Conversation has become something of a lost art form as we all take to Twitter, emails or texting to communicate with people – yet it seems good conversations are more than communicating. “Humans have had conversations, of some sort, from the time they stopped hunting and gathering and found themselves with some time on their hands,” points out Sofija Stefanovic, from The School of Life Australia. “It’s necessary to our wellbeing and is our way of forming relationships, and making sense of the world.” According to Stefanovic good conversations are the ones that challenge you, teach you something new and ultimately change you. “A conversation isn’t just about talking, it’s about discovering something with the person you are talking to,” she says.
So next time you find yourself half-heartedly nodding and wondering how long before you can check your phone, employ some of these tactics to brush up on your conversation prowess
The difficult conversation
Whether it's having that chat with your boyfriend, asking the boss for a payrise or broaching the subject of a loan to a friend, difficult conversations are the ones we put off the most. Tracey Ward, conversation expert at Hugh Gyton & Associates, suggests using the INPUT formula to get results.
I: Ask yourself how I might have contributed to the problem, and ask how ‘I’ could help resolve things
N: Resolve to deal with the issue Now – the more you allow for things to be unsaid, the more emotional, more resentful and potentially irrational they can become.
P: Talk in terms of Proof: Be objective, not subjective, provide evidence of what’s happening compared to what should be happening.
U: Allow yourself to Understand the other person’s reasoning – listen and ‘seek first to understand, before being understood’.
T: Finally, take the Time to mutually agree on a solution.
The awkward first meeting
You’ve been left to look after the new girl at work – what do you talk about? “It’s worth acknowledging it’s an awkward moment, if the conversation if proving difficult,” says Dr Eleni Petraki, an assistant professor at University of Canberra specialising in conversation analysis. “It’s likely the other person will be equally as embarrassed and you can break the ice this way.” If you sense the other person is feeling anxious consider expressing your own vulnerability: “Revealing something like, 'I was so anxious on my first day, I went to get lunch and ended up buying a de-humidifier,' can help to break the ice,” explains Stefanovic.
And what can you say when you’re really struggling for what to say? “There are many topics you can find to talk about – the fact you don’t know someone only opens up the opportunities. Ask where they previously worked, plans for the weekend - topics that everyone can identify with,” says Petraki.
The networking opportunity
If you’re about to leap into a conversation with someone new make sure you introduce yourself – and don’t forget to smile as you do so. Keep topics of conversation focused on the situation you’re in, so if you’re at the office Christmas party, talk about the food, the venue, your co-workers.
Open questions are useful to encourage the other person to engage with you. Challenge yourself to make a connection, advises Stefanovic. “Empathy is key to deepening relationships, so try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. It's okay to say: 'I don't know much about iguanas/arm-wrestling/shellac. But I'd love to learn more.' You'll gain a better understanding of the person if you really listen to them.”
The once-a-year reconnection
“If you want to reconnect with a friend then you should spend the first part of the conversation in their world,” believes Ward. “Look on facebook – have they got a new man, a new job?” She advises asking open ended questions – who, when, how – to get them talking. “But you should avoid the ‘why’ question,” she warns. “’Why’ has two meanings, one is reason and the other is justification – so they may feel they have to justify their actions. Use ‘tell me about…’ instead.” Tracey also advises taking yourself out of your comfort zone when you meet – such as visiting a climbing wall or horse track. “Whether you have a good or bad experience you’ll form a connection – and it’s something that you will look back on years later and still talk about.”
The small talk trap
Perhaps you only see your uncle once a year a Christmas and it can feel like ground hog day as you cover the usual topics: love life, work... and when desperate the weather. But it’s possible to invigorate a tired conversation, according to Petraki: “A real conversation will emerge from small talk if you make an effort. Everyone has intuition and can feel if the other party is interested.”
Stefanovic suggests approaching the situation with a sense of adventure. “Maybe you'd rather be talking to your friends, but they’re likely to have similar opinions to you. Challenge yourself to learn something new. Ask your uncle for opinions on things that matter: family, politics, Game of Thrones. Share your thoughts, and if you’re curious and thoughtful, you’re likely to get something similar in return.”
Alternatively you could hit your uncle with a curve ball – “’What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten?’ may not be what your uncle is expecting, but it can yield interesting conversational results,” says Stefanovic. Don’t forget though – if you ask probing questions you have to be willing to share too.
Top tips to improve your conversations:
• Facing a difficult conversation? Ward advises replacing ‘you’ with ‘I’. “‘I feel upset when you...’ is less accusatory than ‘You make me feel upset’.”
• Use pauses. “They give others a chance to catch up and process what you have said plus they give you time to think about what you’re going to say next,” explains Ward.
• Smile, says Patraki. “If you feel good about yourself and are smiling, it shows you’re engaged and interested in the conversation and are comfortable being with the other person.”
• Conversations are about building rapport. “A slight touch on the elbow or shoulder will assist bonding. When this physical contact is removed the bond is not as strong,” believes Ward.
How to leave a conversation gracefully
Who hasn’t been cornered at a party and not known how to leave politely? Petraki acknowledges that leaving a conversation can actually be harder than knowing what to say. “It’s all about gestures and body language,” she explains. “Your eyes should indicate an interest to leave – start moving them away from that person. There are also set phrases you can employ to indicate you have another commitment to attend to. Try ‘Excuse me, I’ve just noticed a friend has stepped in and I’d like to say hello’ or ‘I think I’ll go get a drink’.”
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