Matilija Press
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by Patricia Fry

2000 – The Toastmaster

Ten Steps to Becoming a Better Conversationalist

Toastmasters club meetings provide many opportunities for improving public speaking skills and learning leadership techniques. But what about the most common aspect of human communication – the conversation? Are you also practicing better conversational skills?

Dr. Bruce Gladstone of Gladstone Counseling Services in Ojai, CA, in a recent article for the Ojai Valley News said, “Conversation is an essential element in virtually every relationship we have. To a great extent, the quality of our relationships depends on our ability to converse verbally.”

It’s true. How can there be deep caring where there is no meaningful communication? How is understanding established where people can’t talk to one another? How are information and instructions passed along when folks don’t know how to converse effectively?

It’s ironic that we receive so little training to help us hone conversational skills when we rely on this ability everyday of our lives. You probably remember your parents and grade school teachers saying, “Don’t interrupt while I’m talking.” And, “Look at me when I’m speaking to you.” This is still good advice. For the most part, however, our conversational style and habits weren’t taught, but they developed over years of modeling others and receiving peer feedback.

The man who can’t finish a sentence without joking, probably enjoyed getting laughs as a youngster. He may have felt self-conscious about speaking to others, found that laughter eased the discomfort and created the joking habit in his everyday conversation. He found a way to compensate for his inadequacies and now he’s hard pressed to speak to anyone with a straight face and a straight line.

There’s a master plumber in my town who’s a pretty good listener, but his conversational style amounts strictly to grunts, guffaws and short predictable phrases. Maybe his parents did all of the talking for him when he was small. Perhaps the adults in his childhood didn’t listen to him. Whatever the reasons for his limited use of the language, remarkably, after 61 years, he still hasn’t found a reason to develop better conversational skills.

Feedback is a powerful tool in helping someone change their poor conversational habits and this is evidenced through the success of the Toastmasters program. A person has to first acknowledge that there is a problem, however, and they have to want to improve.

Most people hesitate criticizing the communication habits of others. How do you say to a coworker, “You talk like you have a mouth full of mush – can’t you enunciate more clearly?” Or to a friend, “I hate talking to you because you never respond to what I say. You go off telling your own story all the time without ever acknowledging mine.”

What if you were to say to the coworker, “I love the way you present your thoughts, Margaret. It’s difficult for some of us to understand you, though, when you swallow your words. It would be to your professional benefit if you would practice speaking more clearly. I’d be happy to help.”

To the friend, one might stop him in midstream whenever he commits his faux pas and say, “Wait! We’re talking about me right now. I’m interested in your story, but first, I’d like to finish mine and then I want to hear your comments about what I’ve told you.”

I know a woman who often talks over you. I called her on this once. I said, “That’s the third time today that you’ve asked me something and then started talking over me when I responded.” She was obviously shocked for a moment and then she said that she appreciated my pointing that out to her. She said that was a family trait. “Everyone in my family talks at once. It’s a bad habit that I’m trying to break.”

What are your habitual conversation blunders? Is there something specific that you’re working on? Are you aware of a problem in your way of conversing, but you’ve chosen to ignore it because no one seems to notice or care? Maybe you have an annoying habit and don’t know it.

The 1950 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia states, “The ability to engage in interesting conversation is one of the greatest personal assets a man or woman can have. It is a great aid to business and social success and also makes for greater enjoyment of the company of other persons.” I think we’ll agree that this is still true fifty years later.

It’s elementary, but worth repeating – there are two parts to effective conversation: speaking and listening. And both parts take thought and skill. Here are some tips for becoming a better, more respected conversationalist.

· Make eye contact. Looking directly at the other person is a courteous indication that you are listening. I have a deficiency in this area. I find it easy to look someone in the eyes when I’m talking to them, but when they are speaking to me, my eyes tend to wander. Of course, since I’m aware of this, it’s something that I consciously work on during my conversations with others.

· Speak clearly and audibly. It’s inconsiderate to mumble or to speak so softly that you can’t be heard, yet I frequently encounter people who do this. Most of us don’t know how we sound to others. If people consistently ask you to speak up or to repeat yourself, you may have an audibility problem. Record yourself speaking in conversational style. Listen to the tape and see if you are easily heard. Ask others to evaluate your voice and it’s volume. Is your voice pleasant? Too quiet? Too loud?

I have a friend whose voice trails off so it can scarcely be heard at the end of her sentences. She often speaks in front of large groups and, instead of changing this habit, she always apologizes for it before starting her talk. She’ll say, “Please forgive me if my voice trails off. It has a tendency to do that sometimes.”

Once you’re aware of any problems with your vocal volume or enunciation, start working to improve.

Additional tips:

  • Ask a friend to remind you whenever you fall back into your old habits.
  • Seek professional help from a voice coach for stubborn habits.

· Speak at a good pace. We’ve all been in conversations with people who talk so fast that you can’t keep up or so slowly that, by the time they finish expressing their thought, you’ve forgotten the topic. If you tend to speed talk or speak ever so s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y, here are some suggestions.

Speed talking sometimes develops from conversation anxiety. You may have learned from past experiences that if you don’t get your words in quickly, you might not get a chance to participate in the conversation. Relax. Concentrate on slowing down. Practice forming each word as you speak. Trust that you will have a chance to share your views and that people will listen. If your comments are well thought out and interesting, you will be heard.

Some slow talkers are created by an unconscious desire to control: “As long as I’m the speaker, I’m in control of the conversation.” Other people speak slowly because they’re still formulating their thoughts while they’re speaking. If the latter describes you, try thinking through your thoughts before delivering them and your pace may automatically improve.

· Use language and images familiar to the listener. You probably notice that you get more out of a conversation with someone who speaks and thinks like you do, than someone who uses vocabulary differently.

Your conversations will be more effective if you try to speak the language of the person with whom you’re talking. Use different words and inflection when speaking to your minister than when conversing with the teenager down the street, for example. A conversation with your type “A” boss will be more successful if you quickly get to the point. When visiting with your mother-in-law, you may want to be more relaxed and chatty.

· Stick to the topic. G. Robert Geyer, tells a lively story about “conversation stealers” (published in The Toastmaster, September, 1999 issue). He says that conversation stealers are people who jump in on your story to change the focus to themselves or to something that they know more about. As an example, I might want to tell a friend about having gone roller skating with my grandchildren over the weekend when she quickly says, “I remember the last time I went skating.” Or, “I had a great weekend, too. I went shopping and we had tea with the Marleys – did you know that Jim and Bev Marley bought the sporting goods store downtown?”

If you frequently steal the show in conversations, take steps to change this bad habit. How? When you’re talking with someone, try focusing your attention on them more. This is not to say that you shouldn’t tell your story. Of course, you can relate your experiences or thoughts. Just make sure that you also hear the other person’s saga and that you acknowledge it before sharing yours.

It’s also important to know when to change the subject. Whether you initiated the conversation or not, change the subject when there appears to be nothing new to say or when others begin to fidget or act bored.

· Know when to speak and when to listen. Conversation should be give and take. Each person involved in a conversation needs to speak and each needs to listen. Participate but don’t monopolize.

Sometimes someone else puts you in the position of monopolizing a conversation. They ask question after question about you without offering anything of themselves. You’d think that having someone express that much interest in your life would be the height of enjoyment and flattery. But after a while it begins to feel like an interrogation rather than a conversation.

I have a couple of friends who tend to grill me when we meet. I’ve learned to turn the tables on them after a couple of questions. I’ll say, for example, “Thanks for asking about my book – it’s scheduled for release next month. Now what about your son, how did he land the job writing for the church newsletter?”

· Express an interest in what’s being said. This seems like an elementary statement,

but, if you’re at all observant, you’ll notice that not everyone follows this good advice. Face the speaker with unfolded arms. Lean forward slightly. Make eye contact. Acknowledge statements with a nod, comment or question when appropriate.

· Ask open-ended questions to promote communication – that is, questions that require more than a yes or no response. Start questions with why, how or what. “Why did you move to this area from Florida?” “What caused you to enter the flower business?” “Tell me how you managed to keep your head above water in business during the recession.” “How has your profession changed since you entered it?”

· Be prepared. A good conversationalist engages his/her listeners and stimulates conversation. Hone your conversational skills by keeping up with trends and current events. Live an interesting life. Try new things so you’ll have something to talk about. Accept unusual invitations. See controversial plays. Do volunteer work. Begin a new hobby. Travel. Go back to school. Read. Change jobs or professions.

· Model someone whose conversational skills you admire. Who do you most enjoy conversing with? We all know someone who gets a lot of attention at social events and business meetings. What makes this person stand out in a crowd? What are some of his most endearing qualities? How does he make you feel when you’re conversing with him? Study his body language, his opening and closing statements and his speaking style. Ask him about his philosophy regarding communication. Does his attitude about people in general reflect in his approach to conversation? To improve your conversational skills, mimic someone who you consider successful in this area.

Being a good conversationalist isn’t a natural trait. It takes thought and practice. Apply these effectiveness tools and improve your ability to converse in any situation or circumstance.

Patricia Fry is the author of A Writer’s Guide to Magazine Articles for Book Promotion and Profit (Matilija Press, 2000).

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