How to Have Better Conversations

literary salon, Moliere, conversationImage via Flavorwire 

 A couple of weeks ago, I attended a workshop on How to Have Better Conversations at the Perth School of Life pop-up. What’s that – how to have a better conversation, you ask? I didn’t tell a lot of people I was taking this workshop. My boyfriend saw me signing up for it and he raised his eyebrows when I heard I’d paid about $70 for the class. But then he’s always been an excellent conversationalist and doesn’t understand the problems us introverts have.

I, on the other hand, tend to do quite badly at casual conversations. I was pretty verbose when I was a little kid – as most kids tend to be – but when I reached the age of eight or nine, something happened. Perhaps it was a couple of run-ins with the school bullies. Anyhow, I grew quite self-conscious and uncertain of myself, and conversations often left me awkward and tongue-tied. It got so bad that I used to have to think up lists of conversation topics and questions to ask ahead of going to primary school. But once I ran out of my list of topics, the conversation ran dry again.

I was always much better at writing than I was at talking. Remember those internet chatrooms everyone was into in high school? I was so good at carrying on a conversation on there. But when it came time to meet up for a chat in person or over the phone, once more my words would run dry and the conversation would peter out. It was really quite terrible!

Now I’m much older, wiser and more comfortable with myself – and my conversation techniques have definitely improved. I can usually hold my own when it comes to carrying a conversation – still, the old fear and awkwardness does come back every now and then, especially when it’s someone I don’t know very well or someone I find particularly intimidating. So when I got my list of classes for the Perth School of Life in the e-mail and saw the How to Have a Better Conversation Workshop, I made sure to sign up right away.

 As it turned out, I’m not the only person who wants to learn how to have a better conversation. When I got to the School of Life pop-up in Northbridge that Friday night, I found plenty of other folks milling around the wine, cheese and crackers table, looking at the books on display, chatting with each other or just eyeing up the crowd awkwardly with that same wallflower aspect I myself have known all too well. After about 10-15 minutes of this general milling, sipping of wine and chatting with strangers (thankfully, I’d already been to one other workshop so I was able to contribute to the conversation here by telling the others how I’d found it so far), we were ushered into the classroom where we took our seats on chairs arranged in a semi-circle and the workshop began.

So far, the couple of workshops I’ve been to have run along the same route – our facilitator (or teacher or instructor, whatever you will) would begin with an introduction and run through a powerpoint of interesting facts and strategies relating to the class topic. We were also required to divide into groups to discuss various questions throughout the class, with our instructor requesting each time that we get together with ‘someone you haven’t spoken to yet tonight.’ We were also given paper and pen so we were able to take notes during the class and I thought I’d share here some of the strategies and tips I picked up on how to have better conversations.

 Be Curious:

I loved this quote by Theodore Zeldin which was cited in the workshop: “A good conversation is when I find myself saying things I know I’ve never said before.” Conversely, a good conversation, I think, is also one where you find yourself hearing about things you’ve never heard of before.

When I was a journalism student at uni, we were taught to nurture our curiosity and to question everything, even the obvious. A journalist, after all, makes their living from asking questions and paying attention to details. Example: If someone told you they’ve just been on a weekend trip to the coast, don’t just smile and nod and say, “Wow, that sounds great!” Ask them questions – ask them how they found the trip, what the weather was like, what activities they did, where they stayed and who they went with. If you’re like me and you often experience brain freezes when it comes to even the simplest things in conversations, remember the four Ws (and one H) of journalism – Who, What, Why, Where and How, and apply these questions to whatever topic you’re discussing. Some of the best conversationalists I’ve known are people who take a genuine interest in what others have to say and ask them all kinds of questions about themselves and their interests. So open your natural curiosity and ask questions. Seek to learn more about the people you’re chatting with and you’d find yourself being both enlightened and entertained.

 Learn to Be a Good Listener:

As mentioned above, the best conversationalists I know are people who genuinely take an interest in the people they’re talking. A problem we introverts and awkward conversationalists have is that we’re so worried about what we’re going to say next or how we’re going to keep this conversation ball rolling that we forget to stop and actually listen to what the other person is saying. Furthermore, people can usually tell when someone is actually paying attention to them or just nodding and drifting off mentally elsewhere. On the other hand, everyone obviously likes it when someone is genuinely paying attention to them! I remember reading some years ago an interview with a young actress who had acted with Johnny Depp (I think it was Keira Knightley, but don’t quote me on this). She talked about how charismatic he was as a person, putting much of it down to how intensely he would concentrate on whomever he was holding a conversation with, making them feel like he was genuinely interested in them and they were the only person in the world he wanted to talk to right now. And I thought to myself, so that’s charisma. Having a genuine interest in someone and whatever it is they have to say about themselves.

So stop worrying about what you’re going to say next or whether the person you’re talking to actually likes you or wants to talk to you, or what sort of errands you have to run before you get home tonight or whether you look all right in that blue sweater of yours or if your hair looks weird. Instead, shrug off your insecurities and inner worries, stay in the moment and really listen to what the person before you has to say. By truly listening, you will end up becoming a far better conversationalist, not to mention a much more charismatic and genuine person.

 Don’t Make Assumptions:

I learned pretty early on never to judge a book by a cover, usually because most of the people I find off-putting at first appearances usually end up becoming some of my best friends in life. First appearances can often seem deceiving. A person might seem rather uncouth, ill-bred, rude, too posh, too snobbish or just not at all ‘your type’ on first appearances. But the fact of the matter is people are complex creatures with a mix of both good and bad in them. The bottomline is, you’re never going to really find out what someone’s like until you actually talk to them – and that means talking to them without making assumptions and actually listening to what they have to say about themselves.

 Our instructor in the workshop cited the example of Roberto Vargas, a second-generation Mexican American leadership coach who experienced so much racism during his young adulthood that for years he avoided even being in the presence of white people. When he was in his 30s, he realised that the hate and prejudice he had been harbouring was doing him more harm than good. So he began something he called ‘Everyday Conversations to Heal Racism’, where he began carrying on daily casual conversations, not just with white people but also people from a great variety of backgrounds, with the goal of broaching the gap that differences in culture, race, gender, age and class can form between people. These are his tips for carrying courageous conversations with strangers from diverse backgrounds.

 Adventurous Openings: 

A few weeks ago, I was at a quiz night with my partner and a few of his workmates. In the time before the quiz began, I found myself trying to kickstart a conversation with one of these workmates, a man I had met a couple of times before but had never really chatted with. “Hey! How’ve you been?” I asked. “Yeah, great, same old,” he answered. Painful silence. “How’s work?” I tried again. “Yeah, it’s been all right.” Crickets. For some reason, I couldn’t think of a single thing to say or ask after that, and in truth, I was a little annoyed because he wasn’t exactly keeping the ball rolling either. I sipped my beer and glanced over at my partner who was gabbing on with another one of his workmates, then back at my silent acquaintance. I started hoping the quiz would start real soon. I dare say he probably did too. I don’t think he was being intentionally cold; from what I’ve seen of him, he’s always been a pretty quiet person too except when he’s with people he knows well. But since I’m pretty much cut from the same cloth, that left us both… silent. Painful, excruciating silence.

 Looking back, I realised that though I had tried to take the initiative by asking him a couple of questions, perhaps I just wasn’t asking the right questions. The obvious questions we tend to ask each other usually run along the lines of “how’s it’ going?”, “How’s work?” or “How’s school?” And barring the possibility that something truly out of the ordinary happened such as a gunman taking the entire office hostage or aliens landing on the roof of your school occurred, our general response tends to be, “Yeah, good!” or “Oh, you know, same old, same old.”

 So how to circumvent this? The answer: adventurous openings. This is something similar to another interview technique I learned in journalism, which is to always ask your interviewees open-ended questions where they will have to reply with something more than just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Another trick our facilitator at the Better Conversations Workshop suggested was to surprise your fellow conversationalist with a question they generally wouldn’t expect. For example, instead of asking someone, “How was school?”, you instead ask, “So what new thing did you learn today at school?” or “What made you laugh today?” Try to avoid questions that would be easy to answer with a “yes”, “no” or other one-word answers such as “Fine.”

 One exercise we did at the workshop was to get into groups and come up with adventurous-opening questions. We then had to try the questions we came up with on an individual from another group. My group had a particularly tough time with this one and the only question I came up was, “What interesting thing have you overheard lately?” It was a pretty lame one and naturally I didn’t get much going out of the guy I ended up partnering with after. He, on the other hand, had a great question! His question was, “What’s something you’re passionate about?”  I said writing; he misheard it as running, but since I was also interested in running, I let that slide and answered his questions about just what it was I liked about running. I found myself just going on and on about running and it came to me then: This is it. You have to ask people questions about what they’re passionate about. Something so simple and yet it’s something I totally manage to forget about every time I hold a conversation with someone. Ask people about their interests, their passions and their hobbies, and they’d generally be more than happy to run off at the mouth for hours on end.

Which leads us to…

Concentrate on the other person, rather than on yourself.

We tend to freeze up in a conversation when we’re feeling particularly awkward, uncomfortable and worried about what the other people are thinking about us. I’ve also noticed that people who are shy and quiet often come off as being cold and snobbish instead, hence making social event even worse for them – poor things! But fear not, my introverts – for this is where good manners step in to save the day!

Good manners goes a long way to recovering any social situation. Good manners forces us to speak up when we don’t feel like it, to talk to other people when we don’t feel like it, to be polite and interested when we actually just want to go hide under a blanket somewhere, and to put ourselves out there in order to put other people at ease and to smooth over awkward situations. In other words, good manners helps us to stop thinking so much about ourselves and instead to focus more on others. In a way, this connects back to what I wrote earlier about being a genuine listener and concentrating on the other person, rather than on our own insecurities.

When you find yourself at a social gathering where you don’t know many people, work instead at being a good hostess or guest. Look around and pick out the other wallflowers – people who have just arrived or who don’t seem to know anyone else either, then seek to put them at ease, not yourself. Walk up to them, introduce yourself and use the techniques mentioned above: ask them about themselves, ask them why they’re here, and take a genuine interest in them.

Whenever I worry over whether I have sufficient savoire faire while out and about, particularly with strangers, I always find myself thinking back to a scene out of Anne of Green Gables where the mischievous, impulsive Anne has been invited to tea at the manse with the new minister and his wife, whom the young girls of Avonlea were very much impressed by. She’s in a fluster over how to behave, worrying over the right etiquette and the correct manners to display while at tea. The no-nonsense Matilda cuts right in and tells her, “The trouble with you, Anne, is that you’re thinking too much about yourself. You should just think of Mrs Allan and what would be nicest and most agreeable to her.” And that, I think, is a good rule of thumb to go by in any social situation.

 And finally…

 Make yourself an interesting person.

One of the girls I spoke to at the workshop told me how her friend had determined he would do one interesting or unusual thing each week so he would have something to talk about with others. I thought that was a great idea and something we could all incorporate in our lives, whether or not we’re already great conversationalists. Living a full and interesting life is something everyone should strive for, for that won’t just make us a better conversationalist, but at the end of the day, a better person as well.


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