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The Art of Conversation
by Meta Wagner / 10 April 2013 /Originally for The Capital Grille
An hour cocktail party or two-hour business dinner can feel like a day dragging on if you aren’t silver-tongued or you wind up paired with someone who is less-than-outgoing. Even captivating public speakers or extroverted account executives can sometimes find themselves at a loss when the go-to topics (business, movies, weather, kids) are exhausted.Fortunately, no matter where you are on the conversation comfort scale, there are techniques that can make any conversation engaging, meaningful, and memorable.
Banter like the Best Conversationalists
Conversation, as with any art from, has past masters that the rest of us can emulate. And, no group of gabbers is as renowned as the Algonquin Round Table. These writers, critics, actors and wits, including Dorothy Parker, met for lunch regularly at the Algonquin Hotel from 1919 to 1929, producing linguistic gems that are still quoted to this day.Not everyone can produce the perfect bon mot, but everyone has personal stories to share. And, storytelling, according to Paul Smith, author of Lead with a Story, is the basis for relationship building through conversation. This is especially true in the workplace, where, all too often, hallway chatter can seem predictable or even superficial.Smith says that there are two types of stories you can tell that will be instant hits. “Be self-deprecating,” says Smith. “Everyone would love to hear about how you accidentally hit ‘Reply All’ to the company email and admitted something a little embarrassing to the entire organization.”The other welcomed type of story is about when you learned something, or learned it in an unexpected way. “Talking about your medieval history class might only be interesting to other history buffs,” says Smith. “But if you tell a story about how you learned medieval history by watching Monty Python movies and cross-referencing the facts in Wikipedia, almost anyone will find that entertaining.”
Create a Genuine Connection
Storytelling can also take you beyond simple camaraderie and actually allow you to create a closer, more genuine bond with co-workers or clients. It all depends on how willing you are to be open and honest.“The most effective stories are ones that create vulnerability by showing an insecurity, or describing a painful time in your life, or a costly failure,” says Smith. “They’re exactly the kind of stories people don’t want to tell to a bunch of strangers in the office—and that’s the point. It’s a vicious circle. We don’t tell our personal stories because we work with strangers. They remain strangers because we don’t tell our personal stories. You have to break the cycle. Tell your own stories and challenge other people to tell theirs, and you’ll never work with strangers again.”Daniel Menaker, former editor at the New Yorker and Random House and the author of A Good Talk, agrees. “Take risks and confide in others,” he advises. “Those are the conversations that come from nowhere and develop into exchanges with more meaning.”
Treat Conversing Like a Task
Stimulating repartee, funny anecdotes, and personal disclosures are the stock in trade of a great conversationalist. But there are also times when you might feel shy or anxious about attending an upcoming dinner party or company outing. That’s where your project management skills will come in handy.Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, says to approach these occasions as you would any other project. “Most of us are great at tasks,” she says. “That’s one reason why we’ve succeeded, professionally.”First step is a little reconnaissance. Fine suggests getting hold of the guest list if you can and reviewing everyone’s names, especially partners and spouses, so you can try to recall what you know about each person and, if you’ve met before, what you talked about the last time you were together.Next, prepare three “conversation starters” that are broad enough to appeal to nearly anyone and are designed to elicit specific, and hopefully interesting, responses. “Bring me up to date with that project you were telling me about last time” or “What’s been going on with work for you since the last time I saw you? “ Or, Fine’s favorite when you’re speaking to someone you don’t know well, “What keeps you busy outside of work?”Finally, come to any social event equipped with short answers to questions you’ll probably be asked, like “How’s your year been?” or “How are the kids?”
With so much focus on what to say, it can be easy to forget that talking is only half of a conversation. The other half, of course, is listening. “One thing most people enjoy is when other people pay attention to them,” says Smith. This includes listening closely to what others have to say, asking questions to get them to say more, and genuinely appreciating what was shared.Alex Lickerman, M.D., physician and author of The Undefeated Mind, also believes that the value of being a good listener cannot be overstated. He says that shifting the attention away from yourself and toward others–genuinely caring about what they have to say–“will lead to an approach and tone that people will notice and warm to. And it will make you less fearful in engaging with others.”The benefits of being a good listener do not end there. As Smith observes, one requirement for any great conversation is to have at least one good listener. “And if that’s you,” he says, “you will be the one in the group people like because you were largely responsible for ensuring that those speaking were having a good time.”The best news about becoming a better listener? As Smith points out, “You don’t have to be a great talker to be a great conversationalist.”
Meta Wagner is the “Vox Pop” columnist for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. Her articles and essays have appeared in Salon, The Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor.