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The Art of Conversing

Mastering the art of conversing is a key requirement for being successful socially and professionally. It also plays a big role in determining how well liked you are by others.
Thousands of times, you are going to become involved in meeting individuals, often for the first time, who are important to you in one way or another. Similarly, you are likely to participate in countless business events, social gatherings, conferences, professional meetings and other such occasions. In all of these cases, the impression you make will be highly influenced by your ability to converse well.
Conversation Makers
In most one-on-one conversations, you should probably spend two-thirds of the time actively listening and no more than one-third talking. Despite being outed, Roger Ailes, the driving force behind the success of CNBC and the Fox News Channel, was right when he said: “Most of us talk more than we need to. Most of us tell people more than they need to know. Most of us ramble too much, and most of us take too long to say things …The moral: If most of the time you talk more than you listen, you’re probably failing in your communication, and you’re probably boring people, too.”
Before you begin any conversation, first establish direct eye contact with the individual. Once you have started speaking, try to maintain some form of eye contact for about 85% of the time you are talking. If you are speaking to a small group, gradually shift your eye contact from one individual to others in the group, one by one. Speakers who do a poor job of maintaining eye contact run the risk of being perceived as being untrustworthy or having something to hide.
When you are speaking, keep your hands away from covering any part of your face and mouth. Refrain from making distracting movements. Do not point your finger or anything else, such as a pen or pencil, at the person you are talking to.
It may seen ironic but the key to you creating the right image for yourself is the extent to which you express a genuine interest in other people and what they are doing, not in talking about yourself. Mastering the art of conversing depends on how well you do this.
When you begin a conversation, think about whether anything new has happened in the other person’s personal or professional life that you should comment on before saying anything else. Did he recently become a new father? Did she just receive a promotion? The reality is that individuals are far more interested in themselves than in hearing about other people.
When someone starts a conversation with “How are you?”, recognize that this is usually a form of greeting, not a real question. Resist the temptation to answer by giving any details about how you really are feeling. The best response is, “Good, and you?”
In addition, people like to hear their own names. If you know someone’s name beforehand, use it in greeting that person or in introducing yourself. Afterwards, use the individual’s name once or twice more in your conversation. This causes people to pay more attention to what you are saying, including in phone conversations.
To get a conversation started, ask interesting topical questions or ones that are unpredictable and thought provoking. Be imaginative. You obviously have to be careful about asking superiors or individuals in senior positions personal questions. Instead, respectfully ask their opinions about the major issues “of the day”, avoiding subjects that they may find embarrassing or difficult to answer.
With everyone else, ask questions that will give the other person an opportunity to talk about themselves. Examples are: “Where are you originally from?”, “When did you first come to this city?”, “How does … affect you?”, “What do you think about (a news event, a business announcement, a sports tournament, a current community issue)?”, “How do you know the host or hostess?”, “Do you have a family?” and, if so, “What are your children doing?” Generally, most people enjoy talking about their children and pets but are not especially interested in hearing you talk at length about yours.
Do not ask tactless questions that put people on the spot or upset them, such as “Is it true that your company is going bankrupt?” or “Is your husband having difficulties with his job?” On the other hand, do not be surprised by the questions you may be asked. If you are asked an inappropriate or potentially embarrassing question, just remember that there is no rule that says you have to give a direct answer to every question. Instead, respond with an answer that goes off in another direction to put things back on a more comfortable track. You have probably noticed that politicians are especially skillful at giving non-answers to questions they do not want to answer.
Be careful about asking or answering questions about subjects of gossip and rumors. Accept that some things about another person are none of your business. To questions about a rumor relating to their company, seasoned businesspeople usually reply, “I follow a policy of never commenting on rumors.”
When you are asked a legitimate question, give a direct answer that is to the point. Do not beat around the bush or give a lot of non-relevant information in answering. If you are unable to answer a question, just say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not certain of that.” If the question comes from a superior, it helps to be able to add, “If you wish, I can find out the answer and get back to you on it.”
The best questions are open-ended ones that engage people in talking about a subject that they know something about or find interesting. Often you will encounter individuals who seem quite shy and hesitant about talking until you get them started on an issue that is important to them. Ask about someone’s adventures, hobbies or travels. Try to find out what the person enjoys doing the most and whether the two of you share any common interests.
When you become engaged in a conversation, loosen up, relax and let your eyes, body, arms and hands help you to express yourself. Show some enthusiasm, animation, emotion and conviction about what you are both hearing and what you are saying. Try to communicate with your whole being.
Demonstrate a sense of humor. Nothing relaxes people faster than laughing. Sometimes, the best humor is telling a story that pokes fun at yourself. Take a risk and tell a joke, providing it is not too long or embarrassing to anyone hearing it.
If someone tells a story about something silly you have done, join in the laughter with everyone else. Loosen up, do not take yourself too seriously. The ability to laugh at yourself exhibits self-confidence.
Be yourself. Refrain from trying to play the role of someone who is not you. Also, do not be pretentious with others. Each conversation is not a life and death situation. Just be natural.
Conversation Breakers
There are a number of easy, quick ways to bore, offend or even cause people to dislike you when you are having conversations with them. These include:
  • Taking yourself too seriously or lecturing someone.
  • Talking too much about yourself, causing people to think you are egotistical and self-centered.
  • Bragging and “dropping” the names of important people into your comments, implying you have a close relationship with them when you do not.
  • Speaking too much and trying to dominate the conversation.
  • Being a complainer, especially about your job, organization, family or friends. The same goes for blaming others for all of your problems and shortcomings.
  • Talking negatively, particularly about past relationships, employers, superiors and co-workers.
  • Telling jokes and stories that are offensive or include vulgar language and ethnic slurs. Save your funny, off-color stories for the appropriate audience.
Other conversation breakers are:
  • Always responding negatively whenever anyone proposes something or makes a suggestion.
  • Repeating gossip, especially to the people who are the subject of the gossip.
  • Describing your own personal problems at any length (except possibly in private to a close friend).
  • Contradicting others unnecessarily and starting arguments needlessly.
  • Speaking in a dull monotone and using clichés and common generalities as opposed to your own expressions and words.
  • Inappropriately touching or patting someone when you are conversing, especially if the other person is of the opposite sex. In some cultures, any touching of the body of another person is frowned upon.
  • Physically crowding someone by standing or leaning too close to that person when you are saying something to him or her. Respect the other individual’s personal space. What is acceptable in this regard can also vary by culture.
Being Negative or Critical
Take special care in making a negative statement that opposes what someone else is saying or thinking. If you feel compelled to do so, exercise diplomacy and tact in your approach and wording. Do not say anything if your motive is just to make yourself look good.
When it comes to disagreeing with someone, practise the art of active listening before you decide to start an argument. Ask questions to help ensure that you clearly understand the other person’s point of view, reasoning and terms of reference beforehand.
Do not attack a person’s comments in an argumentative, confrontational or personal manner, for example by saying, “You are wrong” or “I’ve never heard such nonsense.” If you must say something critical, try to do so in a good-humored manner. Be careful not to use derogatory words that will cause someone to become your enemy. As someone once said, “I don’t mind you objecting to what I’m saying as long as you’re not objectionable in doing so.”
If the subject of the disagreement is an emotionally charged issue, reconsider whether there is any point in challenging the speaker. Never, ever, begin to express a disagreement when your own emotions are running high. If you do so, you will have great difficulty in making the kind of calm, rational and effective points necessary to change anyone’s mind. Also, never burn your bridges and say or do anything that may come back to haunt you in the future.
In turn, do not let anyone “get your goat”. Some people may say things for the purpose of provoking you or to have you look poorly in front of others. Count to ten, smile sweetly and resist overreacting to any personal criticisms, tactless comments or rejections made for this purpose. You will earn the respect of those around you by doing so.
If you want to attempt to persuade someone to change a position, try starting out by saying, “I originally thought the same thing until I heard about … This caused me to consider that there might be an alternative way of dealing with such and such. Have you looked into this approach?”
When you want to express a strong disagreement with an individual, you are usually best off to do so in private with that person. Similarly, if you wish to correct or criticize someone, do so in private so there is no chance of the person becoming embarrassed in front of others.
To preserve a healthy, happy relationship with anyone — a friend, family member, co-worker or subordinate — you have to be careful that the majority of your interactions are not negative statements. In fact, the ratio of positive to negative comments should be a minimum of three-to-one if you wish your negative points to receive any serious consideration at all.
When you are in the wrong, admit it and apologize sincerely in a straightforward manner. Say, “I realize I was wrong and I apologize.” As you do so, look the person in the eye with your head up. Address what you did, not what the other person did. Also, refrain from requesting forgiveness or saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way”.
Sometimes, you may have an opportunity to explain the legitimate reasons for your error or mistake but don’t try to give a long explanation attempting to justify what you said or did. Similarly, resist the temptation to end your apology with any “but” or “however” statements in an attempt to have the last word, otherwise you are not really apologizing.
Other Advice
You have to learn to keep your thoughts on some sensitive subjects to yourself. This is especially the case with your opinions of others, including friends, co-workers and superiors. There are many people who will delight in repeating your negative personal opinions to the very people you expressed them about.
Refrain from letting yourself be an “open book” with anyone you do not know really well or have a reason to trust completely. You do not have to give everything away about yourself to be an interesting person and converse well. In fact, you heighten your appeal by preserving a certain amount of mystique about yourself.
You are always going to experience some conversations that do not go well or are difficult to maintain. There are also going to be times when you may unintentionally say the wrong thing to someone. When this happens, do not make a big deal about it. Move the conversation forward by talking about something else or changing the subject. Everyone makes mistakes and has both good days and bad days. Do not be too hard on yourself.
When you have got something difficult or troubling to say to someone, pick the right time and place to do so. Do not start with a long preamble and try to sugarcoat what you are saying. Say what you need to say as directly, honestly and simply as you can. Also, resist waiting too long before you transmit bad news to someone. People are usually much more resilient than you expect them to be.
Last, you have to use common sense in knowing when it may not be the right time or place to say what you originally intended to say. Sometimes, it is better just to keep quiet and say nothing.
See Your Voice and Language, in the Citizen of the World Guide, Make the Right Impression.


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