How to Be a Better Conversationalist: 3 Ways to Let Others Shine

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Better Small Talk" by Patrick King. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you prefer to talk about yourself than learn about others? Do you know how to make people feel comfortable and understood?

A good conversationalist is a thoughtful one. They don’t monopolize conversations, they make people feel seen and heard, and they show genuine interest in others. In Better Small Talk, Patrick King shows how to take good care of the person you’re talking to so they want to continue the conversation.

Continue reading for King’s advice on how to be a better conversationalist by being a thoughtful one.

How to Be a Better Conversationalist

Much of King’s book focuses on how you can shine in conversation. But, of course, good conversations can happen only if the other person feels good when they talk to you. So, he also addresses how to ensure your conversation partner feels important and heard and will want to keep engaging with you in the future. He shares three pieces of advice on how to be a better conversationalist.

(Shortform note: In Just Listen, psychiatrist Mark Goulston explains why the other person must feel heard and respected in a conversation for that conversation to be of any value. People are constantly thinking about their own lives, feelings, and problems, so to engage with you meaningfully, they must feel you’ve acknowledged and empathized with what’s going on in their lives. Once they feel cared for in this way, they’ll be able to listen to you in turn.)

#1: Make Space for the Other Person to Contribute

One of the most important ways to take care of your conversation partner is to give them room to contribute by listening well to them and not monopolizing the conversation. Many people view conversations as simply a way to state their own opinion or tell their own story, and they feel no obligation to listen to the other person, writes King. This makes for an unrewarding experience for the other person, who feels unimportant and unheard.

To listen well and share the conversational space, King recommends the following: 

  1. Don’t craft your response while the other person is still talking. Listen actively with an open mind and only formulate your response once they’ve finished. 
  2. Show the other person that you’re listening. You can do this through engaged facial expressions, verbalizations, and body language. 
  3. Don’t stick to your point or story if the other person takes the conversation in another direction. Be willing to let go of what you wanted to say. 
  4. In general, try to talk less. People probably aren’t as interested in your life as you are and don’t care to hear about it endlessly.

#2: Offer Thoughtful, Valuable Compliments

Another way to take care of your conversation partner and ensure they feel good in conversation is to offer thoughtful compliments. King writes that the compliments that ingratiate you most effectively with the recipient target something the recipient can control or something the recipient has actively decided to do. Such compliments feel more meaningful to the recipient than compliments about things they can’t control (like looks) because they validate a person’s choices and lifestyle. 

For instance, a person will be happier if you tell them you’re really impressed with the garden they’ve worked tirelessly to cultivate than if you compliment them on the size of their hands, which is something they have no control over.

Consider complimenting others on choices they’ve made to stand out from the crowd because these deliberate decisions reflect their identity and how they want to be perceived. A unique choice might be a nonconformist opinion, an unusual garment, a particular spiritual interest, or an affiliation.

As an alternative to a traditional compliment, King suggests noticing people’s behaviors, habits, and idiosyncrasies and non-judgmentally drawing attention to them. This makes the other person feel noteworthy and seen. For instance, if a friend often uses an uncommon turn of phrase, you might inquire about it. This will make them feel unique and interesting and might lead to an intriguing explanation of where they picked up that phrase.

#3: Pose Thoughtful Questions That Prompt a Meaningful Contribution

Finally, King writes that, to make space for your conversation partner, you must master the art of asking questions that prompt meaningful, interesting answers. Such questions allow the other person to share thoughts, stories, and ideas that appeal to them, which makes them enjoy the conversation more. Here are some question types you can try out to encourage deep, enjoyable dialogue:

  • Open-ended questions. These are questions that demand more than a binary “yes or no” response. “What did you enjoy most about the concert?” is an example of an open-ended question (as opposed to: “Did you enjoy the concert?”).
  • Questions that enhance your understanding of the other person’s views. Inquire about why someone feels a certain way or how they developed a belief. Seek to see the world through their eyes. 
  • Follow-up questions. To drill down more into a topic or sentiment, ask questions that come to mind after hearing their response to your first question. (For instance: “You described the music as solemn; what do you mean by that?”)
  • Talk about topics other than the two of you. Your conversations don’t have to just revolve around what you both think, feel, and believe. Talk about other things, like current events, your surroundings, new media you’re consuming, and so on. King notes that this is a great way into someone’s personal thoughts if you don’t feel comfortable asking about those outright.
How to Be a Better Conversationalist: 3 Ways to Let Others Shine

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Patrick King's "Better Small Talk" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Better Small Talk summary:

  • Why small talk is a critical part of any conversation
  • How mastering small talk can help you have more meaningful conversations
  • How to become a better conversationalist, storyteller, and listener

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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