Practical Communication

Three Steps to a Great Conversation

Whether you’re in a job interview, meeting new people, or catching up with an old friend, a great conversation is more than just, “I talk, you listen. You talk, I listen.” The art of good conversation takes skill and practice. Here are three steps you can take toward becoming a great conversationalist.

1. Get to know your “audience.” Knowing your audience is more than just knowing a person’s name.

What generation is the person from? Traditional? Baby Boomer? Gen Xer? Millenial? Generation 9/11? The world and societal events people face in their lives, especially in their formative years, has a major impact on the people they become. Identifying a person’s generation can help you learn more about his or her preferred communication style, values, views about what is or is not respectful, beliefs about authority/hierarchy in an organization, etc. This information can help you “package” the conversation, especially your comments, in a way that appeals to their values.

For example, Baby Boomers are known to be competitive and value achievement. Those from Gen X tend to value work/life balance, flexibility, and a balance of autonomy and teamwork. Therefore, appealing to a Baby Boomer’s desire to rise in the organization might work, but wouldn’t hold the same appeal for a Gen Xers. The ability to work from home or to job share might be more appealing to a Gen Xer.

Although generational information is helpful as a starting point, be careful not to paint any person with too broad of a brush- there are always exceptions to generational “rules.” The best way to get to know someone’s values is to listen well. They’ll usually reveal them when sharing their thoughts, concerns, and goals.

What’s the setting or purpose of the conversation? What are the roles of the parties?Finally, consider your setting and the role of the person to whom you are speaking. You wouldn’t speak to a potential employer in a job interview the same way you would speak to a friend at a party. A final hint regarding setting, it sets the tone of the conversation and if you’re in another person’s space (office or home) you can tell a lot about him or her by the looking around you at the way they’ve arranged it, the items they have in it, etc.

2. Mirror the other person’s body language. Mirroring body language creates a feeling of trust and rapport with the other person. Although the other person is unlikely to be aware of why, it creates a feeling of “sameness” and familiarity which makes people feel comfortable.

Don’t become a mime, but do pay attention to things like the person’s facial expression, hand gestures, posture and positioning, and the way he or she speaks, and try to mirror it.

Mirroring takes practice, so take your time and start slowly by focusing on one thing, like facial expressions or hand gestures. If he smiles, you smile. If she has a habit of counting things off on her fingers, you can do the same when you are sharing your list of ideas.

A great way to practice is to see if you can smoothly and comfortably mirror an actor on your favorite television show. You don’t have to be exact in your movements. You just need to approximate the actor’s body language.

3. Truly listen! A good conversation is about finding the balance between talking and listening. This can be difficult for many people because we’re trained to be talkers, not listeners. Resist the urge to interrupt or “top” what the other person has said. Instead, ask open-ended questions, paraphrase what you’ve heard, and even use silence to encourage the other person to elaborate.

Finally, you need to listen to more than just the words you hear. What is the other person’s nonverbal communication saying? Pay attention to body language, vocal qualities to what people are saying with their words AND nonverbals. For example, if you ask someone if they have any questions about what you’ve said, and their response, is “Uh, no, I, uh, guess not,” that should tell you something.


For more tips on becoming a better listener, check out my previous blog post, Improve Your Listening Skills in Five Easy Steps.

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