The Art of Conversation

The Art of Conversation

How to improve face-to-face communication in a digital world.

On a sunny day last fall, Taylor Baldry set up a card table and three folding chairs on a well-traveled street corner in Minneapolis. He stationed a sandwich board nearby that announced “Free Conversations.” Almost immediately, a couple joined him, and they spent the next 20 minutes discussing ghost stories, a topic they selected from Baldry’s menu of conversation options, which on this day ranged from the weather and dinosaurs to “things you can do with an egg.”

When the couple left, others sat down, and Baldry spent the afternoon chatting amiably with a steady stream of strangers, doing his part to restore the practice of in-person conversation.

Since that October afternoon, Baldry, a performance artist, has taken his Conversationalist project to parks, theaters and other venues in the city, and has learned something about his fellow citizens: People are starved for authentic interactions. “Most people think it’s a trick at first — that I’m selling something,” says the 28-year-old. “When they realize there are no strings attached, they’ll really start talking.”

From the salons of 19th-century Paris to the contemporary cocktail party, conversation has long been celebrated as a social art. But today it’s increasingly being replaced by self-promotional electronic posts and superficial digital chatter. While social media and platforms like Facebook play a vital role in modern culture, there are aspects inherent in a face-to-face engagement that can’t be replaced.

An in-person exchange gives us the opportunity to see and be seen by our cohorts — a seemingly small detail with significant consequences. Body language and facial expressions allow for a more nuanced understanding of a person’s tone and overall message, which is key to building trust. Visual cues also engage the brain’s mirror neurons, which fire when we express an emotion or when we see someone else do the same. This process, commonly referred to as empathy,  helps us forge closer, more meaningful relationships, and learn more about others and ourselves.

If you feel a little reticent about engaging in a more sophisticated tête-à-tête with your fellows — up close and personal — read on. Even the most introverted among us can learn how to diversify, deepen and comfortably practice the simple art of conversation.

How to Start a Conversation 

Just striking up a conversation with a stranger is daunting. In part because all that initial, seemingly meaningless chatter about sports or celebrities or the weather can feel disingenuous. But even close acquaintances usually warm up a bit before getting down to the soulful stuff. “Small talk is the appetizer for any deeper relationship,” says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills — and Leave a Positive Impression! (Hyperion, 2005). And it doesn’t have to be a chore. Approached thoughtfully, small talk can be fun and energizing. Here are a few ways to break the ice.

Hang around the food table at a party,counsels Margaret Shepherd, author of The Art of Civilized Conversation (Broadway Books, 2005). You’ll meet everyone who eats (which is almost everyone), and the cuisine will serve as fodder for conversation.

Chat about something you really enjoy and invite others to do the same. If someone asks a rhetorical question like “How are you?” offer up some specifics and a follow-up question in your reply. For example: “I’m doing great! I collect rare books, and this week I found an early edition of a Dickens novel. I’d been hunting for that book for eight years. Do you keep any collections?” This approach gets both parties to engage their genuine passions.

Don’t be afraid of sincere flattery. Take note of something you truly appreciate about a person and then follow up with a question: “What a lovely coat. Is it vintage?”

Use open-ended questions. These give the person answering some latitude in how he or she responds, says Fine. Some useful queries:

  • “What keeps you busy outside of work [or school or taking care of the kids]?” This usually leads directly to energizing, engaging subjects.
  • Discuss the situation you currently share: “How do you know the host?”
  • If you’re stumped for a question, listen to what people ask you and then ask them the same thing in return, advises Shepherd. “The person is probably asking the question because it is on his mind and he wants to talk about it himself.”

Conversation Killers 

We’ve all had the experience of starting a conversation only to have it collapse into awkward silence. While any number of things might have gone wrong, there are a few subtle faux pas sure to put an early end to an otherwise pleasant discussion.

Phone-gazing. “The minute you look down at your phone,” says Fine, “it’s as if you’ve said, ‘Shut up!’ If you warn me in advance that you might glance at your phone periodically because you are expecting an important call, I’ll understand. Otherwise, it’s rude.”

Closed-ended personal questions. Avoid potentially touchy queries unless you already know the answer, stresses Fine. For instance, something seemingly innocuous like “Are you married?” is the last thing you want to ask someone in the midst of an ugly separation.

Dwelling on the downside. Negative pronouncements, like “Kids these days!” or “What a terrible sweater the host is wearing,” put you at risk of alienating people, who must either agree or disagree, which could be particularly uncomfortable for someone you’ve just met. What’s more, if the first impression you leave is that of a grump, you might not get a chance to make a second one.

Niche topics. Too much minutiae about an early-American cookie-jar collection can quickly drain the life out of a conversation. Test the waters with a limited revelation of your passions first. If your partner glazes over, change the topic.

Beware the monologue.“If you’re at lunch and everybody else is finished and your plate is still full, it means you’ve been talking too much,” says Shepherd. Or if someone suddenly excuses herself at a party and you realize you don’t know the first thing about her, this can be a good clue about why the conversation died.

How to Talk to Someone You Talk to Every Day

When it comes to talking to spouses, children, siblings or coworkers, it’s easy to fall into a rut. We default to logistics (“Who’s picking up the kids tonight?”) or the things we know we have in common, and we stop thinking about how to find deeper, truly satisfying topics of conversation. Here are a few ways to spice up your verbal relationship.

Listen Up. “People who see each other every day sometimes stop relating,” says Minneapolis psychologist Jan Hoistad, author of Romance Rehab: 10 Steps to Rescue Your Relationship (Sterling, 2010). In many cases, she notes, we’re busy thinking about what we’re going to say while the other person is talking. If you catch yourself doing this, turn off the inner dialogue. Listen closely, says Hoistad, and “your spouse or coworker might actually surprise you with something new.”

Reveal a little.“If your partner or child asks you how your day was and you answer with one word, you have missed a huge opportunity. Give him or her a sentence instead. The minute you self-disclose, he or she is more likely to self-disclose,” says Fine.

Ask for more details.Instead of responding with a phrase like “I know exactly how you feel,” Hoistad encourages people to say, “Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me more.” When you keep the focus on your conversational partner, it will encourage him or her to open up further.

Mix it up. Both Baldry and Shepherd suggest that a change of venue can often be all it takes to spur a deeper exchange with someone familiar. Arrange for a meeting outside the office. Go to a restaurant that’s new to you and your partner, or take a walk on a new route. Novelty stimulates the production of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, which can help us loosen up and share more.

Body Language Signs to Watch

One of the great advantages of a face-to-face encounter is that we can glean a significant amount of information by watching someone’s posture and movements. This also explains why email and other written correspondence, where there is an absence of body language, is often misunderstood.

Joe Navarro spent his career analyzing nonverbal cues during his interviews with suspects as an FBI agent. He has since written several books on nonverbal communication, including What Every Body Is Saying (HarperCollins, 2008) with Marvin Karlins, PhD. The authors believe that the limbic system of the brain, which plays a key role in regulating emotion and behavior, stimulates certain involuntary movements that stem from our basic survival system (freeze-flight-fight). When you know how to read these involuntary signals, you can pick up clues about how the conversation is going, and adjust your own language and body language as seems appropriate.

Recognize key signs of comfort. 

These signs mean a conversation is going well:

  • Leaning in indicates genuine interest.
  • Touching an arm communicates trust.
  • Looking away during a conversation can, in some cases, actually be a sign of comfort, Navarro explains. It may signal the speaker is at ease enough to break eye contact to help focus her thinking.

Recognize key signs of discomfort.

These can all be cues to seek a new topic — unless, of course, you’re trying to pry an uncomfortable truth from someone:

  • Rapid eye blinking can signal nervousness.
  • Lip compression is a common sign of stress or anxiety.
  • High shoulders around the ears (“the turtle effect”) can indicate a lack of confidence and possible embarrassment.

Watch those feet.The lower limbs are the most honest part of the human body, Navarro claims, because they were the human body’s first
responders to danger for thousands of years before speech.

  • Bouncing feet can be a sign of authentic happiness or excitement, which may follow from the human habit of dancing in celebration. They can also be a sign of impatience or nervousness. Context will suggest the difference.
  • The direction of the feet also matters; if one or both are pointed toward the door, it can be a sign that your partner wants out of the conversation or is anxious to go. When someone points his or her feet directly toward you, he or she is most likely engaged.
  • Crossing the legs is usually a sign of comfort, because it puts the body off balance — and we are more willing to be off balance when we trust our situation. If both parties have their legs crossed, Navarro says, these people are probably quite comfortable together, because they are also mirroring each other.

How to Be a Better Listener

Too often, we’re barely engaged in our interactions, especially when we’re distracted by business or the dinner menu, or preoccupied with what we want to say. In short, we’re usually focused more on ourselves than on the person talking.

Business consultant Ori Brafman and psychologist Rom Brafman are interested in what allows people to truly bond. In their book, Click: The Magic of Instant Connections (Broadway Books, 2010), they explain how to be fully present during conversations. This involves careful listening, of course, but that’s only the beginning. Here are four of the Brafmans’ suggestions for listening to, and becoming genuinely engaged in, what the other person is saying.

Be intentional.Before engaging in a conversation, consciously decide to be present and open for it. This can be as simple as taking a deep breath before opening the coffee-shop door and turning off your phone before sitting down.

Be attentive. Ask for elaboration. Share your reactions honestly. Demonstrate to the other person that you are actively participating in the conversation.

Be an equal.Avoid giving advice or assuming a one-up or one-down position. Do your best to listen without a plan or an agenda.

Be your own person.Instead of getting preoccupied with how you should respond, be authentic with your emotional reactions to what the other person is saying. Get in touch with how you’re really feeling, and your conversational partner will understand you, too.

How to Make a Graceful Exit

Ending conversations can be tricky. We often assume we’ll hurt someone’s feelings if we leave too soon, so we linger on well past the discussion’s natural conclusion. Mike Bechtle, PhD, is a senior training consultant with a time- and productivity-management firm, and he teaches his business clients how to artfully exit an exchange. In Confident Conversation: How to Communicate Successfully in Any Situation (Revell, 2008), he offers the following tips:

Know your purpose. When you know beforehand what you hope to achieve in a conversation, it’s easier to know when it’s finished. This is actually less calculating than it sounds and applies to more than just business interactions. Maybe your goal was to meet someone new, establish connection with someone dear to your partner, or find out about a friend’s recent travels. Notice when the mission is accomplished, and feel free to wrap it up.

Use group dynamics. Social functions provide their own natural exits, Bechtle notes. When you’re in a small group and one or two people join the discussion, this is a natural time to slip away.

Be honest. Bechtle recommends you don’t over-explain or apologize for ending a conversation. Just review and comment on the most interesting points you discussed, and move on. You’ll part on a positive note of connection.

End strong.Whether you’ve been chatting for a minute or an hour, when you part, make eye contact, shake hands or touch the person’s arm. If it’s appropriate, Bechtle suggests telling someone what you enjoyed or learned from your interaction and thanking him or her for talking. These gestures reinforce connection and leave both parties feeling good.

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Laine Bergeson and Courtney Helgoe are Experience Life senior editors.

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