How to Improve Conversation Skills: Tips From Pros

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Do you struggle with talking to people? Do you want to know how to improve your conversation skills?

Conversation skills are well worth developing because our careers, romantic prospects, and social lives depend on connecting with other people. Conversations—even the most trivial, small talk—establish the emotional tone of our interactions and help us gauge how deeply we’d like to connect with each other.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to learn how to improve your conversation skills. 

The Power of a Conversation 

People who are good conversationalists have the best chance of establishing beneficial relationships and creating opportunities for personal and professional success. Unfortunately, many people struggle with conversations and don’t know how to confidently approach and talk to others. 

Fortunately, having good conversations is a skill, and like any other skill, you can develop it through practice. At the heart of learning how to improve conversation skills are three things: choosing things to talk about, being able to listen, and emitting effective nonverbal cues. In this article, you’ll learn how to improve conversation skills in each of these areas. 

Choosing a Conversation Topic

The first thing to know when learning how to improve conversation skills is how to choose a topic to talk about. Here are the key rules of thumb to follow when choosing a conversation topic:

  • It’s always best to keep to topics you and all the other participants all appreciate and understand. 
  • Bring up past topics of conversation if you’ve met before so you can continue to build your relationship based on existing rapport. 
  • Avoid bringing up topics that make people uncomfortable or cause controversy, as the resulting division of opinions may ruin the interaction.
  • 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, 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.

Talking Strangers

When people first meet each other, they usually ask two questions: “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” Normally, they each respond with fact-based answers—for example, “I’m from New York and I’m an engineer.” But this sort of answer shuts down a conversation—if your conversation partner’s never been to New York or knows nothing about engineering, they won’t know how to continue the conversation.

Instead, practice extending your responses to these two questions in a way that stimulates a response—by using interesting facts, jokes, or general observations. This requires coming up with different variations depending on who you’re talking to and the social context you’re in. If you’re seeking to make friends, keep your responses fun and general. For example, “I’m from X—where they make the best goat’s cheese in the world.” If you’re talking to them for networking purposes, consider what interest this person could have in you or your work and include that in your response. For example, “I’m an engineer and have been working on X for the past two years.”

If you’re struggling to come up with stimulating ways to respond to these two questions, reframe your answer to divert the conversation to topics you’d prefer to talk about. For example, respond to “Where are you from?” by saying, “I’m from X but I moved to Y because Z.” Respond to “What do you do?” with “I work in X but lately I’ve been spending my time doing Y because Z. How do you spend your time off?” This diversion tactic lets you avoid unwanted questions and it helps you to move the conversation to topics you’ll find more comfortable and engaging.

How to Keep the Conversation Going

Even if you’ve chosen an interesting, uncontroversial, and appropriate subject to talk about, it’s easy to run out of things to say during a conversation. This is especially true when it comes to conversations with new friends, as you don’t have an established rapport. 

One way to prevent conversations from fizzling out is by asking open-ended follow-up questions that encourage the other person to keep sharing details about themselves. In The Fine Art of Small Talk, Debra Fine discusses several themes that make great follow-up questions

– Ask the other person to expand on anything they’ve mentioned so far in the conversation. 
– Ask them about what they’re wearing, especially any item with an insignia that suggests they’re a member of a group or society. 
– Ask them about their achievements and successes, particularly those that they’ve highlighted themselves.
– Ask them about their relationship to the location or the event where you’ve met. What brought them there? Who else do they know there?

TITLE: How to Talk to Anyone
AUTHOR: Leil Lowndes
TIME: 17
READS: 154.6
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: how-to-talk-to-anyone-summary-leil-lowndes

Active Listening

Another important conversation sub-skill is the ability to listen actively. According to Debra Fine, the author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, active listening involves three elements: 

1. Giving Visual Cues

When you listen to someone, you should use your body language to communicate your interest and engagement. Here’s how:

1. Act as if there were no distractions in the room. Fine suggests you face your partner openly and directly and smile.

2. Nod, make eye contact, and stay focused on the speaker. If you have trouble maintaining eye contact, Fine suggests you look at the space between their eyes instead of directly at them; your partner won’t be able to tell the difference.

3. Be aware of what your body language implies. Don’t cross your arms and legs, place your hands on your hips, or rest your chin in your hand. Don’t fidget or keep your head down. Fine notes that these signs are typically interpreted as implying boredom, disinterest, disagreement, or hostility. 

2. Giving Verbal Cues

Verbal cues add to the reassurance provided by visual cues. Verbally indicating that you’re present and aware encourages your partner to keep speaking. You can use verbal cues to show you understand, agree, disagree, or want to hear more. For example, you can say: “Hmm, I see…” “What makes you feel that way?”

You can also use verbal cues to transition to another topic. For example, you can say: “That reminds me: I’ve heard that… What do you think about that?” or “Since you’re an engineer, I wonder if you could explain…”

One helpful verbal cue is to paraphrase and repeat. This technique lets you clarify that you understood the other person correctly, or helps them recognize where you misunderstood what they were trying to say. 

Here are some common ways to paraphrase and repeat:

  • “Wait, you mean he actually said that he doesn’t care what you think?”
  • “So, it’s the left outlet you want me to plug it into?”
  • “Sir, I just want to be sure: You’re asking me to order seven thousand copies?”

3. The Mental Component of Listening

Finally, remember that giving visual and verbal cues that suggest you’re listening isn’t enough: You have to actually listen, too. Listening is your job in the conversation, and it isn’t optional.

If you find your mind often wanders while others are meandering through a sentence, try keeping your brain engaged by focusing on more than just the speaker’s words: Watch their body language—their face, eyes, posture, and tone of voice—can you tell how they feel about the topic? Weigh the evidence of their points; is the logic sound? Think ahead, and try to guess where the speaker’s thought is going. Finally, review the highlights of the conversation so far.

TITLE: The Fine Art of Small Talk
AUTHOR: Debra Fine
TIME: 45
READS: 225.3
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: the-fine-art-of-small-talk-summary-debra-fine

Nonverbal Communication

The last (but not least) conversation sub-skill we’ll discuss is nonverbal communication. According to Olivia Fox Cabane, the author of The Charisma Myth, you should move slowly and deliberately, like benevolent royalty. The fewer movements you make, the more confident, in control, and authoritative you’ll seem. Restless fidgeting makes you seem distracted and agitated.

She also recommends that you mirror the body language of your interlocutor. By mirroring, you subconsciously communicate familiarity and intimacy, earning the other person’s trust. But make sure your mirroring is subtle: If people notice you mirroring their body language, they may accuse you of trying to manipulate them. A good rule of thumb is to stick to movements that feel instinctively right—don’t force anything. Note that if you’re already feeling connected to your conversation partner, you may find yourself mirroring automatically. This is a less risky, more natural form of mirroring.

Finally, maintain mindful eye contact. Many people feel uncomfortable staring into someone else’s eyes for an extended period of time, but by pushing through the discomfort, you can forge deep connections. That said, if your eye contact is too intense, it may come across as threatening. To avoid this, use a mirror to practice looking with a soft focus—relax your eyes to create a feeling of warmth. Also, avoid staring for too long. On average, people make eye contact for 7 to 10 seconds at a time in a one-on-one conversation and 3 to 5 seconds at a time in a group. Making more eye contact than that can easily come across as aggressive.

TITLE: The Charisma Myth
AUTHOR: Olivia Fox Cabane
TIME: 12
READS: 86.4
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: the-charisma-myth-summary-olivia-fox-cabane

Finding Conversation Opportunities

Now that you understand the basics of learning how to improve conversation skills, let’s discuss some easy ways to find conversation opportunities: 

Use and Take Notice of Visual Gimmicks

Perhaps the easiest way to start conversations is to draw attention to yourself by wearing or carrying something unusual, such as a unique brooch or a colorful shirt. This gives people an excuse to approach you and gives you something to talk about. Likewise, pay attention to what those around you are wearing or carrying so that you have an excuse to approach them. Using a complimentary phrase such as, “Wow, I love your shoes! Where are they from?” not only helps you to start a conversation, but it also shows others that you’re interested in them and what they have to say.

You can also use situational cues as an excuse to strike up a conversation. For example, if music is playing, ask them if they know the artist or if they like the song. If there is food or drink, ask them what they’ve tried and what they’d recommend. If you’re outside, make a comment about the weather.

Ask for Introductions

Another effective way to approach new people is to ask mutual acquaintances to make introductions for you. Before they introduce you, ensure that they’ll pad out these introductions with a few details, such as the new person’s hobbies or interests, so that you have the opportunity to show your interest and start a discussion. 

Alternatively, if your acquaintances are too busy to introduce you, ask them for information so that you can find a shared interest to use as an icebreaker. With this information, you can easily approach someone new using a variation of the following line: “Hey, I was just talking to … and she told me that you …”

Final Words

Many people struggle to make a good conversation. As a result, they miss out on enjoying opportunities that spring from social and professional relationships. Luckily, having a good conversation is not rocket science: You can learn how to improve conversation skills, and when you do, the quality of your relationships and your effectiveness in your career will improve dramatically. 

If you enjoyed our article on how to improve conversation skills, check out the following suggestions for further reading:

How to Win Friends and Influence People

How to Win Friends and Influence People is one of the best-selling books of all time. It contains universal principles of interacting with other people to get them to like you and have them see your way of thinking. This isn’t about manipulation—it’s about sincerely approaching people, believing they’re important, and treating them likewise. Learn how to improve conversation skills, how to make other people feel important, and how to change other people’s minds without offending them.

Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are a constant throughout life, at work, at home, and in the world. We never outgrow them, or get a promotion that saves us from them, or meet a person who’s so perfect for us we never have to have them.

But difficult conversations, if we engage in them successfully, are the mark of a healthy relationship. In fact, the success and survival of any relationship, business or personal, depends on the ability of those involved to master difficult conversations. Difficult Conversations will help you ask for that raise, bring up issues with your spouse, understand your kids better, and get to the bottom of your feud with your neighbor.

Crucial Conversations

Poorly handling crucial conversations — discussions with high stakes, different opinions, and strong emotions — is the cause of many of our most painful problems in work and home life. These stressful conversations can rapidly go awry, with people behaving at their worst – yelling at each other and sniping sarcastically, or on the other side going silent and withdrawing. When this happens, little progress is made, and resentment builds. Moreover, we often deliberately avoid having these conversations because we’re afraid we’ll make matters worse.

Crucial Conversations teaches you an array of dialogue principles and practical skills, explained and demonstrated through numerous examples. After this book, you’ll be able to talk to anyone about virtually any topic, no matter how sensitive. When you learn to handle crucial conversations effectively, the quality of your relationships and your effectiveness in your career will improve dramatically, and you’ll be able to help get everybody what they want.

How to Improve Conversation Skills: Tips From Pros

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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