How to Be The World’s Best Conversationalist
(Or at least make people think you are!)
Article written by Melissa Leedom
When my brother and his partner returned from their big, splashy vacation, they were exhausted and a little cranky. Worse, they seemed to be thinking of excuses to make little jibes at each other for the most minor of infractions. The atmosphere at the dinner table that evening was, shall we say…tense.
As we sat in the uncomfortable silence, willing our salads to come, I suddenly remembered something my husband used to do when our children were in school and the biggest description you could get from them about how their day was, was the monosyllable, “Fine.”
I turned to my partner-in-law (is that a thing?) and asked, “What was your favorite part of the trip?”
His face was transformed as his thoughts turned inward and he considered his answer. He turned to my brother and repeated my question. By the time the check came, we had not only heard wonderful, sometimes funny, accounts of their trip (which was the point of the dinner in the first place), we had all enjoyed a relaxing evening of great conversation. All thanks to one little question.
What’s the take-away? You can use this technique, or ones very similar to it, to crack open even the tightest-shut conversational oyster.
The thing to remember is that EVERYONE likes to talk about what THEY like to talk about; it’s just a matter of LETTING THEM!
So, you’re in the dreaded but obligatory meet-and-greet for your office, or it’s the coffee time before the conference gets underway: there’s a roomful of people you don’t know, and you can’t just stand there holding your drink like a coffee table. For anyone else, the mouth would go dry and the mind would race for a snappy opening line.
But not you. You turn to the man standing next to you. You can see from his name tag that he is Warren B.
“Hi, Warren,” you say, extending your right hand to shake his. “I’m Adrian(a) Birdfirkle with Solar Plexus Solutions. What do you do?”
“I’m in investing,” Warren answers tersely.
Now, you happen to know zip about investments, but not to worry! You pull out one of your handy, open-ended conversation starters and the ball is in his court:
“Investments! What an exciting (or “interesting,” if you don’t want to come off as fawning) field! What do you find is the most rewarding part of your job?”
“Making money.” Warren is not going to make it easy on you. But you are not deterred.
“How did you get into this field? How did you get your start?” You can even start the sentence with, “May I ask…” so that Warren doesn’t think you’re trying to elicit free investing advice from him.
He tilts his head quizzically and begins to tell you about a mentor he had Back In The Day who taught him how to recognize good investments. As he relates his humble beginnings, you look him in the eye and nod thoughtfully. At turns, you may even interject, “How interesting!” or “That’s fascinating!” or even “How about that!”
- You meet New Person.
- You introduce yourself, but then ask New Person an open-ended question.
- YOU LISTEN ATTENTIVELY (otherwise, what was the point of engaging New Person?), adding little affirmative remarks (see above) at salient points.
- Don’t stay with one person indefinitely. Excuse yourself politely by saying, “Well, I don’t want to dominate all your time. I’m going to go refresh my drink – it’s been great chatting with you!” (Shake hands if New Person offers.)
- Repeat with next New Person.
Pretty soon, you’ll find, you have “worked” the room – or at least engaged one or two people in a meaningful way. And the best part? You didn’t have to rack your brain for a single interesting thing to say!
Do’s and Don’ts of Fascinating Conversation
DO ask open-ended questions (notice the word you versus the word I
- “Tell me about (your) …” (your job, your country, your city, etc. This can be invaluable when conversing with a person from a country and/or culture with which you are not familiar.)
- “What is your favorite …” OR “…the best part of …”
- “What (or who) would you say …” (“are the true experts in your field” “are the best places to learn about…” “are the best restaurants in your hometown”)
- “What’s the best (or worst) part of…”
- “What do you think is the biggest difference between X & Y? (Another good question for a multi-cultural conversation.)
DO make meaningful responses periodically. If New Person makes a joke (you can tell – they’ll be smiling), by all means chuckle, or at least smile and nod your head knowingly.
DO on wants to continue and you don’t mind hearing more.
DON’T ask questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no – New Person may not elaborate – or a number.
- “Is this…” (Instead of “Is this your first visit to New York?” ask an open-ended question like “What are your impressions of New York?”
- “Do you…”&; (“Yes.”; “No.”)
- “How long have you…”; (“37 years”…full stop)
DON’T be thinking of something witty to say when the person stops talking. First, he/she may not – and you’re supposed to be listening. Second, whatever he/she is saying is, by definition, more interesting than what you have to say (that’s what makes YOU such a fascinating conversationalist). If you must think of something to say, make it another open-ended question you can ask.
DON’T let your eyes wander or dart about the room – you can look for people you know when this conversation is over – the person talking WILL NOTICE.
There you have it: all the tools you need to make conversation with strangers (or even the boss!) virtually effortless. Best of all, you may have New Person reporting to others, “That Adrian(a) Birdfirkle is a heck of a conversationalist!”