Conversation is an art form and, like any art form, one that can be perfected. And since the way you interact with your fellow humans is absolutely crucial to a happy and successful life, it is an art form worth studying and practising.
Rule one is very simple – listen! And listening means listening; it does not mean sitting there in silence waiting for the other person to finish. Good conversation is an engagement. You are engaging with another mind and personality, allowing them to spark off new ideas and new trains of thought in you and then hopefully doing the same in return.
People fail to listen properly for a variety of reasons. Some are merely in love with the sound of their own voice – the sort of people who seem to resent others even having ideas, opinions, and jokes of their own. Some fail to listen because they are wrapped up in their own misery. Indeed, many go through life so consumed by self-pity that they seem oblivious to the very existence of other people. In conversation, they will soon turn things to their favorite subject – their own unhappiness. A monotonous whine then follows, covering everything from their aches and pains to how poor they were as a child or how useless their parents were etc. Not only is this selfish and depressing, it is also boring.
Listening does not mean simply absorbing information, however. Don't just analyze what the other person has said, use your empathy and intuition as well; try and tune in to what makes this person tick, to what lies behind their words. Put another way, engage with the whole person.
Unfortunately, many barely recognize other people as separate individuals with thoughts, ideas, and feelings of their own. Instead, they treat them as passive objects, there to listen to their boasting and praise their achievements. Never use a conversation to boost your own ego. Observe such people in action and you will find they grow sullen and quiet when the other person expresses his views or tries to change the subject. Indeed, many seem almost surprised when this happens – as though they have just been reminded that this is a separate individual with a will of his own.
Then there are those who treat every conversation as a battle to be won at any cost. At their worst, such people become almost comical, disagreeing no matter what you say. Even a harmless observation about house prices or the latest football results can be enough to provoke them. Of course, this does not mean you must always agree. But you can argue and dispute in a friendly, cheerful, graceful manner.
Before entering into conversation, it is important to bear two facts in mind about human beings. First, people know that life is painful, dark and difficult, and they would prefer not to be constantly reminded of this. That does not mean you should strive to keep things light and fluffy. Sometimes, people do like to get serious and deep. But be conscious how you approach subjects like cancer, loneliness, addiction, and so on. Never use these topics to support your own bleak view of existence. Be constructive instead. If someone raises the subject of, for example, retirement, talk about the positives: the free time, the opportunity to take up new hobbies and learn new skills etc. Ask yourself whether the other person is likely to feel better for having discussed these subjects with you. Have you told them something new? Have you helped them see their situation in a new light?
Second, remember that lots of people (even those you believe are confident) struggle with self-esteem and self-doubt. Always try to make them feel a little better about themselves. Obviously, you must be careful how you do this. Go over the top and people will find you sycophantic. It is enough just to show an interest in their life and achievements.
No one can turn themselves into Oscar Wilde by reading a self-help article. And no book or evening class can give you wit and charm. However, there are a few simple, practical tips which, if followed, could improve your conversation skills.
1) Body language. Never underestimate the difference your body language can make. Remember, you do not only communicate through your voice. People are reading and analyzing your body language as well, often quite unconsciously. So do not cross your arms or avert your gaze. Non-verbal encouragement can make a huge difference as well. This simply means that, if the other person is describing something that shocked them, act a little shocked yourself; if they are telling a funny story, smile, nod and laugh; and if they are describing something that shocked, upset, or disgusted them, shake your head and tut.
2) Voice. Along with body language, try working on your voice. This does not mean adopting a fake upper-class English accent of course. Neither does it mean talking like a game show host. But no matter how interesting or witty you may be, if your voice is flat, dull, monotonous or whiney, the other person will struggle to focus on what you are saying. Watch news readers or classical actors. Notice how they vary the speed, rhythm and emphasis when they speak. To perfect this, try reading out loud. If you are a sports lover and often chat about sports with your friends, try reading the best sports articles out loud when you are home alone; if you love film, read out some top class movie reviews. As you do so, imagine you are sitting at a dinner table. Is this the kind of voice people wish to listen to? Does it have passion, speed, and rhythm? Or is it dull and ponderous?
3) Curiosity and breadth of knowledge. Having worked on how you look and sound, you should next consider what you say. Be interested in as many things as possible. Obviously, this does not mean forcing yourself to read car magazines or follow baseball if you find such things dull. But do not focus obsessively on one subject. Most people have a passion of some kind, which is fine so long as you are with those who share this passion. But what happens when you meet those who do not? The wider and deeper your interests, the more likely you are to have something in common with the other people at a dinner table.
Remember, you can work at being a good conversationalist just as you can work at anything else. Good conversationalists often give the impression that it comes naturally, but this is not always true. And even those to whom it does come naturally have often made the effort to hone and perfect their skill.