These four tips will help you be a better conversationalist.

Conquering Cognitions

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Small talk is not always easy, but  it is a skill set that develops with practice. Everyone can be a better conversationalist by remembering these four simple tips.

1. Tell Me More

If you are motivated enough to start a conversation with someone, you can keep it going by asking follow-up questions.

A 2017 research study at Harvard University found that people who ask more questions during a conversation, particularly relevant follow-up questions, were better liked by their conversation partner. This study also found that individuals who asked more follow-up questions during a first date were more likely to be asked out on a second date.

There are significant social benefits to asking the right questions.

The results from this study are not surprising— people like you more when you show interest in them. The surprising part is that the subjects did not know that question asking would increase their likeability.

To ask a relevant question, we have to be engaged and actively listening, a valuable conversational skill for everyone. Our follow-up question can be a simple statement such as “That is fascinating. Tell me more.”

This easy conversational strategy might get you that second date!

2. Silence Is Golden

We all know someone who does not stop talking. They feel the urge to add something to every conversation, even if it is off-topic. These individuals are compulsive talkers and conversation killers.

It is usually best to listen more than you talk. You will be a more successful conversationalist if you can fight off the urge to fill space with unnecessary words.

People do not use silence enough, and nerves often play a role in this area. When we are anxious, we tend to talk more to keep conversations flowing. However, well-timed silence can be a great tool when used in a meaningful way to convey interest and concern.

Our non-verbal behaviors such as eye contact, head movements (nodding our head), and body posture (sitting upright, leaning towards the speaker) communicate plenty.

If we give the speaker time to say what they need to say, we might be surprised by what we hear. A reassuring smile and a nod of the head are sometimes all we need.

Silence may initially feel uncomfortable, but the more you allow for breaks in a conversation, the more natural it starts to feel.

“The word 'listen' contains the same letters as the word 'silent'.”
Alfred Brendel

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3. I Hear You

When someone shares a concern or strong feelings, they need to know that their emotions, thoughts, and experiences matter. It is important to feel heard and understood. We all need this!

A good conversation partner will acknowledge, either through words or non-verbal behaviors, that they hear the speaker loud and clear. This is validation.

We have all had conversations where someone responded insensitively or critically. It is hurtful. When someone suggests we simply ignore an uncomfortable situation or they try to rationalize why it happened, this feels invalidating.

A few invalidating statements are:

  • Just let it go.
  • You shouldn’t feel that way.
  • It’s not worth getting upset over.
  • If you are unhappy, just leave/quit.

To keep a conversation flowing, carefully phrase your response so the speaker feels heard and acknowledged.

Some examples of validating statements are:

  • That sounds like a difficult situation.
  • I can understand why you are feeling this way.
  • It must be very hard.
  • I’m sorry that you are struggling.

When you appropriately validate someone, they will want to continue talking with you.

4. Do You Want My Advice?

Unsolicited advice can grate on our nerves. If we are talking and our conversation partner continually offers suggestions about how they would handle the situation, we often stop talking.

We may know what action we need to take, but first, we want to verbally process the situation. We are looking for someone to listen, not advise us.

Unsolicited advice can be a barrier to communication. Not only is it invalidating, but it can make the speaker shut down, thus prematurely ending a conversation. Research shows that unsolicited advice is more common in close relationships, and people tend to give it relatively early in the conversation. Resist this urge!

If you are the listener and it is not clear if the speaker is wanting advice, ask them. You can say, “Is there some way I can help?” If they say “no”, focus on listening instead of problem-solving. This will keep a conversation flowing in the right direction.

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Let's get the conversation started

The ability to start and maintain a conversation is a valuable life skill that is helpful in every relationship, both personal and professional. With practice, you can be a great conversationalist.

The first step is being a good listener and asking relevant follow-up questions. To ensure that you are listening more than you are speaking, allow for moments of silence. When it is time to respond, make sure you communicate sensitively without offering unsolicited advice. Four simple strategies to help you become a better conversationalist.

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Jill is a clinical psychologist who earned her PsyD in 1997. She has over twenty years of clinical experience working with anxiety, depression, and trauma. Jill enjoys writing about personal growth, self-care, and healthy relationships. She is also an outdoor enthusiast, museum lover, and runner.

Colorado Springs, CO
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