I remember Bonnie Gallion in the 8th grade. Back then, we all exchanged hand-written notes between classes. Whenever I opened Bonnie’s notes, I still remember being struck by her ability to engage me: “Did you think the history test was hard?” “Did Ken come over this weekend to see you?” “Are those new shoes you’re wearing? They’re so cute!”
Some people mistakenly think that being an expert conversationalist is equivalent to being someone with interesting stories to tell, much like a good performer. But actually, the best conversationalist gets you to talk about yourself. Everyone loves talking about themselves and their interests.
The following are tips to tie strings around your heart and the hearts of your loved ones (as well as improve all of your relationships). Let’s walk through these nine tips on how to become an expert conversationalist.
Number #1: Learn to ask purposeful questions. It’s fine to ask, “What’s going on?” or “How’s your day?” or even, “What did you do today?” But it’s much more engaging to ask, “Did the deal go through on the Smith case?” or “What funny things has Gracie (their 4-year-old) said lately?” If you don’t know the person well, you can ask, “What’s your connection to this event?” or “How did you first get involved with this group?” or “How did you and so-and-so meet?”Another home run pitch is, “How did you come to be in your line of work?” Asking purposeful questions about the other person is a skill to learn, and you get better with practice. Watch how other people light up when you ask purposeful questions about them.
Number #2: Become a world-class listener. Once you’ve mastered asking purposeful questions, you must now learn how to make the other person feel affirmed and heard. In addition, you want the other person to know you want them to continue talking. A powerful skill to own is to know how to Hit the Ping Pong Ball back. After your friend starts talking and then pauses to let you respond, follow up with some form of “Tell me more” or “What happened next?” Undoubtedly, you’ve been in a conversation where you were excited about what you were saying, and the other person merely says, “Uh-huh” or “Mmmmm.” It’s obvious they aren’t too interested in what you’re saying as they aren’t Hitting the Ping Pong Ball back to you. To be a great conversationalist, you have to master getting others to feel comfortable talking about themselves. (In Lesson 1 in Husband School, the Genie teaches Jason how to be a world-class listener and to Hit the Ping Pong Ball back to his wife, Christina.)
Number #3: Appreciate and admire what the other person says. People are frequently dry, wilted plants, and appreciation and admiration are like a gentle spring rain. There is something about appreciation and admiration that touches the soul in a way that nothing else seems to match. Not money. Not possessions. Not popularity. Not anything. Humans long for appreciation and admiration. Take a risk and offer others what you so deeply want. Everyone—and I mean everyone—is drawn to those who offer sincere appreciation and admiration. (For more on this, appreciation and admiration are discussed in length in chapters 3 and 4 in Wife School and in chapter 3 in Husband School.)
Number #4: Ask other people for their opinions. This is such a killer secret in learning how to be an expert conversationalist. People love, love, love to give their opinion. Just remember, when other people give their opinion, avoid interrupting or being argumentative. Agree wholeheartedly, but disagree softy (and only if you must). For Pete’s sake, don’t be a know-it-all. I know, I know, you have opinions about almost every subject on earth (I do), but be careful when you give your strong “correct” opinion if you’re trying to deepen a relationship. Nothing pushes people away faster than a condescending “I’m right/you’re wrong” attitude. Learn to offer your opinion softly as a possibility that you believe, rather than a take-no-prisoners attitude. Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson’s jobs on Fox News are to give strong, unswaying opinions. That’s great and interesting for TV and politics, but in personal relationships, gentleness and humility reign.
Number #5: Practice empathy. Other people are often slogging through a swamp experience of life and the road is dangerous and uncomfortable. Everyone loves empathy and compassion. People deal with unbelievably burdensome and troublesome situations. In your conversations with others, say sentences like, “That sounds very difficult. I’m not sure how you handled that,” or “Whew, that is a lot. I bet you were extremely exhausted.” Humans long for others to express empathy about their difficult circumstances. As fallen and self-absorbed humans (which is true, as much as we hate to admit it), we tend to downplay others’ hardships, and blow up our own difficulties. Guard against this.
Number #6: Don’t brag. Some of the women in my mother’s retirement home repeatedly mention how they were cheerleaders in high school. It would be comical if it weren’t so sad that 90-year-old women are still trying to feel important. Of course, we all mess up and brag because we all want to impress other people. We tell stories about our children’s success, our genius escapades, or our amazing conquests in the past. I hate it when I slip up and do this. “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth.” (Proverbs 27:2)
Sometimes people can be cunning in their round-about way of bragging. They start off with something negative: “I’m worn out and having such a hard time.” That’s the opening for the braggadocios sentence to come: “It’s so difficult to decide which of Johnny’s scholarship offers to elite schools to accept.” Gag, right?
Number #7: Don’t lose eye contact with the person talking. Maybe you read about Jessica in Wife School who was typing out a recipe to send to her sister while her husband was talking to her. We often do this when we’re not very interested in the other person’s subject. But if you’re trying to build a deep relationship with someone, don’t even glance away for a second when they are talking. Eye contact communicates your interest and your respect.
Number #8: Observe the 40-60 rule. Here’s another difficult tip for many of us. Try to talk only 40% of the time, and at the extreme outer limit, talk 50%. When people talk more than their share in a conversation, I think it’s for one of three reasons: they think they’re smarter than the other person, they think they are more important than the other person, or maybe they are simply insecure and are trying to impress the other person. Regardless of the reason, this is a hard habit to break.
And please don’t go on and on with long, detailed stories. No one cares about the minute details completely unrelated to your main storyline. Try to omit trivial or irrelevant information when you’re talking. It bores the rest of us. Maybe you’ve read Skinny School and remember the scene at the Brazilian Steakhouse with Jackie’s early boyfriend, Robert, and his long, boring stories. When Jackie was breaking up with him, she said to herself, “I would rather be alone than be forced to listen to one more story.” Watch your conversations and see if you are talking too much. (I personally don’t score too well on this rule.)
Number #9: Genuinely care. Even if other people are initially duped into thinking you care (when you don’t), they always end up finding out if you genuinely care eventually. This rule is tough as I’m afraid the only prescription for improving your ability to genuinely care is the Double Sticks of Dynamite prescription of prayer and Bible study. You can decide to tweak your conversational skills, but only God can change your heart to be a person who genuinely cares.
Experts like to throw out statistics about what portion of your happiness is attributable to your relationships (some as high as 75%). Regardless of the exact percentage, your relationships will deepen when you learn to be an expert conversationalist.
(For more on growing and deepening relationships, see Lesson 9 in Happy School, “The Premiere Importance of Relationships.”)
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