The ability to effectively carry on a conversation is a key element of success for a variety of reasons. Being a good conversationalist will enhance your reputation as a communicator. People enjoy being in the company of a good conversationalist, so it will create opportunities to expand your network of contacts. Being a good conversationalist will also make you a popular neighbour and a sought-after dinner guest. Last, and certainly not least, you will learn things.

             Although some people seem to be born with the “gift of the gab,” most good conversationalists have had to learn their conversation skills. Like anything worthwhile, until it becomes second nature to you, being a good conversationalist requires work.

             Make sure that your conversation isn’t just a monologue delivered to an unwitting captive audience. No one likes being around a long-winded motor-mouth who never lets other people get a word in edgewise. A sure warning that you might be talking more than your share is if you frequently catch yourself saying “to make a long story short”. Most people don’t make a long story short until it is already too late. A good rule of thumb to follow is to always say less than you know about any subject.

             Another potential conversational problem to watch for is what’s usually referred to as a “slip of the tongue,” an unintentional oral faux pas that tends to get people in trouble. As some wag once put it, “the tongue, being wet, is prone to slip.” This most often happens when you’re in a conversation with people that you don’t know well. Until you get to know a little bit about the people you are conversing with be very circumspect about your comments. In conversations with people whom you don’t know well it’s usually a good policy to stay away from getting into intense discussions about religion or politics.

             Overly clever remarks can also be a problem in conversations with people that you don’t know well. Actually, overly clever remarks can even get you in trouble with your friends. Always take the time to give some thought to your clever remark in order to decide whether you should say it. A clever retort should always be sacrificed for the sake of someone’s feelings. Remember that real wit (a rare and usually appreciated skill) should be the seasoning of a conversation; it should never be the main course. Wiseacres are never appreciated and are rarely tolerated for long.

             Just as motor-mouths and wiseacres are never on the list of good conversationalists, another common undesirable at the water cooler, cocktail party or dinner table is the know-it-all. It’s always better to ask some of the questions than to pretend to know all of the answers; indeed, it’s often a good idea to pretend to learn things that you already know. In some situations all you have to do to be considered a good conversationalist is to be a good listener. Listening skills, an integral requirement for being a good conversationalist, are sufficiently important that they will be dealt with in detail in my next article.

             Some people do just fine once a conversation gets going but find it difficult to initiate one. Asking a question is the most effective technique for starting a conversation, even if it’s only, “Have you ever seen such lousy weather?”

             Asking questions is also the best way to keep a conversation going, as well as to keep a conversation balanced and enjoyable for all concerned; so take advantage of any opportunity to ask a question rather than make a statement. For example, it’s a lot more effective to ask, “Why are you going to support that candidate?” rather than saying, “I don’t understand why you would vote for that jerk.”

             The best questions in any conversation start with words that begin with a “w,” such as: “Why do you say that?” “Where are you going to be staying?” “What would have to happen in order for you to change your mind?” “When did all this happen?” “Who else is going to be involved?”  The second best questions start with words that begin with the letter “h”, such as: “Have you thought about…..” “Had you expected ….? “How do you intend to raise the money?”

             However, a few words of caution are in order here. A good conversationalist asks the questions that people want to answer, not the ones that make them uncomfortable or antagonistic. Furthermore, you’re not going to carry on an effective conversation if you continually sound like you’re interrogating or cross-examining everyone. In addition to asking questions, you also need to make your own contributions to a conversation.

             You should always be as ready to accept other people’s ideas as you are your own, keeping in mind that one difference between a conviction and a prejudice is that a conviction can be explained without raising your voice. How you say something may determine the nature and substance of the response. Always ask questions and make statements in a friendly tone of voice (remember we’re talking about conversations here, not debates). Most of the friction of daily living is caused by the wrong tone of voice. There’s no need to raise your voice if the right words are used.

             Granted it sometimes takes a lot of discipline to keep your tone of voice on an even keel, but it’s always worth the effort. It’s a lot easier to silently swallow angry words now than it will be to have to eat them later. Two techniques you will find useful in this respect are to consider even hostile questions as simply requests for information and, when receiving a complaint, assume at the outset that it’s legitimate.

             If you’re like most people you’ll find there are times when your mind wanders or you just lose interest in the conversation. When your mind goes blank during a conversation be sure to turn off the sound. An ounce of “don’t say it” is worth a ton of “I didn’t mean it.”

             One of the suggestions in Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People is to become genuinely interested in other people. This certainly holds true for becoming a good conversationalist. People like to talk about what’s important to them; and what’s important to them is whatever they think is important, regardless of how unimportant it may seem to you. Remember, too, that the deepest human craving is for appreciation, so sincere praise will always be more effective than criticism. As a matter of fact, saying nothing is usually more effective in a social conversation than criticizing someone.

             Although you don’t want to carry it to the point where people will think you have no ideas, convictions, or interesting experiences of your own, to the extent possible, talk about the things other people want to talk about rather than talking about yourself. As someone once put it, there’s no need to talk too much about yourself, others will do that when you leave the room.

             Even if you adhere religiously to all of the above rules, and read Dale Carnegie’s book every three months, you’re still not going to be completely happy with the way all your conversations go. There are bound to be times when you may be saying all the right things but the other person, for whatever reason, simply isn’t ready to hear them. You can’t always get into other people’s minds so don’t become disheartened when your best efforts fall short. The other person’s toothache is, to them, far more important than your wonderful cruise.

             When all else fails, ask about the dog.