Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Art of Conversation

Last Monday in this space we discussed the idea of lost skills - the things our grandparents were able to do that we today generally can't. It generated some interesting discussion in the comments and on Facebook and, as if it were a popular TV show, has led to a spinoff ... this post.

Number 11 on the list of lost skills was Socializing Like a Human, the idea being that not many people nowadays can carry on a conversation without the aid of some electronic device. In this context, my daughter had asked me a while back what I thought made someone a good conversationalist ... here's what I told her (augmented with what I should have told her but didn't think of at the time):

1. Be a good listener. Carrying on a conversation doesn't just mean being able to talk a lot ... it means being able to pick up on conversational cues and steer the discussion in mutually interesting and enjoyable directions. By paying attention to what your conversational partner says, you learn what he thinks is interesting and can keep the repartee fresh.

2. Read widely. Keeping up on current affairs always gives you something new to talk about.

3. Read things you don't agree with. One of the big problems we have nowadays is that people tend to only read or watch things that reflect their own interests and political, social, or religious preferences. This simply reinforces existing beliefs and keeps us from finding possible areas of agreement with others. If you find yourself in a heated discussion on some issue, having some degree of understanding of (if not agreement with) the beliefs of the other person helps you to keep the discussion on an intellectual level and minimize rancor.

4. Watch body language - yours and theirs. If you're talking with a person whose arms are crossed, eyes are wandering, or toes are nervously tapping the floor, you're probably losing their interest. By the same token, you should maintain an open posture and good eye contact to let the other person know that you are open to what they have to say and are focused on the discussion.

5. Know how to agreeably disagree*. Being a good conversationalist doesn't mean always doing the drinking duck, agreeing with everything the other person says. Feel free to disagree, but do it in a way that keeps the conversation going instead of slamming the door on it. Instead of saying something like, "How on earth could you possibly believe that horse hockey?", say something like, "I'm not sure I agree with that ... what makes you think so?" The first version tells the other person you don't agree and she's an idiot; the second tells her you don't agree, but offers her the opportunity to keep the conversation going by explaining the position. You may still disagree, but you've kept the conversation on a friendly basis. Here's a summary of good information about how to disagree.

6. Make the other person feel important. This builds on #1 and #4 above. If you're busy sending text messages, reading your e-mail, or watching what's going on around you instead of concentrating on the person with whom you're talking, you've told the other person that they aren't interesting enough to hold your attention, and you've killed the conversation. If you are talking with someone, put away the smart phone, maintain eye contact, and make him the focus of your full attention.

7. Have a few good, clean jokes in your hip pocket. Everybody loves to laugh, and a good joke can be used to break the ice, relieve tension, and keep everyone in a good humor. Steer away from jokes about topics which can easily give offense, like religion, politics, and ethnic stereotypes. Puns and silly observations are good, dirty limericks are usually a poor choice.

8. Know how to end the conversation. If you're in a casual conversation at a party or happy hour and want to move on to talk with someone else, don't just wander off. Let the other person know you've enjoyed talking with them and leave the door open for future contact. If you've learned something interesting, tell them; if you've disagreed, suggest that you may want to meet again another time to pursue the discussion. You want to leave the other person wanting to talk with you again.

It's going to be a while before we have this useful tool ...

... so it behooves us to master the vanishing art of good conversation.

Have a good day. Let's get together and talk about it sometime.

More thoughts tomorrow.


* For good examples of how not to disagree, read the comments posted to almost any online news story. Trolls are never good conversationalists.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

Another one I might suggest is to take a chance talking with someone less familiar.

Still another is that gossip does not constitute the stuff of conversation.

KathyA said...

Great post!

I'm reminded of talking one time to a doctor with whom I could not make eye contact, no matter how hard I tried! I actually bent down from my chair to try to meet his gaze centered on the floor and everywhere else! After I told him to consider going into research, I found another pediatrician!