I have been speaking publicly, facilitating workshop, for the last two decades: here is a breakdown of skill development into 10 simple ways that you can become a better conversationalist.
1. Don’t multitask
This goes for your brain, not just your body. We’re often told as children not to fidget when we’re being talked to, and teenagers are told to put their phone down in favor of face-to-face interaction.
This concept, however, refers to your mind. When you’re part of a conversation, don’t let your brain wander to your to-do list, or to something that happened to you this morning, or to a different conversation you had the other day.
Train your brain to focus on the moment, and develop an attention span longer than that of the average goldfish.
2. Don’t pontificate
Avoid your soapbox. Remember that, although it sounds harsh, that person doesn’t care to listen to you ramble endlessly. A conversation is as much listening as it is speaking, and a speaker who travels down 37 rabbit trails during their conversation is not one who will be invited to dinner very often.
3. Use open-ended questions
Don’t define their thoughts for them by asking questions such as “That was difficult, wasn’t it?” Don’t tell them how they’re feeling by saying, “You must’ve been ecstatic.”
Ask them how they felt, or what they learned in a certain situation, and let them expand on it for you.
4. Go with the flow
If you think of the most witty and relevant thing to say, but another person is already speaking and the conversation topic is shifting, let your thought go.
Once the brilliance is in your mind, it’s undeniably difficult to pass over.
However, remember the last time that you were in a group conversation and someone jumped back to a previous topic because they HAD to speak their piece? That’s another person who isn’t invited to dinner very often.
5. If you don’t know, say you don’t know
Pretending to know things that you don’t is a very dangerous game. Speakers get tempted and get into a self defeating game way too often.
Lying is tempting when you’re trying to avoid looking stupid, but conversationalists who pretend to be knowledgeable are almost always found out. You could play along, but that will end as soon as you’re asked for feedback. Then, admitting you had no idea what was going on for the last 10 minutes becomes more embarrassing than asking for an explanation in the first place.
6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs
If someone is talking to you about their long day at work, it is not your invitation to discuss how difficult your job is. If someone is telling you about their recent accomplishment, it is not your invitation to one-up them with the best thing you did last year.
Listen to their experience. Console or congratulate them accordingly. Don’t make it about you, because that’s the fastest way to (you guessed it), not get invited to dinner.
7. Don’t repeat yourself
Repeating yourself is only acceptable when the listener asks for it. This goes for word-for-word repetition, rephrasing, and any “Like I said before…” tangents.
Do everyone a favor, and avoid it.
8. Stay out of the weeds
Your listener probably enjoys a good story with a little bit of background information. They probably do not enjoy a 5-minute history lesson, 7-minute story rendition, and 4-minute summary as well. Stick to only the important details, and leave the rest out.
Listening is more important to conversation than talking.
That’s right; you should be listening more than you’re talking. Hear what they’re saying and process it fully. Listen intently with the purpose of understanding, before you start creating comebacks in your head.
10. Be brief
Can you say everything that’s necessary in fewer words than you normally would? Do it.
11. Enter every conversation with the expectation of learning something
Don't get it into your head that you are the speaker and you are one to teach. Learn while you speak and you'll be a greater person.
If you approach everyone you encounter as an amazing individual with something to teach you, you will enjoy your conversations. You’ll automatically implement most of the other steps, and the person you’re talking with will have a good experience as well.
You’ll become the person that other people are excited to talk to.
And you’ll probably get invited to dinner.