Conversations are supposed to be fun. They involve personal interactions between two or more people about something of interest. But many people worry about having conversations. They are concerned that they won’t be able to keep the conversation going, or about what they will say.
Keeping a conversation going is something of an art, and one which many of us now seem to lack. This page explains how you can learn this ‘dying art’, and have constructive and enjoyable conversations with others.
What is Conversation?
A Definition of Conversation
“Intercourse, talk, familiar discourse, behaviour or deportment”
Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.
In other words, conversation is simply talking to someone else, usually informally.
So why is it considered difficult? It certainly wasn’t for our grandparents’ generation. Some commentators have put the problem down to the growth of social media, with its emphasis on ‘broadcasting’ and its ‘me’ focus, and this certainly doesn’t make it any easier.
But all is not lost. Not only can conversational skills be learned and developed, but it is surprisingly easy to do so, especially if you follow some simple rules.
The Rules of Conversation
1. Conversation is a Two-Way Street
The first and most important rule of conversation is that it is not all about you, but it’s not all about the other person either.
A monologue, in either direction, is not conversation. Try to achieve a balance between talking and listening in any conversation.
This is where social media makes life difficult. We’re used to broadcasting our views, and then responding if others comment. That can feel like the start of a conversation but, when you’re face to face, it’s not polite to start by broadcasting your views.
Instead, try asking a question to establish common ground. For example: “What do you do?”, or even “Isn’t the weather beautiful?”
This signals your intention to share the conversation.
Everyone likes to be listened to, and to be asked for their views. If the conversation flags, or you feel that you are talking more than you should, useful questions include:
“What do you think about this?”
If you are not getting much response, try something like:
“But perhaps you don’t follow [current subject]. What are you interested in?”
2. Be Friendly and Polite
Smiling, and being nice, will take you a long way in conversational terms. Everyone would rather chat to someone friendly and pleasant. But what are the practical elements of this?
You can build rapport by establishing some common ground and by simply smiling and using positive and reinforcing body language. There is more about this on our page: Non-Verbal Communication.
Don’t say unpleasant things about anyone. After all, the person you’re talking about could be your new acquaintance’s best friend. And even if they’re not, your new acquaintance may not relish discussion about someone behind their back (and neither should you). See our page on Friendliness for some ideas.
Try to avoid contentious topics on first acquaintance.
It’s fine to talk politics once you know someone a bit better. When you first meet someone, though, it’s better to stick to neutral ground, which is why so many people talk about the weather. This is where ‘small talk’ comes in.
The Importance of ‘Small Talk’
‘Small talk’ is, broadly, inconsequential ‘chit-chat’ about minor or uncontentious issues such as the weather, recent news items or jobs. Some people purport to despise small talk as being unimportant, or trivial, but it serves a useful function of allowing you to build rapport and establish common ground without having to invest too much emotion in the conversation. This may be particularly important for introverts.
However dull you find someone, it is best not to say so!
Just bring the conversation to a polite close, perhaps by saying something like “I must just go and catch so-and-so before they go. It’s been really nice to chat to you”, or “Please excuse me, I promised to help with x and I see they need me now”.
3. Respond to What They are Saying
To respond genuinely to what someone has just said means that you have to listen. You can’t just switch off, and think about what you’re going to say next. However, if we’re honest, most of us would admit that we often do just that.
It’s important to focus on the other person, and what they’re saying. You also need to take into account their body language.
Our page on Listening Skills has more about this.
If you find it difficult to think of something to say in response, try using some ‘filler’ sentences, such as:
“That’s just so interesting, you’re really making me think hard!”
“Goodness, that’s challenging, I need to think about this. I’ve never thought about it that way.”
Not only does that give you a bit of time to think about the subject under discussion, but it’s a compliment to the person you’re speaking with, which is always good.
4. Use Signalling to Help the Other Person
When a conversation is flowing well, it moves naturally from one person to the other. However, if one or both are finding it more of a struggle to ‘chat’, you may find it helpful to use ‘signals’ to show the other person that it is their turn to talk.
The most common type of signal is questions. These may be either open or closed.
Closed questions invite a yes/no answer.
In conversation, they might include “Don’t you agree?”, and “Are you enjoying the party?” They are not really inviting the other person to do more than nod and agree, rather than to share the conversation.
Open questions invite more information.
They open up the conversation to the other person, and invite them to participate. For this reason, in conversation, they are often called ‘invitations’. Open questions often start ‘How…?’ or ‘Why….?’
5. Create Emotional Connections
Of course it is perfectly possible to conduct a conversation entirely at the level of small talk, with nothing important being said.
But conversation is also a way to explore whether you wish to know someone better and build a relationship with them. It can therefore be useful to understand how to use conversation to create and build emotional connections.
The key is sharing appropriate information.
That means being prepared to be open about what interests you, what makes you into you as a person, and inspiring the other person to share too.
This ‘sharing’ doesn’t have to be big stuff. It can be as simple as:
“It’s so lovely having this beautiful sunshine. It meant I could go canoeing this weekend and we had such a beautiful paddle.”
That leaves the field open for the other person to say:
“Oh, do you canoe? I used to paddle too. Where did you go?”
“Yes, it’s lovely weather. I went for a walk myself. It’s great to be outside, isn’t it?”
“I find the heat difficult myself, but the children loved having the paddling pool out.”
All different responses, but all sharing an emotional connection with the other person and keeping the conversation flowing.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about the key communication skills you need to be a more effective communicator.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
Be Interested and you Will be Interesting
All these ideas can perhaps be boiled down into one idea:
If you are interested in others, and in the world around you, you will be interesting to talk to.
That, in turn, will make conversations flow, because you will genuinely want to know about the other person and be able to contribute to the conversation from your own interest in the world.
On the other hand, if you take no interest in anything except yourself, you will be quite dull and people will not be keen to have any conversations with you. You have been warned!