Ways to Have Better Conversations


women of various ages looking at each other and conversing

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and felt like it wasn’t going well? You say one thing, and they respond in a way that doesn’t fit the situation. Have you ever been in a conversation where you wish you had said one thing instead of what you actually said?


This can be frustrating because conversations don’t always go as smoothly as you’d like them to. But the good news is, there are ways to improve your conversations. Let’s look at some ways to have a more productive conversation.

It’s important to remember that everyone has to start somewhere, and you’ll get better as you practice more and more. Soon, you’ll be enjoying conversations more and getting more out of them.

Don’t multitask

One of the biggest ways to have a better conversation is to focus on it. When you talk to someone, make them the focus. Resist the urge to check your phone or look around the room while they’re speaking; instead, put all your concentration into listening. It’s easier said than done! But if you try not to distract yourself during a conversation, it will help the flow and purpose of the conversation in several ways.

First and foremost, it will make the other person feel you value them, which means they’ll be more likely to want more conversations with you in the future. Secondly, multitasking doesn’t work. Studies show that when people do two things simultaneously (like checking email while someone’s talking), the brain has difficulty processing both streams of information, and thus ends up paying less attention.

Don’t pontificate

It might seem like a good idea to show off your knowledge of the topic, but if you’re doing so at the expense of the other person, it won’t go over well. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, they might feel stupid. So don’t lecture them. Instead, ask questions that encourage them to participate in the conversation and help them learn more. Don’t use a conversation as a chance to be a know-it-all.

Use open-ended questions

To avoid a conversation that feels like an interrogation or interview, use open-ended questions instead of closed ones, where they can answer with a simple yes or no. The former encourages others to share their opinions, while the latter only requires them to give information. For example: “How do you feel about yesterday’s news?” rather than “Did you read the paper yesterday?”


Remember that asking open-ended questions doesn’t mean you needn’t listen carefully or pay attention. It just means you can learn more about your conversational partner by asking these kinds of queries, than if all your inquiries can be answered with yes or no.

Go with the flow

The next time you’re in a conversation, go with the flow and accept what happens as it happens. It means letting go of control and going along with whatever comes up. Don’t try to talk about topics that aren’t interesting to your partner. Instead of trying to steer the conversation, go with what he or she wants to talk about -- and then ask more questions about it.

If you don’t know, say you don’t know

If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. It’s okay to tell someone you don’t know something, rather than making up an answer or getting defensive and angry. It doesn’t make you look stupid. They’ll appreciate your honesty. If someone asks how many apples are left in the bowl on the table, just say, “I haven’t counted them yet.” This can save both parties frustration and disappointment later, when it turns out there were only 10 apples left after all.

Don’t get frustrated when people ask questions for which there are no easy answers--people are curious! Instead of trying to come up with answers on the spot (which is impossible), try answering their questions with another question: “What are your thoughts?” Or even better: “Let’s look it up!”

Don’t equate your experience with theirs

You are not the only person who has experienced a similar situation. When someone shares their stories with you, don’t try to relate by saying, “I know how you feel” or “That happened to me too.” You may think these statements will let them know that they aren’t alone in what they’re experiencing. But it minimizes their experiences and makes them feel as if their feelings aren’t valid because yours are similar.

Instead of trying to relate, ask questions and listen carefully when they answer your questions. Ask open-ended questions so they can elaborate on their answers (e.g., “How did it make you feel?” instead of “Were you scared?”).

Stay out of the weeds

It’s easy to get bogged down in the weeds when you’re talking about something complicated or technical. The best conversations are those where you can stay on topic, speak clearly, and not get too bogged down in details.

To this end: avoid industry jargon, acronyms, slang (unless it’s your own), and technical terms unless they’re necessary for understanding what you’re saying. Be as clear as possible -- and especially if there are people listening who may not understand the terminology or know much about an area.

Listen

Listening is a skill you can develop and improve upon. It’s not just a matter of hearing what someone says -- you should listen so you understand, not just so you can respond.

When you’re in a conversation with someone, many things are going on in your brain besides listening. Most people have learned to tune out background noise (like traffic or an air conditioner), but it takes effort to stay focused on the person speaking, rather than thinking about yourself or planning what to say next.

When you listen, your brain processes two different kinds of information: the words the other person says and their tone of voice (tone includes facial expression and body language). The brain uses both types of information to make sense of what they’re saying. But if one type is missing or unclear, it can lead you astray. For example, if someone says, “I love dogs,” but doesn’t show emotion in their voice when they talk about them... well... maybe they don’t love dogs after all.

The Bottom Line

When you start working on your conversational skills, it may take some time to get the hang of it. Don’t worry! You’re not alone in feeling awkward or stilted in conversation at first. You’ll get better as you practice more and more.

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