In-Person Conversation Skills

Good conversation is one of life’s pleasures.

Some people are better conversationalists than others. What skills or techniques do they employ? Stan James and I have been interested in this question for a long time and first discussed it in Costa Rica last summer. We came up with a grab bag of do’s and don’ts for in-person conversations (not email or phone). Your additions?

Don’t selfishly hijack. This is the most annoying habit of bad conversationalists. You say, “I met some really interesting people at that conference.” He says, “Really? I met nobody interesting.” Or, you say, “My classes are all terrific.” She says, “Really? Mine suck.” In other words, whatever you say he takes as an invitation to share his personal experience / opinion instead of probing on your statement or at least clarifying or re-phrasing it. Once you start watching for this you see it all the time. Don’t be that guy. Don’t hijack conversations to bring it back to yourself. Wait your turn. Be interested in the other person.

Answer questions at the appropriate level of detail. If you’re in a job interview and the potential employer asks about your last job, you will offer detail. If you’re at a cocktail party and someone you don’t know asks the same question, the appropriate (initial) answer calls for very little detail. Too many people deploy the same answer to common questions without customizing it to the particular conversation.

In groups, avoid topics that not all can follow. Pursue topics common to all participants.

Don’t try too long to remember something. To use a technical term, “time-out” after a 10 seconds. Don’t make everyone wait as you try to remember the name of that book you were reading (“Gosh what was its name, I know it, it’s, it’s, it’s, gosh let me think…”). Drop it and move on. It will come to you later.

Fidelity to an objective isn’t always necessary. Some business meetings call for strict adherence to an agenda. But many of the best conversations follow new and unknown directions. The joy is in the journey.

Be self-aware about self-interruptions. Meanderings and tangents contribute to the wonderful spontaneity of conversations. Just announce your intention to pursue an off-point before doing so. E.g., “Ok, I want to come back to this, but let me tell you a quick related story…”

Feel free to shift gears quickly. After you’ve plumbed the depths of a topic, move on, even if it’s abrupt. Not every new statement needs to iteratively build on the prior one. For example, you talk about business ideas with your conversation partner, there’s a pause, and then you say, “Ok, changing topics, how’s your family?”

Recognize “just need to be heard” conversations. These are unique conversations between friends or romantic partners. One party just wants to feel heard, not engage in debate or discussion. The best thing you can do is listen really well. E.g., she says, “I feel like nobody at work appreciates me. I’m there ten hours a day and I hardly ever get a thank-you.” You say, “Yeah. So you’re saying nobody at the office is giving you love?”

The Traffic Light rule of communication. “During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light is green. That means your listener is listening and not thinking you talk too much. During the next 30 seconds, your light is yellow. That means the risk is increasing that your listener is bored, overwhelmed, or dying to respond. After the one-minute mark, your light is red. Yes, occasionally, you can go beyond a minute, for example, when telling an interesting story, but generally you should stop or ask a question.”

Be okay with silence. Don’t rush to fill silence in a conversation. Some people particularly need silent time to think and reflect, if only for a moment. And wasn’t it Aristotle who said that true friendship is when silence between two people is comfortable?

Recognize people who are “getting in line” in the conversation. Notice people who tried to say something but got cut off. Notice people “raising their hand” to speak but haven’t been able to say their two cents. Circle back to them.

Taking notes during the conversation. I’ve blogged about the pros and cons of taking notes during a one-on-one conversation. Pros: you remember what was talked about and show respect for the other person’s ideas. Cons: can overly formalize the interaction and create a weird status dynamic if only one person is scribbling.

Don’t deploy conversation-stopping phrases. “It’s complicated” or “But here’s a counterexample!” or “Correlation doesn’t equal causation!”

Tell stories. Communication experts the world over agree that stories are the most effective way to convey ideas. Here are some tips on how to tell a good story.

Listen well. Listening skills deserves a post of its own. Suffice to say here that being an active, respectful, genuine listener will energize your conversation partner(s), and lead to a higher overall quality conversation. One way to improve on this front is to talk with good listeners (you know who they are because when you talk to them you feel heard). Notice their habits.

Recognize when the conversation is over. If you start talking about the stuff you started off with, it’s sign you’re looping back and nearing the end. If your partner seems to be disengaging (for example his eyes start wandering), take this as a cue. In any event, respect everyone’s time and proactively bring a conversation to a close by saying, “This has been lots of fun. We should probably get going. But I really enjoyed it – thanks.”

12 comments on “In-Person Conversation Skills
  • Great post. I just posted on the subject of sustaining conversations by identifying fodder the other day. You hit on some great pointers here–and not just pointers to make you look good, but also to be considerate of others and encourage connections between all parties involved in the conversations. My post includes three very specific things you can say to sustain a conversation and take it beyond the “How are you” level:

  • Rule #32:

    Don’t be cowed by the height of the person you are conversing with, even if his name rhymes with Shmem Shmasnocha.

    Seriously, listening well should not be underestimated. Not only is it an exercise in virtue (charity and patience), it gives you an opportunity to evaluate your conversationalist.

    That being said, it’s also worth noting that a lot of interesting people are terrible at conversing. Thoughts, Ben? I’ve known plenty of brilliant folks with all sorts of wonderful qualities with whom conversation is a veritable minefield of awkward and bizarre moments.

    Also, there has to be a context for taking notes. Otherwise, in my head I’ll be thinking, wtf is this kook recording my words for?

    P.S. (Sid Caesar said that 32 was the funniest number)

  • Agreed that conversational ability is not the only litmus test for someone’s interestingness or certainly their intelligence. But these people usually can converse well over email or letter. If they cannot, it means they cannot write well. And this, to my mind, IS a reliable indicator of intelligence.

    I don’t think most people say “wtf” when another person takes notes. Most people understand that our memory can fail us!

  • “Don’t hijack the conversation”

    You hit it on the head with that one. I’ve caught myself many a time just waiting for the other person to stop talking so I can get my thoughts into the mix. Then I feel guilty because, wait a minute, what was that person saying again?


  • A great post, but I do have a caveat. I know you’v blogged before on how you find the phrase “correlation is not causation,” but in my experience this is a very common logical fallacy. If the conversation is taking a rigorous, highly intellectual turn, this is an important issue to bring up, though perhaps there are nicer, subtler ways to phrase it. And of course, you’re right that it’s often excessive in a friendly chat.

  • Good list. I would add another, related to “shifting gears”:

    – Go smoothly into the next conversational thread. This is when the other person will have jumped to another thread but you’re still trying to get in your bit about the previous thread. That’s a clear case of not listening and being in your head, or of wanting a specific reaction. It prevents the flow of organic conversation. Best to let that bit go and only mention it if you circle back to the original thread.

    A lot of this stuff is good to see as bullet-points, but I believe can only be experienced in the real world through practice with a lot of different conversationalists. It’s a good representation of social intuition though.

  • *Manage your state of mind.* After a day of programming I cannot be a good conversation partner. If there is a time when I want to have conversations i.e. friday night, then I will do something else beforehand i.e. friday afternoon and lay off the caffeine, so I’m not all twitchy and “looking for bugs.”

    You can try to do this for other people too. If you see a friend getting tired or bored or something you can provide them with an appropriate substance, or give them a little speech.

    Also, I strongly second *listen well*.

  • Arrh, I’ve been waiting for you to post on this topic Ben since you mentioned it in a video post awhile back.

    Conversational skills are near and dear to my heart. I run a weekly group therapy session with stroke and head injured patients just to practice conversational skills and encourage social engagement.

    I would add one more item to your list, use appropriate body language. Facing the person is important, eye contact, head nodding etc to show you’re engaged. Mirroring is a good technique. It’s important to be aware that what is considered appropriate body language can vary between cultures.

    Ultimately people just want to feel like they have been heard, so just listening and paraphrasing can go a long way to achieving this.

  • Also, don’t try too hard. Often conversation becomes awkard when we aim to make an impression. By being a forgiving conversationalist and adopting a carefree attidute about social interaction, we can improve the amount of postitive feelings surrounding the whole experience.

    Great tips, thanks!

  • I’ve known plenty of smart people who don’t write well. If you were to say that writing well is a (fairly) reliable indicator of intelligence, I would agree — you need a certain degree of smarts to write well. But the converse isn’t true. You can be really smart and not write well, because you don’t care or you don’t write often or you don’t have the education.

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