5 Keys to Becoming a Good Conversationalist

“Conversational competence may be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach.”
– Paul Barnwell, teacher and writer

A fellow blogger and good friend of mine once described good communication as “the act of furthering understanding between two people.” I think that’s true, which is why I find the increasing polarization of our society deeply concerning.

Today, people seem to live in echo chambers where they continually reinforce their own belief systems. The result: We are less likely to compromise and more likely to make decisions based on what we already believe–losing our ability to listen to and learn from one another.

If you’re serious about personal development, you must be committed to the free exchange of thoughts and ideas with others. In other words, you must learn the skill of good conversation.

CREDIT: Getty Images

Here are five “must have” skills shared by good conversationalists the world over:

1) Be present. According to public radio host Celeste Headlee, the average person can talk at a rate of approximately 225 words per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. Our minds tend to fill in the other 275 words (this is a huge struggle for me!) which is precisely why it takes energy and concentration to be attentive during a conversation. Remember, multi-tasking is a myth–you can only focus your attention on one thing at a time. Engaging in true conversation means giving the other person your undivided attention. It requires the same concentration and self discipline as training for a marathon or studying for an exam.

2) Listen more than you speak. It’s been said that the most interesting person in the world is the one who makes you think you’re the most interesting person in the world. That may sound like cheesy networking advice, but it’s true. The more you talk, the more you deprive yourself of learning and growing. As Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand…then be understood.” Becoming known as a good listener is one of the best ways to build your personal brand because you build rapport and trust with others very quickly.

3) Stop stealing stories. Resist the urge to interject your own stories and experiences. If someone shares their grief over losing a close friend, for example, don’t tell them about the time you lost a family member. You don’t know exactly how they feel, so don’t try to equate your experiences with theirs.

4) Ask questions that provoke a thoughtful response. Good questions are open-ended, asking who, what, why, and how verses questions that ask for a yes or no response. Listen to a skilled interviewer like Charlie Rose or Oprah Winfrey. Their questions help those they’re interviewing feel safe and understood, they are clear and relevant, and they continuously move the conversation forward.

5) Practice genuine curiosity. As Mary Schaller writes in The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations, “Curiosity is the bridge that moves you from listening to asking questions and fully engaging.” The word curiosity comes from the Latin word cura, which means “to care, to tend, and to heal.” Genuinely curious people possess a sincere and humble desire to know more about other people. They honestly believe that they can learn something from everyone.

Celeste Headley tells her audience that if you really want to share your opinions with no response or disagreement, then write a blog. But if you’re serious about engaging the world in the marketplace of ideas, commit to growing your capacity for good conversation.

Which of the five points about conversation challenges you the most? What is one habit you could develop to get better?

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    9 Responses to 5 Keys to Becoming a Good Conversationalist

    1. Earl Gervais May 4, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

      Wow .. A Thousand Thank You’s Bill for these precious reminders .. This is as valuable as gold. Practice these .. Master these and you will go further than someone with a Ph.D. who has no understanding of these. Respectfully .. Earl Gervais

      • Bill Marsh Jr May 5, 2016 at 2:37 pm #

        Thanks, Earl. Coming from an experienced conversationalist like you, that’s a compliment!


    2. Dave McNeil May 4, 2016 at 11:27 pm #

      Truthfully my biggest struggle in conversations is the dead space. I feel very
      ackward when there isn’t a smooth flow. I always feel a need to have to fill
      those “dead spaces” with something. I think number 4 will be a great help to me
      to improve the “dead space” fear. Thank you for the blogs.

      • Bill Marsh Jr May 5, 2016 at 2:41 pm #

        That’s a common concern with a lot of people, Dave. And you’re right on–asking good, thought-provoking questions really helps open up a good, robust conversation verses trying to find something witty or “cool” to say.

        Thanks for commenting!

    3. Jordan Ritter May 6, 2016 at 9:38 pm #

      As always, a great read and great instructions for becoming a better person. Thank you, Bill, for being an inspiration to us all.

      • Bill Marsh Jr May 7, 2016 at 9:05 am #

        Thank you for the kind words, Jordan!

    4. Lisa Parrotte May 7, 2016 at 1:40 pm #

      Great advice!

      Thank you.

    5. Sharon Neumann November 18, 2016 at 3:16 pm #

      We’ll said, Bill — and great topic for ongoing conversation! In groups throughout the region, I’ve also found allowing that uncomfortable space to rest unfilled for a bit can bring increased depth to meaningful exchange. Deeper thoughts and feelings are sometimes difficult to share otherwise. Listening without judgment during exchanges is also helpful in growing understanding and keeping healing conversations moving forward.

      Thanks for re-sharing this post!

    6. Sharon Neumann November 18, 2016 at 3:18 pm #

      “Well said” … darn that auto spell function … :-)

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