid-fire style of pelting information that person. Unfortunately, this gives the other person the feeling that you are more interested in what YOU have to say then in what He is interested in.
Watch out for body language or verbal cues. DO become more aware of the other person response to the conversational topic at hand. Try to regularly check out the other person’s interest level before you continue a line of sharing. Perhaps you can say something along the lines of, “Would you like to hear more about this?”, or “I would love to say more about this topic if you’re interested.” It’s important to become more aware of the other person’s body language and signals. The other person may be urging you to continue your line of thought or indicating that they would rather discuss another topic. If eyes start to glaze over or the person starts turning away, that’s not a good sign. But if eyes are alert, or body posture is leaned forward toward you and they say, “yes, yes, go on, tell me more”, that’s positive encouragement and a green light for you to continue with your line of thought.
Inquire into the other person’s perspective. DO ask questions about the other person’s opinions and interests. This is a great technique because it gets people to relax and talk about something they are familiar with, namely themselves! Therefore, if you ask questions inquiring what another person thinks or feels or is experiencing in the world, chances are that person will enjoy discussing it and appreciate your attention and listening ear. For instance, instead of stating mere facts about a topic, you can incorporate the other person into the mix. Instead of only saying, “I heard that there is another version of such and such popular video game coming out soon“, you could add, “what is YOUR favorite game or pastime?” or “What did YOU do with your free time last weekend?” In fact, you can take any subject matter and turn it into a conversational connecting question. Whatever you or the other person is talking about, you can ask a question that involves inquiring into the other person’s perspective, feelings, or thoughts about it.
Avoid dismissive or invalidating comments. DON’T minimize another person’s experience. At least not right away. And not before you’ve had the chance to let the other person finish expressing his or her thoughts or feelings. When people share with you something that they are going through, whether it’s a small item or something more significant, they want to be validated, to know that what he or she is experiencing is normal and not so strange or weird. They want to know that you have heard them and are trying to understand them. If you make a dismissive comment or contradict them right away (e.g. “No, you don’t really feel that way”), this has the effect of shutting the other person down. And that person may think twice about genuinely sharing with you again. How do you really know what another person is going through unless you take some time to listen. People often need a little time to express themselves and process what they’re going through. And you can help this process by validating the person’s experience (e.g. “I can see how you felt that way.”)
Skip the advice. DON’T give lots and lots of advice. At least not right away. Let me let you in on a little secret. When people share something important with you, the last thing they want is unsolicited advice. Most of the time, they just want the other person to listen and be present with them, before jumping into a problem-solving mode. There will be plenty of time later to help solve the problem, IF the other person wants help from you with that. But first, that person needs time to process feelings and experiences before being ready to go into “fixing” mode. Instead, DO make empathetic statements that indicate that you are trying to understand what they are going though. A useful strategy is to try guessing what the person’s feelings are in the situation so that you can show that you are listening to them. You can say statements similar to, “That is a terrible situation, you must feel really frustrated” or “That situation would really make me sad too.” When another person is ready or wants your advice, they will ask for it.
Share something related. DO share something that you can relate to regarding the topic the other person brings up. By describing something related, you are indicating that you can have something in common with them. You also demonstrate that are willing to let them get to know something about you. One definition of intimacy is: knowing another person and being known. When you’re able to engage in a mutual exchange of experiences and information about yourself and another person, you are laying the groundwork for a relationship connection. This is true whether you have been chatting for five minutes with a sales representative or you are listening to a family member share about their week.
Show that you care. This last technique is probably one that underlies the core of all the other tips. It is not as much a technique as it is a way of being, or a philosophical approach to relating to others. Here it is: Try being genuinely interested in what the other person has to say and sincerely interested in that person. Novel idea? Try it. Express real interest in another person’s opinions, his or her thoughts, and feelings about the world around them. As others sense your sincere desire to get to know them as a person, they will be happy to continue chatting with you. And who knows, perhaps they will start asking you questions about yourself and express genuine interest in you! Imagine that?!