I remember the scene vividly. Some years ago, when the kids were much younger, one of them, visibly upset, came running in to tattle on one of their siblings. In frustration they blurted out, “‘so and so’ said the ‘S’ word”! My wife and I were shocked. Not that pastor’s kids are perfect, but it was a little early to have this conversation.
Trying not to overreact, and yet gain more information, we asked, “what did they did they say?” “They told me to shut up!” was the reply. With a sigh of relief and a little chuckle, we had a conversation about respect and proper ways to communicate. We had tried to teach our kids to be kind and respectful and telling people to shut up was neither. Conversation is tough stuff.
I’ve had the privilege to teach communication courses at the college level for about a decade. You’d think that I would be a good conversationalist. Not so much. When it comes to formulating and delivering a talk, I feel much more comfortable. But, when it’s one-on-one, I’m an ambivert who often behaves as an introvert, and I clam up. It just doesn’t come naturally.
Perhaps, you struggle too. Here’s 5-things I’ve learned about how to be a good conversationalist
- Strategically listen
There is a difference between hearing and listening. We’ve been there. Someone is speaking and all we hear is Charlie Brown’s mysterious teacher, “blah, blah, blah.” There are a lot of problems with listening.
First, the average person talks at about 150 words per minute. The average person can listen, however, at about 450 words per minute. So, we can listen, but also evaluate our surroundings, wonder if we turned on the crockpot, analyze the speaker’s fashion sense, and solve world hunger. And the entire time, we’re shaking our head and making grunting sounds to indicate that we’re listening—when we’re really just hearing.
Another problem with listening is that we get tired and just want people to get to the point. So, we try to help them out by finishing their statements. “Why continue the endless babble,” we contend, “I already know what they’re going to say?” That could lead to heartache and headaches.
Listening is hard—no doubt about it. But it’s not impossible. Some good practices of listening are to reduce distractions. That might include moving to a different location and telling the person, “can we switch seats? That TV is annoying and I really want to pay attention to what you’re saying.” Also, make solid eye contact and listen empathically. You may also consider asking clarifying questions like, “are you saying that…” or “you mean to tell me that…” or even “how did that make you feel?”
- Don’t hijack the conversation
Many of us like to talk. We like to share our stories and experiences. However, we all know “that person” that when we tell the story of how our kid won an award, they feel obligated to tell us that their kid won two. At that point, they turned the subject of the conversation from you to their favorite person—themselves.
In truth, there have likely been times for all of us when someone has been talking and we’re not listening. Instead, we’re thinking, “I can’t wait for you to close your pie hole so I can share something really interesting.”
To be a good conversationalist, allow the other person to set the topic—especially if they initiated the conversation. You’ll be able to tell if they’re enjoying the conversation because of their verbal tones and nonverbal language. As they continue to share, ask them to elaborate.
- Don’t solve a problem—unless asked:
Oftentimes, people just want to talk. Maybe a friend has had a rough day and they’re frustrated and need to unload. They value the relationship they have with you and just want you to listen.
If you’re “a fixer”, that might cause problems. When they begin talking about their issue or problem, you want to help them and fix the issue. So, you tell them exactly what to do to solve the problem. For you, it’s a win/win. You’ve solved their problem and you feel good about it.
But, to them, the problem wasn’t a problem that needed fixing. They weren’t asking you to fix it, they just wanted you to listen and care about them.
Try this: First, connect with them. Say, “wow, you must feel awful.” Second, reaffirm the relationship. Say, “as your friend, I am here for you.” Finally, offer counsel or advice—if wanted. Test the waters by saying, “something similar happened to me one time and it was awful.” At that point, they will either reaffirm the relationship and say, “thanks for listening,” or ask for your advice. Either way, you remain a good friend.
- Watch for nonverbal and verbal “leave behaviors”
“Leave behaviors” are signals that people use to communicate to others that that they don’t want to talk anymore. Nonverbal behaviors might include a person looking at their watch or phone to see the time—repeatedly hoping you’ll get the hint. They might also glance around the room or wave and smile at someone else.
Also, glance down. A person’s feet determine their direction. If their feet and body are not pointed at you—there is a chance they’re ready to be somewhere else. Beat them to the punch and exit stage left.
Verbal leave behaviors might include, “It’s been great talking with you” or “it’s great to see you.” This is not designed to be fuel on the fire for let’s talk some more, but rather, “it’s been fun, but I need to run.”
- How to get away from “that” person
Finally, and most awkward of all, is how to get out of a conversation. Unfortunately, some people don’t understand social norms or proper etiquette in conversation. They progress from one story to another monopolizing the conversation, dominating your time, and draining your energy. You’d really love to use the “S” word.
First, utilize all the nonverbal and verbal leave behaviors above. Step back or to the side. If they mirror your behavior and “follow you”, they’re not “getting it” and are not ready for the conversation to end. Apparently, they think you’re an engaged listener. Plan B.
Leaving a conversation almost always requires a verbal break. We need to let the other person know, politely, of course, that the conversation has come to an end. If you are shy, by nature, this can be difficult, but it’s critical to verbalize your exit.
If this is a person that you care about, you may need to interrupt them mid-sentence by putting your hand on their shoulder and firmly stating your exit. If there is no relationship with the person, clasp your hands in front of your body, smile and say, “I’m sorry to interrupt. It’s been great to talk to you, but I really need to go.” Then, leave quickly and methodically. Don’t look back. They’re probably still talking.
Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer. He can be reached at waynegeiger.com.