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Tips for Becoming a Better Conversationalist

When I was a little kid, my mother used to tell people I was meeting for the first time that I was “shy but not demure.”DSCN0138 (2)I wasn’t demure. I was a precocious student, confident on stage, had plenty of opinions to share…but I didn’t like meeting strangers. Strangers made me feel intensely on the spot and nervous. I didn’t even like to tell my order to waiters at restaurants, for which my aunts and grandma, I remember, once gave me a hard time.

But that changed. How? Work.

I’ve been a one-on-one writing consultant, a tour guide, a trainer (I trained professors to use a new system our university had recently introduced), a teacher, and now I work in guest services at a camp that can host up to 5000 guests at at time.DSCN1214So that’s one thing that got me thinking about how to become a better conversationalist. I have been forced, thousands upon thousands of times now, to talk to complete strangers. And it definitely hasn’t been easy for me, especially at first.

The other thing that got me thinking about this topic was a workshop I went to back in 2015 hosted by an interfaith ministry organization at my university about how to flirt.

Yes, you read correctly. How to flirt.DSCN0525Flirting, the instructor pointed out pointed out, is something we do beyond our romantic and sexual lives. It is the art of getting other people to feel liked, and to like us in turn. According to the instructor, flirting could include everything from telling my boyfriend I think he’s cute to making stupid grammar jokes with my students to teasing my grandpa about his stubbornness to listening with interest while a guest of the Y describes her profession. That’s not creepy or inappropriate. It’s just me showing my boyfriend or my grandpa or my students or the guest that I enjoy spending time with them and want to make them happy.10463928_10203945460495325_5710748088259997636_nBefore that workshop, I had never thought of conversation as a skill that could be taught–but for those of us who are not very intuitive conversationalists, I’ve actually found it very useful to have some specific tips in mind.

So here are a few strategies I’ve picked up along the way, from the workshop, from job training, and from practice.

  1. The most basic rule of flirting: show interest in the other person. Ask them genuine questions. It’s easy, I think, for people who are shy like me to talk about ourselves, not because we’re selfish, because that’s conversational territory we’re familiar with. It takes practice (and I’m still not always great at it), but practice the art of asking your conversation partner questions–real questions that you’re interested in knowing the answer to.386785_10151418275023149_880842595_n
  2. And, if you, like me, find that first directive completely open-ended and unhelpful, try this. Start by talking about things that are specific to your context. “Have you ever been to a (bike race, rodeo, bar mitzvah…) before? “How do you know (the graduate, the bride, the deceased, etc.)?” “What did you think of the (lecture, movie, sermon, lemon meringe pie?)”1397241590923
  3. And the compliment to #2: Don’t feel like you have to start with the same set of questions: “Where are you from?” “What is your job?” “What is your major?” Feel free to shake it up.
  4. If you’ve met the person before, try to remember something specific about them. “How was the Scrabble tournament?” “How is your brother liking law school?” “Any progress with the kitchen remodeling project?”1238032_10151681356293149_2002857791_n
  5. Actually respond to the question “How are you?” You can do this in a way that doesn’t involve revealing anything too personal, while still giving some specifics. “Okay. Actually a little nervous. I have a job interview this evening.” “Awesome! I just found out my favorite television show is on Netflix.” This could start a conversation about job opportunities, or your favorite television show, or any number of things that are meaningful to you and might be meaningful to your conversation partner, too.
  6. Ask follow up questions. “Has your dad ever been hospitalized before? “Do you grow flowers, too, or only produce?”
  7. Make “I” statements rather than “you” statements. I’ve written about this in earlier posts, but I think it applies to all kinds of situations. “I choose not to count calories” rather than “You really shouldn’t count calories.”12105927_10153821774753149_7103713756691229433_nGenerally, don’t offer advice. Unless you’re someone’s doctor or master’s thesis advisor. Or you work at YMCA of the Rockies and someone asks you for a recommendation for a good hike under 2 hours. Or something like that.
  8. Don’t panic if it gets quiet. I remember once saying to a friend, “That was a really awkward silence,” and my friend wisely responded, “Actually, I thought it was a comfortable lull in the conversation.” Act cool, hang tight, look at the scenery or chew your food, and give yourself time to think of a good next question, rather than forcing a lame one.9b8ece384fb1813a801d130557a61361
  9. Try to focus on the positive. When I wait in line alongside the guests at the dining hall, I don’t lie and pretend that I’m excited to wait in line. But I try not to complain, either. I say, “Hey, at least the line’s moving pretty quickly,” or “I’ve heard today is ice cream day,” or ask the guest what they did that day, or whether they watched the World Series if they’re in a baseball t-shirt, or something positive to focus on. Even if happiness isn’t always contagious, grouchiness definitely is.420306_10151319970408149_1347329679_n

This is just my little humble list, but I’d like to hear from yours.

What conversation-starting tricks work well for you?

Is making conversation intuitive for you, or is it something you find difficult?

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  1. Diane Wahto says:

    Joyce–If I was the grandma who gave you a hard time when you didn’t tell the waitress what you wanted to eat, I apologize. I was probably hungry and didn’t want to wait too much longer for my food.

    You’ve given some excellent tips for overcoming shyness. As I’ve told you, I was for many years of my life so shy I could hardly bear being in the same room with someone I didn’t know. Then one day, I got tired of being that way. I started reaching out to people. It was then I realized most people really respond when someone else is interested in them. Of course, there are always those who will remain aloof, no matter what you do. I say let those people stand in the corner by themselves.

    When I returned to college to get my BA, I found it easy to talk in class and with the classmates during class breaks. It was when I was working on my MA at Pittsburg State that I really learned to talk to people–and to listen–because I was editor of the student newspaper and I had to do the hard stories. I found I enjoyed the interchange of conversation as I asked questions for a story. Then I began to take on leadership roles in KNEA everywhere I taught and that took care of any residual shyness I had. Now I’m on the state board of the Kansas Authors Club. I remember the first meeting I attended. I was almost too terrified to talk, so I hung around with my friend Ronda, who assured me she felt the same way at her first meeting. After that, in ensuing meetings, when I spoke, people listened. I don’t what changed, but I guess I’d found my voice.

    Now some people think I’m funny enough to be a stand-up comedian, which makes me wonder what it is they find so funny. In fact, just yesterday someone said to me in an e-mail, “You’re so funny. I just love to hear from you.” Of course, e-mails are easy, as I’ve always been fluent when I write. But people say things like that when we talk.

    I think it helps not to take myself too seriously. At my age, I’m also pretty sure of who I am, so I don’t get thrown off balance very often. The last two class reunions I went to were a lot of fun because I was no longer that shy kid who wanted to disappear into the wall. One thing I know for sure, I never want to be a teenager again.

    You too have taken on leadership roles. Being a leader forces you to interact with people, mostly in a positive way. It’s been a wonderful experience to watch you grow into an amazing adult. You’ve always been amazing, and you just keep getting moreso.

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