Entering into conversation with a master of the art is like exchanging a small, dark room for an open, sunny meadow. Naturally, such people are popular and in high demand. But can you learn to be a wonderful conversationalist? Of course you can! If conversation is a lost art, it can be recovered.
No pleasant, civilized conversation can take place until you learn how to listen. But in a world of flashing screens and endless distractions, listening is itself a lost art. Do not confuse listening with waiting for the other person to finish however. Really pay attention to what they are saying. Listening is always better than interrogating. People often try to show interest by asking lots of questions, but this will soon appear nosy and intrusive.
Do not be a monopoliser
A monopoliser does all the talking, reducing others to frustrated silence. Some monopolise a conversation through arrogance, believing everything they say is interesting and entertaining. Others, however, monopolise through a sense of fear. Shy, anxious people talk a great deal because they fear awkward silences. They mistakenly assume that others will find them dull unless they are constantly chattering. In fact, the most tedious person is the one who doesn’t know when to be quiet.
Do not ask people about work
Of course, it would be ill-mannered never to ask. As a general rule, though, avoid the subject. Many people hate their job. If they have come to your apartment for dinner, and are sitting there happily with a glass of wine, they may not wish to be reminded. And asking about people’s work tends to put them on the defensive. After all, they may be ashamed of what they do. Or perhaps they do not earn very much and fear the conversation will now turn to incomes.
Do not boast or talk about the mundane aspects of your life
It is often said that bores talk about themselves, but that is not true. Some people lead, or have led, very interesting lives and can hold a room spellbound when they talk about it. Others are full of amusing anecdotes about work colleagues, friends, or family. The real bores are the egotists. Such people tend to boast which, as well as being intensely irritating, is also dull. Worst of all is the egotist who goes into great detail about the most tedious, trivial aspects of his life. No one cares that you forgot to put the cat out last night or that you couldn’t decide what to watch on TV!
Work on body language and tone of voice
In conversation, what you say can be less important than how you say it. You may have led a life of excitement and adventure, but if your expression is gloomy and unchanging, your voice flat and monotone, and your body language withdrawn and hostile, you will bore those around you. Smile, laugh, nod your head, and maintain eye contact. If you are excited and interested, move your hands about as you talk. Above all, work on your voice. When an actor trains for the stage, he is taught to vary the pitch and rhythm of his voice, to project himself so as to hold the audience’s attention. Try this for yourself. When you are home alone, read poems or favorite passages of prose out loud. As you do so, imagine you are standing before an audience whose concentration is beginning to falter.
Do not treat the conversation as a battle
Oscar Wilde said of his time at Oxford that there he learnt “to play gracefully with ideas,” a beautiful phrase that captures the essence of good conversation. A good conversation is not something you have to win. It should be a stimulating exchange between equals, not a bitter fight between rivals. Do not point out mistakes or try to beat people down with your superior knowledge and wit.
Focus on the positive
The world is a hard place. Everyone knows about horrible illnesses, global warming, and the threat of economic recession. Occasionally, of course, such things need to be discussed, but there is a time and place. If you must talk about your cancer scare or fear of redundancy, do so with humour. In general, focus on the things you love rather than the things you hate. People warm to joy, excitement, and enthusiasm.
If you wish to be a good conversationalist, try to cultivate empathy. Learn to tune in to the particular mood or “vibe” of those with whom you are talking. A good conversationalist senses when they are boring someone or making them uncomfortable.
Make people feel good about themselves – but don’t be a creep
Never underestimate how many people struggle with poor self-esteem. Even those who appear confident are often hiding self-doubt. As the other person speaks, nod, smile, and reassure them by saying things like “yes, that’s so true.” A fine line exists, however, between making people feel good about themselves and being a sycophant. No one likes a creep!
Be interested in everything
The best conversationalists are curious about the world. They are interested in everyone and everything. Observe people who have just discovered a mutual passion. Watch their eyes light up and their faces brighten. Notice above all how the conversation takes off, with each excitedly telling the other how much they enjoyed this or that film or album. The more subjects you take an interest in, the more you are likely to produce this reaction in others. If you find the world boring, it is because you are boring.
The best conversationalists are able to combine the above. Imagine you are at a party. You have been taking an interest in as many different things as possible and have worked on your voice and body language. You overhear someone mention The Beatles and tell them that you too love their music. Ask the other person questions. Which is their favorite album? Have they been to Liverpool? Now wait for them to reply and really listen to what they say. Don’t interrogate them. As they speak, be sure to nod, smile, and maintain eye contact. Do not boast or monopolise the conversation, and do not approach it as a battle. You do not need to prove that you like The Beatles more! Once the conversation has finished, move on to someone else and try the same thing. Mastering the art of conversation, like mastering any other art, demands one thing above all – practice.