Conversations are a collaborative art, and even though humans are communicating with one another on a scale and magnitude greater than ever before, what with modern communications technologies, the attention given to the art of rhetoric in the public forum has quite obviously diminished over the latter half of the past millennia, with only minor revivals turning up here and there. The reasons for this are as diverse as they are speculative, therefore all I will say here is that it seems public attention has shifted elsewhere, and leave it at that. Regardless, our task today is not to diagnose why the problem exists, but instead to do our best to remedy it. The problem that I hope to help remedy is that a lot of people struggle to have productive conversations; conversations that 1) strengthen the bond between the conversers, 2) empower the conversers through shared knowledge, and 3) empower the conversers through mutual feeling. Too often people ignore the bond, use position based arguments that don’t lead to either party gaining knowledge (unless it’s about the other’s wrongness and their rightness), and are all but ignorant of the emotions being conveyed. What a pity…
However, for the person who does know how to have truly productive conversations, the world will be a lot more open to you advances, as the art of conversing is useful in practically all social situations. Anytime you interact with other humans (most likely every day) you are likely going to engage in a conversation. So regardless of whether we’re a sociaux noveaux or the patron saint of eloquence, I think we all could benefit from focusing more of our attention towards developing our conversation skills. Let’s see if we can make the world a little more enjoyable, respectful, and productive for ourselves and those we interact with by conversing with greater intent.
However, the art of conversation is a topic that one article, and indeed, one book, could hardly even begin scratch the surface of. So today, let’s just look at some techniques I’ve picked up over the years that can be immediately put into practice and used to bring our conversations one step closer to collaborative masterpieces.
#1: Keep the conversation focused on them.
People relate better not by how well they feel they know you, but by how well they feel you know them, so be sure to keep most of your attention focused on learning more about them (though of course, don’t be overly defensive about yourself, as that could be just as harmful as too freely sharing yourself). You can then pick and choose the elements of yourself you want to convey based on how the other party is presenting themselves. The “trick”, if we can even call it that, is to honestly care about getting to know people and to not be afraid to ask questions. Remember what Benjamin Disraeli said: “Talk to a man about himself and he will listen for hours.”
#2: Don’t talk more than necessary.
Related to the last one, it’s a lot easier to pick and choose what you say when you say less than the person you’re having a conversation with. As for how much each party should be talking: when you first meet someone it should be pretty close to 50/50, but your goal should be to get them doing 80% of the talking while you do 20%. This way you’ll have more time to lead the conversation to productive topics, allow them to feel more related to you, and more quickly and carefully build up a strong bond.
Also, if you’re presently stuck with the bad habit of spilling your guts anytime you’re asked a question, practice restraint and fix that! I can’t emphasize enough how much damage can be done when someone simply can’t keep their mouth shut.
#3: Focus on the emotions.
If you want to build a strong bond with someone fast, the best way to do it is to share exceptional experiences together. The more exceptional the experiences, the more exceptional the emotions they feel; the more exceptional the emotions they feel, the greater attention they will give to the memory of the experience, and through those, you.
However, since the times we are having exceptional experiences don’t always overlap with the times we want to bond with someone, and since we aren’t always in a position to share an exceptional experience with someone (at least with ease), the next best thing is to share memories and goals with one another and to relive past experiences together, and, through those experiences, emotions. Talk about their past adventures, childhood memories, ambitions, goals, and just watch as they quickly link those positive feelings to you. Remember, when people are talking about experiences, the most important part of what they are talking about are the peak emotions they felt in response to exceptional circumstances. It’s absolutely vital that you pay attention to the emotions. No other shift has had such a massive impact on the way I converse as this has.
Women especially tend to communicate on an emotional wavelength, giving less heed to the words being used than men, who, instead, tend to focus more on the parallel and intersecting logical wavelength.
One of the many advantages the person who pays attention to emotions has in conversation is that they are able to predict how people will act and calibrate their presentation of themselves accordingly. That is to say, by focusing on how others feel, you more often get what you want, and can also better predict and fulfill others’ needs and desires as well. Make other people feel like they actually can achieve their goals, make them feel special, unique, and just watch how quickly they become dependent on you. What’s crucial to remember here is that if you’re doing this effectively you need to be taking responsibility for the situation. FDR once said that “great power involves great responsibility”, and that applies to this situation pretty well.
However, at this point I feel it important to point out that moderation is key here (and in all things). If you focus too much on the emotions your conversation can get top-heavy and fall apart. So mix this penetrating style of getting to know people up with a bit of humor and even some superficiality to keep things interesting. Not only will that make you seem more natural, it’s also a way to manage the tension you’re using.
If things get too tense the bubble bursts and you both are left feeling distanced from one another, and they actually will begin to feel the exact opposite of what you want them to – feeling like you don’t relate at all and occasionally even perceiving you as a manipulator instead of a leader (more on that later). We definitely don’t want that, so pay attention to their level of engagement, calibrate your presentation to the person and situation, and don’t make the mistake a lot of people seem to be making nowadays, and try and remove all tension all the time. Tension is useful, and the socially adroit person knows how to use it to make interactions more exciting and make things happen.
So to sum up, instead of focusing on what people are saying, focus on what they are communicating – through words, voice tone, posture, eye contact, and all those other cues that convey emotion, as these are much more reliable indicators of why someone is doing what they are doing, for uncovering their history, and, most importantly, for determining and helping guide their future actions than words are.
#4: Take your time.
In all things, you should not seem rushed. Perhaps behind the curtains you are a frenzied workaholic, but wearing that face in social situations is not going to help you, it will only cause people to raise their guards around you and make them think you think you’re better than them or envious. It’s generally not polite, and can make you seem ostentatious. Instead, practice sprezzatura, that is, calculated nonchalance. When you rush a conversation you betray your lack of self-respect by failing to conceal your art, and even if you are able to convey honest interest to someone, you still will often come off as needy and uncalibrated, which is a major social faux pa that makes you look weak and undesirable (and you don’t need me to tell you how useful being able to stir up others’ desires and appearing powerful is).
#5: Use plenty of “we” statements, along with a balanced amount of “you’s” and “I’s”.
This communicates that you are on the same team, that your interests are mutual, and that you are looking out for them. So use ‘we’ whenever appropriate (but, as always, aim to make it a habit so you won’t have to think about it and it comes off as natural; uncontrived. Because at that point, it will be).
#6: Address logic first and then finish your response by addressing emotions.
It can be frustrating when you are trying to convey or respond to an idea and the other party gets so offended by how you convey it that they don’t even take account of the information you are attempting to convey. This is an instance of the team frame we helped established in #5 breaking down. To reduce the instances of this occurring, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of addressing the logic first (calmly and courteously) and then finish up by addressing the emotional elements of the conversation. Oftentimes you’ll get to the root of what people are actually trying to communicate much more effectively by so doing. First you address the logic of the problem, then you go about addressing the emotions, and finally you wrap up by making them feel that things have been satisfactorily concluded. This is especially useful for dealing with stigmatizing topics and can effectively be used in tandem with the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) Feedback model.
#7: Show that you are paying attention through verbal and non-verbal signs.
You can feed them back what they said to you in slightly different words, nod your head, occasionally interject a statement of concurrence, or convey your rapt attention with strong eye contact.
A note on eye contact: you should be giving them more when they are talking than when you are talking. Look people directly in the eyes and don’t flit from one eye to another (as that indicates that you can’t get out of your head and aren’t feeling comfortable; and remember, emotions, as we touched upon earlier, are more or less contagious). Generally, just look into one of their eyes or at the bridge of their nose. With a little work this becomes natural (if it isn’t natural to begin with) but, at first, if you aren’t already doing this, it may cause you a bit of discomfort as you get it down, the same as any new habit. However, there are a lot of different eye contact strategies out there, so just experiment with what works for you. What’s most important here is that you convey active interest, self-assurance, and seem at ease.
A more advanced verbal technique you can practice is something called cold reading, where you take something you have recognized or learned about them and take an educated guess on some aspect about who they are, ideally something that they value in themselves that they don’t usually get complimented on. An example of this might look like:
Carol: “…And that’s when I decided that Vet School just wasn’t what I needed at the time.”
Mark: “Ah, no way. So you just went off to Cambodia on a whim, just like that?”
Carol: “I think I just needed some time to clear my head, you know.”
Mark: “You do seem like rather adventurous people. How long ago since you last were in Europe?”
Carol: “Yeah! I love adventure! And how did you know I’d been to Europe?!”
Notice that cold reading also can be useful for screening people for qualities you’re looking for, or even those that you want to bring out in them that are perhaps latent. You can also use cold reading earlier on in an interaction as a more “shot in the dark” type method of conveying your attentiveness and playfulness (it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong either, though give yourself bonus points if you’re right). Here’s an example of two people meeting for the first time: John and Riley are walking towards each other on the street…
John: “Hey, hold up. You look like a Philosophy student?”
Riley: “Yes, I am actually.”
John: “Excellent, your eyes give you away. I’ve actually been meaning to talk to a philosopher about a question I’ve been thinking about.
Riley: “What question?”
Cold reading is an art in and of itself, but is useful in so many different ways that I just had to include it in this list of effective communication techniques. However, there are so many more verbal and non-verbal signs that you are paying attention than we’ve covered here. We really haven’t even scratched the surface.
#8: Get them following your lead.
When you are guiding the conversation, you can determine and predict what topics are being focused on and get them accepting and trusting you through your vigilant management of the emotions being conveyed. How do you get them following your lead? How do you get people perceiving you as a leader? Now there’s a multifaceted question. The main thing is to be someone who is worth following. Another way of putting that is to be someone who is more focused on providing value than on taking it. Other factors like dominance and skill level also come into play here, as does the environment in which you are leading, but I’ll save a breakdown of leadership for another day, as that’s quite a complex topic.
#9: Assume compliance.
Related to taking the lead, you should also be more demanding in your questioning. Most people are so worried about offending others that they never get around to actually getting to know them! When you ask questions about someone’s character, experiences, or things that you know they actually care about and that you both are legitimately interested in, don’t let them get away with half-assed answers! This takes a degree of social dexterity, but not really all that much. Basically, if you expect people to comply and answer your questions in detail, they usually will.
#10: Avoid unproductive and harmful topics.
You can cut unproductive threads, amplify productive ones, and transform something that could be polarizing into something that brings the two of you together. When you can lead people’s emotions by paying attention, both parties can come out the better for having conversed.
One of the biggest things that can block people from having a productive conversation is when one or both parties “other” (v.). Othering is when someone has categorized someone else as not being like them; as someone who is neither kith nor kin. This is why it’s vital to avoid unproductive and harmful topics and to keep the conversation primarily focused on similarities and positive feelings, especially with someone you just met. There will be time to seriously discuss your differences when the relationship grows more mature, but typically it’s best to wait till a strong relational foundation has been laid, and only if both you and your friend know how to practice the art of docility (i.e., teachability). Offending someone is quite clearly grounds in this world to end a relationship, even though in a world less prone to stigmatization this would be less the case.
As I hinted at above, this takes both patience and restraint, especially if you’re in the habit of being contentious or disputatious or are not used to interacting with lots of different people. What naturally happens when you keep only a few people close is that you begin to depend more and more on them – for entertainment, information, comfort, and all other social needs and desires. One way to help make self restraint easier is to have a lot of different relationships, all fulfilling different functions. Don’t try and satisfy all your needs from just one person, as you will be giving them too much power over you and both of you may come to resent the other. Diversify.
There are so many techniques out there, but these ten should work as a foundation from which you can grow your art. Remember, conversations are a personal art, an art that is different for everyone and that varies from relationship to relationship. What I have listed above are techniques that have worked for me; they are not meant to to be prescriptive. Anyone who gives you prescriptions about personal arts fail to understand the fundamental nature of such arts – the living elements of play, situationalism, and experimentation.
Nonetheless, I hope you’re excited to put some of these techniques to the test. But remember, instead of trying to work on all of them at once, it is usually more effective to focus on just one or two things at a time, get the habit of doing those down, and then move onto something new. Otherwise you might make the mistake of spreading yourself too thin.
Get good at talking to people. If you can do that, you will make yourself fundamentally more capable, not to mention that you’ll inevitably be more satisfied with what you’ve brought into your life. And you’ll be surprised by just how easy things become with just a little work on your conversation skills. So don’t put it off; the next time you get to talking with someone, start working to provide the value of a master conversationalist, and really strengthen yourself and your ties to others. If you put in the work, doing so really is a game changer.