The art of having a great conversation, though a very important one, is not a very difficult skill to master. Many people lack the ability to hold a conversation. You may have the most interesting stories to tell or jokes to share, but if you’re unable to communicate your thoughts effectively, your conversation is going to be ineffective, boring, and above all meaningless.
And because it’s a skill, you have to learn it. No one is a great collocutor by birth. Whether it’s fear of public speaking or the habit of always having a bad conversation, the reason behind is almost always the lack of knowledge on how to communicate.
Before diving down into the do’s and don’ts of a great conversation, it is important to know what a conversation actually means. In its simplest terms, a conversation is a two-way communication. While sitting and chatting with your everyday buddies is also a form of conversation, formal conversations tend to be a bit different.
These conversations are aimed at reaching a specific objective, generally, revolve around a limited number of topics, and may require a specific sitting atmosphere. Additionally, these conversation may sometimes contain a convincing factor as well.
So, how to have a great conversation with someone? Well, follow these simple Do’s and Don’ts and you will end up making a conversation that people love.
Let’s start with the DON’Ts first, because, when you stop doing these things you are already half the way there.
Don’ts of Having a Great Conversation
It is important to stop doing certain things which you used to do in your past conversations. Start gradually as these changes are not going to take place overnight.
1. Don’t judge
As with any conversation, if you feel yourself judging the other person, stop yourself. Your inner voice is probably telling you what you’d like to hear or in some cases, it’s saying what you’ve been taught to say by your parents or your community. In either case, it’s important to remember that judging someone else is not the point of a conversation. The point is to be present and to share with another human being! It’s more important to be understanding than to be right.
2. Don’t multitask
It’s important to be present. Have you ever noticed that when you’re having a conversation with someone and they’re doing something else, they’re not really with you? They’re not listening. They’re not present. And that’s not the way to have a great conversation.
If you are really looking forward to having a great conversation, don’t think about what happened before the conversation, don’t think about what you are going to do next after the conversation. Put your phone away, put your computer away, put your work away, put your worries away. Just be. Just be with the person you are having a conversation with.
3. Don’t take it personally
“Remember the conversation is not about you,” Celeste explains. “It’s about the other person. You can’t take things personally. Listen to what they’re saying and believe them. Listen for the feeling behind the words.”
4. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say next
This is probably the hardest one to follow, but it’s also the most important. If you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next, you’re not listening. Being present means being there in that moment. If you’re worried about what you’re going to say next, you’re not being present and you’re missing the opportunity to connect with your conversation partner.
5. Don’t just talk about yourself
The person you’re talking to just wants to feel heard, too. Listen to what they have to say and respond to them with something other than a yes or no question. People love to talk about themselves, but they also love to talk about themselves with people who actually care. Focus on them. Ask questions. Ask about themselves, not just what they do, but why they do it.
6. Don’t wait for your turn to speak
“Don’t just wait for your turn to speak,” Celeste advises. “Listen for openings. Listen for opportunities to jump in and add to the conversation. If you’re just waiting for your turn to say something, you’re not listening.”
7. Don’t talk too much
Celeste suggests offering a genuine compliment to your conversation partner before you begin talking about yourself. This gives your partner a chance to feel good about themselves and also lets them know that you’re listening to them.
8. Don’t interrupt
“People interrupt each other because they’re not listening,” Celeste explains. “The other person is saying something and they’re not paying attention so they jump in and say what they’re going to say next and they don’t even let the person finish. That’s an interruption.”
9. Don’t be afraid to talk about sex
“Sex is something that’s very powerful and people are very afraid to talk about it,” Celeste explains. “If you’re in conversation with someone and you feel like you want to talk about sex, do it! Just do it!”
10. Don’t let others interrupt you
If you feel like you’re being interrupted, don’t be afraid to ask the person to repeat themselves. “Just say, ‘Can you please repeat that?’” Celeste says. “Say it with a smile. If you say it with a smile, they’ll smile back and they’ll repeat it and you’ll hear what they have to say.”
Don’t be afraid to have awkward conversations. If you’re relaxed, you’ll have an awesome time. Remember, you’re exactly where you need to be. Nothing is going to happen that you can’t handle.
DO’s of Having a Great Conversation
So, what important things to be mindful of to have a great a conversation? These 14 DO’s will make your conversation interesting, productive, and meaningful.
1. Keep eye contact
In a conversation with someone, it’s pretty inevitable that you’ll be looking at them. However, looking someone in the eye can be a tricky skill to master! Too often, people will be “staring” into someone’s eyes but will fail to make actual eye contact. Instead, they will look at the person’s forehead, or the top of their head.
As Celeste points out, “it’s very difficult to connect with someone when you’re not looking at them in the eyes,” so it’s essential to keep eye contact.
As a rule of thumb, if you’re having a conversation over the phone, or in a group, try to use the person’s eyes as your “anchor point”. If you’re just talking one-on-one, it’s much easier to maintain eye contact.
2. Listen intently
This is a common misconception about conversation, which is that people feel that listening is a passive activity. However, as Celeste points out, “it’s the most active part of the conversation.”
In order to have a great conversation, you need to be listening intently to the other person. You need to be “checking in” with them, and showing them that you’re interested.
3. Ask open-ended questions
Open-ended questions tend to start with words like “what”, “when”, “how”, “why”. This is much better than using a closed-ended question, which is basically a question that can be answered with a “yes”, “no”, or a one-word answer.
By asking open-ended questions, you are encouraging the other person to talk more and will get more information out of them.
4. Listen for “the golden keys”
It’s not enough to just listen for words. You need to listen for “golden keys”. “These are the most interesting things your friend shared with you.”
I’ve probably listened to my friends talk about a topic that they are passionate about for an hour before without really hearing anything of value. However, the second that they share something they think is interesting, you should be focusing all of your attention on those words. This is the golden key.
For example, my friend might be talking about a new colleague and how they’re weird. I’m only hearing the words, and not hearing the golden key.
However, if they say that they think he’s weird because he spends every lunch hour eating at a specific food truck during his lunch hour and that they’ve never seen him eat anything else, then that’s the golden key.
5. Be relevant
It’s not enough to just listen for the golden keys, you need to be thinking about how they connect to your life as well.
For example, if you hear that your friend has a new colleague that is weird, you could nod and say that, but then you could see that your friend is getting frustrated about it.
At this point, it’s time to ask questions and shows that you’re interested.
6. Be open
A conversation is not a monologue — it’s a dialogue. Make sure you’re taking turns, and not just waiting for your friend to say something.
Celeste mentions that “you should be able to relate what they’re saying to something in your own life, or if you can’t, just ask questions.”
If you’re friends with someone, then that means you’ve probably gone through similar life experiences as well. If you want to show your friend that they can trust you, then you need to be ready to talk about these topics.
7. Avoid awkward silences
We’ve all been guilty of making an awkward pause in a conversation, and then we try to fill the silence by saying something like “Haha! Isn’t it funny how people are so different?”
Yeah. No. It’s not funny. You need to learn to deal with awkward silences by not avoiding them at all, but by trying to deal with them in a way that doesn’t sound awkward.
Say you’re at a party and you’re talking to a stranger, and you’re getting a little bored.
Instead of turning away and avoiding the awkwardness, you need to turn towards the person you’re talking to and say “I’m sorry, I’m being rude. I’m Celeste. What’s your name?”
I know that sounds a little weird, but it shows your interest in the person and makes them feel a little more at ease.
8. Use the silence to your advantage
Remember that awkward silence I mentioned above? This is where silence can be an advantage.
Silence can be really disarming. It’s a great way to create intimacy. If you’re feeling awkward or nervous with the person you’re talking to, you can silence it by saying nothing, says Celeste Heedlee, an American journalist and public speaker.
Silence is a great way to create a better connection with someone. By using silence, you’re actually showing that you’re comfortable with yourself, and you’re comfortable with the other person.
9. Speak slowly
This is probably my biggest problem. I’ve only realized how fast I talk in the past few years. I tend to talk fast in almost all circumstances, but especially in a conversation that I’m enjoying.
This can be awkward for both parties, as we can’t listen or speak as well as we could if we spoke more slowly.
10. Use your hands
I just watched a fantastic video on hand gestures in conversation by Celeste Headlee, and I’m learning a lot.
She mentions that we should use hand gestures to help make our points, and not simply for emphasis.
I’ve always been more of a gesticulator when I’m excited, but I’ve never thought I did it too much. I tend to do it, especially when I’m saying something that I know will get a reaction, like when I’m telling a joke or an interesting story.
I’m going to start thinking about using my hands when I’m not excited as well, to help me be more engaged in the conversation.
11. Make yourself vulnerable
This is a great tip I learned from Celeste, and it’s something I’m going to try and do more often.
We’re often much less comfortable with vulnerability than we are when we’re in a position of power, so we’re much better at it when we’re not in the spotlight.
I’m going to make a conscious effort to ask questions and make myself vulnerable more often.
12. Make the other person feel important
This is just something you can do in any conversation and is often an instinctive behavior. It’s important to make the other person feel important, and let them know that you’re listening.
I’ve always been particularly good at this, probably because I’m naturally very interested in other people. I’m going to try to make this a centerpiece of my social interactions.
13. Ask questions
I’m going to try to ask more questions and actively listen to the answers. I’m also going to be more aware of when I’m asking questions, and try to make sure that I’m not just asking questions so I can talk more.
A lot of people think they’re good at asking questions, but it’s not enough to ask just any question. You have to ask questions that are actually relevant to the conversation.
14. Notice your facial expressions
This is something I’ve known about for a while, but I’ve never been good at. I’m naturally a pretty stoic person, and I always put effort into making sure I don’t look nervous or uncomfortable.
I’m going to try and be more aware of my face and think about how I’m looking when I’m speaking to someone.
According to Celeste, we should mimic the expressions of the person we’re speaking to. This helps the other person feel more engaged with us.
As a side note, I’ve been really enjoying this video by Celeste Headlee on how to have great conversations.
I’ve already learned a great deal from it in the short time I’ve been watching it. She’s a fantastic speaker and I find her lectures really easy to listen to. I highly recommend watching a Ted talk she gave.
Finally, try and make these ideas part of your conversations, and you’ll see a big improvement. It’s not something you’ll master overnight, but if you try to be aware of how you’re talking to people and focus on some of these points, your conversations will be much better.
What do you do to have a great conversation?