Winning the Conversation Game
- Thursday, October 20, 2011
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the latest installment of The Single Life, a monthly column written specifically for singles.
We interrupt this column to activate the social situation service: a party warning has been issued for the upcoming holiday season. Between now and the New Year, various social events are likely to occur. These settings may require you to take part in actual face-to-face discussions, which may involve using the vocal apparatus known as your mouth as opposed to operating an electronic device with your thumbs. In the event of such a social situation, your ability to text like the wind will be of no help whatsoever. Please be prepared to converse while simultaneously looking at the other part(ies) involved. We now return to your regularly scheduled story.
Consider yourself warned: party season is almost upon us. Now, a social occasion where most (or all) of the guests are your friends is generally not a cause of conversational stress, but what if you find yourself at a work party, church gathering, or other event where you’re obliged to make nice with people you don’t know (or don’t know well)? That’s a little trickier, especially in this digital age when so much “conversation” is done via text, e-mail, and so on.
But don’t fret: If the thought of actually talking to another person without benefit of technology makes you nervous, just think of conversation as a game. Once you know a few basic ground rules you’ll be able to talk to anyone else who’s willing to play along.
Rule 1: Step Up to the Plate
The first (and often scariest) step is the first one: get out there and play ball. Toss out a conversational pitch and see if someone catches it and lobs it back. One way to do that is to ask an open-ended question: How do you know [party host]? Try to position your question for a positive answer: What one thing are you looking forward to this [week/month/season]? What holiday tradition do you enjoy most?
Once you’ve asked the question—and this is the most important part of the process—shut up and listen to the answer. As in, pay attention to what they’re saying, don’t just wait for them to take a breath so you can jump in with your own story. Next, ask a follow-up question or comment on what they just said. This one simple step will earn you a reputation as a conversational genius. Why? Because (especially in this “here’s-my-latest-post-about-what-I’m-doing-now” obsessed world we live in) just about everybody is talking but almost no one is listening.
If you are willing to step up to the plate as a listener, you will validate the other person’s right to an opinion. (It doesn’t mean you agree with them, just that you are willing to let them have their say.) This is especially helpful if you’re in a room with a bunch of people who outrank you, such as corporate higher-ups. Not only will you come across as an interested, engaged, intelligent person, you might actually learn something.
Rule 2: Take Turns
A well-played conversation is more akin to a tennis match than a football game. You may be able to break through the competition’s conversational line with a long-winded monologue but you won’t score any points that way. I’ve been in conversations where the other party talked so nonstop for so long I was convinced they’d mastered the art of circular breathing. After a while I tuned out and entertained myself placing mental bets on how much longer they’d be able to go before passing out due to lack of oxygen. There’s certainly nothing wrong with sharing an observation or story, just don’t drone on and on. As Walt Disney (or was it P.T. Barnum?) said, “Always leave them wanting more.” Hint: if your audience’s eyes glaze over, it’s probably time to wind up that story and take a breather.
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