Tips on How to Be a Good Conversationalist

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Do you want to know how to be a good conversationalist? What makes a compelling conversation?

One way to start and maintain strong relationships is by being a skilled conversationalist. In The Like Switch, Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins give tips for keeping conversations balanced and pleasant for everyone involved.

Continue reading to learn how to be a good conversationalist.

1. Choosing a Conversation Topic

As with building a friendship, when learning how to be a good conversationalist, it’s good to find common ground. Talk about topics you and the other participants all appreciate and understand. Additionally, bring up past topics of conversation if you’ve met before so you can continue to build your relationship based on existing rapport. The authors advise not to bring up topics that make people uncomfortable or cause controversy, as the resulting division of opinions may ruin new friendships.

When a person tells you something personal about themselves, reciprocate by offering up details about yourself. Anytime we share personal information, we make ourselves vulnerable to the other person. Therefore, if someone has just shared something and you stay silent, you leave the level of vulnerability unbalanced. The other person might feel like the relationship is one-sided. At the same time, the authors advise that you don’t spend too much time talking about yourself or your problems. If you want people to like you, keep the conversation centered around the other person.

(Shortform note: As the authors suggest, reciprocating when someone shares information about themselves is an important part of friendship. For someone to be your friend, they have to get to know you, so friendship inevitably requires sharing and vulnerability. However, you can still be discerning when deciding what to share with whom. Some of your friends may know everything about you, and others may not—that’s okay. Don’t feel the need to share something vulnerable if you’re uncomfortable or if you don’t trust the other person with the same type of information they’ve entrusted to you. Instead, be honest and let them know you’d like to keep some things to yourself. Likewise, don’t press your friends for information they don’t want to share.)

2. Nonverbal Communication During Conversations

The most important nonverbal cue you can give in a conversation is being an active listener. According to the authors, active listening involves really paying attention to what the other person’s saying, not just waiting quietly for your next chance to speak. It lets the other person know that you care about them and that you’re interested in their contributions to the conversation. 

(Shortform note: One major difference between active listening and passive listening is the intention of the listener. When you’re actively listening, you’re trying to absorb the other person’s words as an active participant in the conversation. You’re consciously working toward understanding or problem-solving with the other person. In contrast, passive listeners are inattentive and unreceptive to new ideas. A passive listener’s opinion on a topic is likely already fixed, so they’re unwilling to consider another person’s perspective or find solutions to resolve conflicts. To be an active listener, wait your turn to speak, ask questions, and eliminate distractions that might take your attention away from the conversation.)

The authors suggest that nonverbal cues can also be a window into the other person’s thoughts. Observing these cues can help you ascertain how comfortable the other person is with you and how they feel about whatever you’re discussing. For example, if someone purses their lips, they likely disagree with what you’re saying. If they bite or press their lips together, that means they have something to say, but they’re either hesitant to speak or don’t want to reveal the information they’re thinking of.

3. Managing Conflict in Relationships

Even if you use all the authors’ advice for strong friendships and smooth conversations, you’ll still run into moments of conflict in your relationships. In this section, we’ll discuss Schafer and Karlins’s techniques for approaching conflict as a conversationalist productively.

When Someone’s Angry at You

We’ve all faced anger from others at some point. In these moments, it can feel impossible to find a solution. Using Schafer and Karlins’s method for managing angry responses as a stellar conversationalist, you can quickly and productively move through a conflict. This can help keep your relationships healthy and respectful. 

To start, don’t try to reason with someone who’s angry: Anger triggers the fight-or-flight response in us, which dampens our capacity for logical reasoning and makes reason-based arguments with an angry person unhelpful. Instead, let the angry person spend some time calming down. 

(Shortform note: The fight-or-flight response is your body’s instinctive way of focusing all your energy on survival in the face of perceived danger. When an emotion like anger, anxiety, or even excitement triggers this response, several physiological processes occur. Your adrenal glands release a flood of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, throughout your body. Additionally, your brain redirects blood away from the gut toward the muscles, halting regular processes like digestion and preparing you for intense physical activity. Finally, your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration increase, leading to a higher body temperature and excess perspiration.)

If you have to engage immediately, start by explaining the problem that caused the other person’s anger. For example, say you come home late from your community volleyball team’s weekly practice, and now your spouse is angry with you. The explanation could be that your team had to stay late to finish preparing for an upcoming game, and you didn’t call because you left your cell phone at home. 

If your explanation doesn’t assuage the other person’s anger, try using empathic responding (discussed in an earlier section): Use empathic language to acknowledge the underlying reasons behind their anger. For example, you could say, “You’re angry with me because you didn’t know where I was, and that made you worried.” This response recognizes your spouse’s anger and shows an understanding of their other emotions.

Then, allow the other person to release their angry thoughts freely: Even if you acknowledge their feelings, they’ll likely still have something to say. For example, your spouse may want to complain about your inconsideration or list all the ways you could’ve still gotten in contact without your cell phone. When the angry person pauses, respond empathically again, showing them you understand their point of view.

Continue this cycle of release and empathic responding until the angry person has run out of things to say. Conclude the interaction by offering a resolution that suits both parties. For instance, you might promise to check you have your cell phone every time you leave for practice so the lack of communication doesn’t happen again. If the other person accepts your resolution, the conflict is over.

Tips on How to Be a Good Conversationalist

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Like Switch summary:

  • How to cultivate the qualities you need to attract and connect with new friends
  • How to have meaningful, smooth conversations with friends
  • How you can productively manage conflict in relationships

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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