I have an uncanny ability to talk to anyone. From farmer to lawyer, from student to teacher, from mechanic to millionaire – I can have an interesting conversation with just about anyone. Conversations are a great way to learn about the world and foster a sense of community with those around you. That is why I have honed my skills at the art of conversation. What makes a good conversationalist, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.
Be interested in learning something. One of the reasons I love talking to strangers is because I love to learn new things. A great way to learn new things is by talking to people who are different than you. Make it a goal to learn something new during any conversation. Everyone has something to teach you.
Ask questions. The best way to have a conversation is to ask good questions. Most people love to talk about themselves, so asking them about specific aspects of their life gives them the opportunity to share their stories. Dig deeper to get the details, but don’t overstep. You can discover the interesting tidbits without getting tabloid-caliber information.
Give praise. If the person tells you about a rough time in their life and how they overcame it, congratulate them. Whenever anyone tells me how long it’s been since they’ve drank or smoked, I say, “That is great! Congratulations.” Some people never get outside praise. Give it to them, and be genuine about it. The art of conversation is about making people feel good.
Be interesting. Obviously a conversation is a two-way street. When it’s your time to share, be interesting. I’ve run into people who I hadn’t seen for six months, and when I asked them what they’ve been up to, they said, “Nothing.” Really? You haven’t done anything at all in the last 6 months? One of the best reasons to make your life interesting is to have something to say on the other side of a conversation. Answering, “Nothing,” to the question, “What have you been up to?” is a conversation stopper. Maybe you feel what you’ve done is unimportant, but others might be inspired by it. (“I’ve been taking care of my elderly mother.”) But if you really truly have not done one significant thing in 6 months, then it’s time to reevaluate your life. Get some hobbies, read a newspaper, take a class.
Choose your topics carefully. I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times – don’t discuss religion or politics with strangers or first dates. If you’re an argumentative, strong-willed person, you should definitely stay in neutral territory. I’m inclined to dip just a little toe into this area sometimes because I’m interested to hear other viewpoints on these topics. Take extreme caution to be respectful of other’s beliefs and ideas. A conversation does not have a “winner.” The art of conversation is about learning news things and getting to know someone.
Be respectful. Be respectful of the other person’s viewpoints. You are not there to judge them, just to listen to them and be supportive. However, it’s also not your job to fix all their problems. Sometimes just empathizing is very valuable. It’s OK to offer suggestions, but never imply that your way is the only solution.
I cannot tell you how many strangers I’ve sat down next to at bars and had interesting conversations with. When you live in a city, your human interaction can sometimes be reduced to retail clerks and baristas for long periods of time. Make an effort to engage someone in a real conversation at least once a week. (But smile at and engage the retail clerks and baristas, too. Their interactions with customers are generally shallow and quick.)