By definition a conversation involves the exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions and ideas. A conversation, therefore, cannot be just a monologue delivered in front of one or more witnesses. A conversation involves both speaking and listening, and it’s the listening part that most people don’t do very well. As a matter of fact, most people wouldn’t listen at all if they didn’t think it was their turn next.

Good listeners aren’t just popular people; they also learn things. When you’re talking you can only repeat what you know; by listening properly you can learn what other people know. And thoughts can be worth more than money. If you give me two five-dollar bills for a ten, neither of us is any richer. But if you give me an original idea and I give one to you, each of us has one more idea. Don’t tune out someone simply because there’s something about them you don’t like. Listen to everyone; everyone has ideas.

Good listening requires your undivided attention. Don’t listen only to decide what you’re going to say when it does become your turn, but rather listen with a view to understanding what the other person is actually saying. Only then should you start to think about what you’re going to say. This might take a little extra time, but it will never take as much time as having to repair misunderstandings. You also need to listen for intent as well as content; withhold judgement until the other person finishes. Don’t fall into the trap of hearing only the first few words of a sentence because you’re finishing it in your mind; you might completely miss the real intention of the other person’s statement.

Good listening requires more than just hearing what the other person is saying. Don’t miss clues about how the person is feeling, such as body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. Another good technique to keep in mind is when you hear generalities, ask specific questions; that way you’re more apt to find out what’s really being said.

Now let’s turn to the other side of the conversation, when you’re talking rather than listening. If you are in the habit of interrupting people, get to work right away on breaking that habit. When a person is talking, about the only interruption that’s ever appreciated is applause.

Dale Carnegie, in his best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People says that the Golden Rule of conversation is to talk in terms of the other person’s interests. He was absolutely right. If you want to gain a reputation as a good conversationalist, and be a popular dinner party guest, talk as much as possible about things in which other people are interested. It’s not at all difficult to find out what these topics are. Mr. Carnegie went on to say that the way to do this is to become genuinely interested in other people. The person you’re talking to will usually give you lots of clues, and you can always elicit such information by asking questions which the other person will enjoy answering, such as questions about family, hobbies and work. Until you really get to know a person well it’s best to stay away from bear traps such as religion and politics.

It’s always better to ask some of the questions than to be supplying all the answers. This means that there will be times when it’s a good idea to pretend to learn something you already know. Even if you get found out you’ll be appreciated for your diplomacy and tact.

How you say or ask something may determine the response and the direction the conversation will take. Always ask questions in a friendly tone of voice; most of the friction of daily living is caused by the wrong tone of voice.

Don’t overreact to statements that question your positions. In these circumstances it’s better to ask a question than to make a counter-statement. A good question in any conversation is “why”. When someone challenges, in a belligerent tone, something you just said, rather than getting into an escalating-tone-of-voice situation, ask in a reasonable tone, “Why do you feel that way?” There’s no need to shout if the right words are used. It’s always a good idea to consider even hostile questions as simply requests for information; and when hearing a complaint, assume at the outset that it’s legitimate.

Nobody likes a smart aleck so always remember that wit should be the salt of a conversation, not the main course. Think about your clever remark in time to assess its appropriateness and whether to say it. An ounce of don’t-say-it is worth a ton of I-didn’t-mean-it. This caution also applies to angry words. It’s always easier to swallow them now than it will be to eat them later. Always sacrifice a clever or angry retort for the sake of someone’s feelings.

When all else fails, ask about the dog.