Have you ever met someone at a party or while out on the town and been inordinately impressed by their ability to charm or wow you? When I’ve found myself in these kinds of situations, I’ve found myself wondering how I could be more like them. Here are ten habits often possessed by great conversationalists for you to polish up on before your next dinner party or social gathering.
How to have a great conversation
Have you ever noticed how some people have the ability to articulate their point very concisely, using only the minimum number of words absolutely necessary in order to get their point across? People who quickly get to the point allow you to be an active participant in the length and nature of a conversation.
Those who begin conversations with the ‘headline’ or main point they are trying to communicate are more respectful of people’s time—whether they realize it or not—than those who ramble and fail to get to the point until five minutes of wading through vague and imprecise ideas. Although it may not always be necessary to parse one’s words, utilizing the ‘pyramid’ approach to expository writing—as with business writing or online marketing—allows for time constraints and exhibits more respect than does long-windedness.
Something may happen that changes the course of a conversation between two people: for example, a third person may enter the room, changing the dynamic—either dramatically, by interjecting themselves into the conversation, or subtly because of a colorful outfit or bringing in street noises due to a door opened to the street. Rather than allow themselves to get thrown off track, good conversationalists know how to either incorporate the new factor into their conversation or gracefully ignore it and continue to make the point they were making to begin with.
Intuition is the ability to understand other people through cues unrelated to spoken communication: body language, facial expressions, and the general energy and tone of a conversation can all be as significant as words. The ability to pick up on these types of cues is emotional intelligence, skills used to understand and manage emotions effectively. In other words, in addition to reading others well, a high emotional IQ allows you to comprehend and control your own nuanced reactions to people and situations. It makes sense, therefore, that emotional intelligence is an important characteristic of effective leaders and good friends.
Although the French and British ruling classes may have invented the art of manners, it is still considered appropriate in the United States to introduce yourself with eye contact and a handshake, say please and thank you, and avoid interrupting someone, mid-sentence. Being polite is important, however, not merely in the workplace or out on the town, but also while conversing with friends and family.
So what are the basic guidelines to being polite? First of all, don’t dominate the conversation. Rather, allow it to be a give and take that evolves naturally. If you’re more concerned with knowing what you will say next, rather than with listening, the conversation is bound to be either one-sided or composed of two people delivering monologues or talking past each other. Lastly, avoid controversial topics or language unless you’re certain the other person feels comfortable with them: for example, anything involving hot-button political issues, religion, sexuality, or extremely personal stories.
Empathy is the art of putting oneself in someone else’s place, mentally and emotionally. It involves taking a moment to imagine what it would be like to see the world through someone else’s eyes: to feel their pain or joy; to understand their revelations. In order to become a person who not only sympathizes, but empathizes, with the experiences of others, use your imagination!
This skill may come more easily for some than for others. However, a general rule is to take a moment to think of a time in your own life that is similar to the experience the other person is relaying to you, and to then remember what that experience felt like. Comparing and contrasting your own lived experience with that of another may make it easier to imagine what the other person’s experience felt like. However, the bottom line to being empathetic is that it takes intuition, imagination, and a willingness to realize that you may not know all there is to know, already! If we all took a second to truly empathize with the experiences of others, we would be better listeners—which brings me to my next point.
6. Good Listening
Good listening is harder than you might think. Have you ever tried repeating someone’s words back to them, just to make sure you heard them right? Compare the art of listening to reading a piece of writing that is in progress: you may understand the story being told or argument being made in one way, but the person who wrote it may have meant something slightly different than what you came away with. In either case, it’s worthwhile to respond by summarizing and interpreting what has just been told to you, in order to ensure that you understand it correctly.
Oftentimes, it turns out that your understanding of someone else’s point isn’t quite accurate. Alternately, the person you’re speaking with may realize that they need to rephrase or add to what they just said, in order to effectively communicate their point with you. Another important part of good listening is taking the time to process what is being communicated to you, so as not to jump to conclusions. This brings us to another trait of great conversationalists: patience.
One of the most difficult things about conversation can be waiting for someone to finish their point, if they’re taking a while to explain a concept or tell a story. Try taking a deep breath, then smiling at the other person. The other situation that can require patience, however, is when the person you’re speaking to says something that you disagree vehemently with or that is extremely confusing. In this situation, the tips offered in the section above related to good listening can come in handy. However, what if you still disagree, after taking a deep breath and allowing a moment to compose your thoughts? Sometimes, it’s okay to agree to disagree.
If you’re simply confused, however, or if a story or point is taking too long and you need to get going, simply wait until the person is finished with a sentence or there is a brief pause, and interject politely with, “May I ask you a quick question about that?” This communicates to the speaker that you are listening, but that you need clarification, or you need to take a rain check because you have to run. If you are patient and interject with politeness and a genuine smile, the other person is sure to understand.
This quality is tied to the ability to empathize with somebody else in conversation, rather than putting oneself first and insisting on being the center of attention. If you make an effort to be humble in your conversations with others, you will do a better job of communicating effectively, listening well, and gain allies. On the other hand, if you assume that you’re in the right, on a regular basis—rather than realizing that you might, in fact, have utilized poor logic—you’re at risk of alienating the people whom you engage in conversation.
If the points made above seem elementary, it’s because they are. A more nuanced understanding of humility includes a healthy self-esteem and understanding of our own humanity; the ability to practice self-awareness and mindfulness; and making a regular practice of expressing gratitude. Take a moment to give thanks: for those around you—family, friends, and colleagues; as well as for the events that led up to making you the person you are, today. Acknowledge your accomplishments and own them, rather than attributing them to luck or happenstance; then realize that everything is relative, and there is always more we can do, as individuals, to give back to the people who have given so much to us.
9. Sense of Humor/Wit
It’s more difficult to describe wit than it is to describe a sense of humor. People who are witty employ clever turns of phrase and a kind of sharpness and intelligence that is often described as ‘rapier’ wit. In other words, witty people are charming. They may not be natural stand-up comedians, but they possess the ability to invent a brilliant metaphor to illustrate a concept.
One example of someone who had a brilliant sense of humor and was always extremely witty is Oscar Wilde. Some of his most quotable lines include the following phrases: “Work is the curse of the drinking classes”; “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination”; and “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Wit allows us to entertain both ourselves and the person we are conversing with: this ability to play and have fun with language is crucial to making sense of nonsensical things, sometimes; the use of paradox can cause us to more carefully examine things that we may have previously believed we understood fully, making our conversations more interesting, unpredictable, and surprising.
The last characteristic on this list is thoughtfulness, or the ability to think carefully about what you say before you say it—all while taking someone else’s feelings and interests into consideration. It’s another way of saying that it’s important to be kind and considerate, especially while having a conversation with someone.
Think about it: that other person has taken the time to listen to what you have to say; they’ve taken time out of their busy schedule to have a conversation with you. The least you can do is stop to consider their thoughts and feelings before blurting something out. Remember, you can never take something back, once it’s been said—regardless of the existence of the phrase, “I take that back.”
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What are some of your favorite characteristics of great conversationalists? Share your thoughts in the comments, below!