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Become a master conversationalist

Hello, and welcome to a blog post on conversation etiquette — a topic that encompasses small talk, when to interrupt and when to not, protocol for job interviews, tension release, and much more.

I look at conversations as I do all my coaching: through the lens of mindfulness, intention, and preparation. Conversation skills can be developed, either by intentional personal practice, or with the help of a professional speech coach.

Preparation is key with everything we do, in all aspects of our lives. By preparing and practicing and receiving coaching, we can become master conversationalists and avoid awkward conversations.

You probably know why that matters:

  • You’re making an impression every time you speak.
  • You’re setting up a respectful relationship with your conversation counterparts, and you’re developing trust and facilitating collaboration.
  • You’re demonstrating professional leadership. When you know the nuances of good conversation (like active listening), you can take feedback, teach others, and feel the pulse of the layers and levels of your organization.

The first step in becoming a master conversationalist is making conversation easier for everyone, and that requires minimizing awkwardness.

How to avoid awkward conversations

Want to avoid another awkward hallway conversation, or the stilted small talk at the start of an interview?

First, contemplate the goal of the conversation. Is it to show your interest in your colleague, thereby paving the way for collaboration? Is it to demonstrate that, if you’re hired, you’ll be a well-liked coworker who will fit in with the team and culture?

At the opposite end of the spectrum: Is the conversation about you being right and letting the other person know it?

In the moments before you enter a conversation, pause to consider the goal and your forthcoming words. “Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful” (Bernard Meltzer) (1).

When we enter a conversation with a high degree of intention, conversation awkwardness fades. Use the following tactics to further smooth the way for easier conversations.

  1. Lead the conversation. Pull more reserved people in and encourage them to contribute. It’s a surefire way to ease everyone’s discomfort and make people feel welcome. “Sophie, we haven’t heard from you. What are your thoughts on this topic?”
  2. Follow a Rule of 3: Ask a question, get information, then make a comment. Repeat this as needed to advance a conversation.
  3. As with presentations, consider your audience. Who are you talking to? What are their ages, genders, or cultural identities? Who has seniority? What is your relationship to those present, and what are their relationships to each other?
    Do your part in keeping the conversation to topics everyone can contribute to.
  4. Level the playing field. In many professional conversations, participants have varying relationships. Perhaps a new employee can’t follow the conversation; take a moment to bring him up to speed so he can contribute to and feel part of the conversation.
  5. Treat conversations with purpose, but also let yourself relax and click with someone. When you click, you know it. The conversation moves rapidly, with both people responding quickly, without forethought or hesitation (2). There’s also a shared energy in the conversation, where both people are excited to find commonalities and explore their differences. There’s a feeling of connection due to smiles, eye contact, and body language, like leaning toward each other.
  6. Flout the rules when you have to, but flout them gracefully. A common conversation rule is, “Don’t interrupt,” but sometimes that means no one else gets to speak! If one person dominates, interrupt politely and firmly, saying, “Let me interrupt you for a moment. When you said such-and-such, it triggered a thought for me.” Then move the conversation forward.

* * *

We know why we should learn to converse well, but we’ve also all been in conversations with people who don’t follow guidelines of conversation etiquette. They don’t cede the floor and let others speak, they interrupt, they linger on topics that matter only to them.

When we empathize with their position, we can deftly steer conversation back to comfortable territory.

Empathizing when someone dominates a conversation

Even well-intentioned people make conversational mistakes. Their passions may be triggered by a certain topic, they may miss body language cues given off by others in the conversation, or they may feel they’re too far into a story to quit.

Not long ago, I was conversing with a few acquaintances about our recent home-buying experiences. For most of us, the conversation best remained general, without specific dollar amounts. But one man repeatedly discussed how much he’d earned. After a few mentions, it became awkward as he continually deviated from the behavior of the rest of the group.

In this moment, he may have wanted to share his passion for real estate as an investment, he may have been too caught up in his thoughts to pick up on our discomfort, or he might have known he was dominating and didn’t know how to stop.

I could be annoyed and try to avoid conversation with him in the future. But when we recognize that people speak out of turn for altogether human reasons, we can charitably steer a conversation back to comfortable territory.

  • We can say, “Let’s talk about something light. Who’s going on vacation next week?”
  • Or we can be more deft, changing the tone by making a small joke. “I wish we could all have your magic touch, John. So, what is everyone’s favorite room in their new home?”
  • We can also gracefully exit the conversation. Draw on a bank of respectful excuses, such as, “I have a meeting to prepare for,” “I have to make a phone call,” or “I have to go now. Let’s talk about this again sometime.”

When we empathize with others in conversation, we can recognize that any of us is at risk of committing conversation faux pas. However, we can limit our risk by practicing a few conversation tactics.

Avoiding conversation faux pas

Self-awareness. Be aware of how much time you’re speaking and how much information you’re giving. Am I saying too much? Is it time for me to pause and let the other person in?

Be clear, concise, and brief. Be conscious of your opinion, and state it with conviction.

When speaking, pay attention to the changes in others’ body language that indicate you should shift your tone: shifting their weight, checking the time, looking around, wearing a wan smile.

Learn oral storytelling. Take a class or find another setting to practice. You can learn to incorporate the peaks and troughs of stories that make them riveting or entertaining. Practice including just the right amount of detail.

Learn to generalize topics so anyone can find common ground. If you want to tell mixed-age colleagues about a rough morning with your toddler, keep it focused on a universal experience: “Have you ever spilled coffee down your front just as you were rushing out the door?”

* * *

We’ve covered how to have smoother, less awkward conversations. Next, I’ll talk about small talk conversations during interviews – what some people consider the hardest part of interviewing, even harder than “What are your biggest weaknesses?” or “Tell me about a time you made a mistake.”

Small talk anxiety in interviews

Interviews are key moments when we want smooth conversation skills. The experience is disquieting even without feeling like we’re inadequate or awkward at conversation.

Most interviews begin and end with small talk, which gives anxiety to many of my clients. They ask me, “What should I talk about? How much information should I give?”

As with almost all aspects of interviewing, you can practice and prepare for small talk.

  • Start with research. After you research the company, also search LinkedIn for the individuals you’ll interview with. Look into personal-interest topics, such as the individuals’ volunteer work or places lived.
  • Then plan several topics to discuss. Rehearse a sentence or two to kick off a conversation.
  • Remember: Other people feel nervous and awkward, too, even if they don’t appear to.
    Using tips from the first part of this blog post, try to intentionally start a meaningful conversation. You’ll relieve tension for everyone and leave a positive impression.
  • Practice small talk alone, even if it feels embarrassing! Practice sharing bits of information about yourself – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, until you find a level of detail that feels right.
  • Finally, when you feel the tension in your body, either while preparing for or during an interview, relieve it using a tense/release action. Tense one area of your body (perhaps the toes, hands, or abdomen), hold for 10 seconds, then release. Notice the contrast between tension and relaxation.

By preparing and practicing and receiving coaching, we can become master conversationalists and avoid awkward conversations. Contact me if you’d like to learn more.

(1) https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/bernard_meltzer_157511
(2) https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2116915119

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