The Art of Conversation (Part 1 of 4)

Part 1 of a 4 part blog series… be sure to check back weekly and let us know what you think of the art of conversation.

On a sunny day last fall, Taylor Baldry set up a card table and three folding chairs on a well-traveled street corner in Minneapolis. He stationed a sandwich board nearby that announced “Free Conversations.” Almost immediately, a couple joined him, and they spent the next 20 minutes discussing ghost stories, a topic they selected from Baldry’s menu of conversation options, which on this day ranged from the weather and dinosaurs to “things you can do with an egg.”

When the couple left, others sat down, and Baldry spent the afternoon chatting amiably with a steady stream of strangers, doing his part to restore the practice of in-person conversation.

Since that October afternoon, Baldry, a performance artist, has taken his Conversationalist project to parks, theaters and other venues in the city, and has learned something about his fellow citizens: People are starved for authentic interactions. “Most people think it’s a trick at first — that I’m selling something,” says the 28-year-old. “When they realize there are no strings attached, they’ll really
start talking.”

From the salons of 19th-century Paris to the contemporary cocktail party, conversation has long been celebrated as a social art. But today it’s increasingly being replaced by self-promotional electronic posts and superficial digital chatter. While social media and platforms like Facebook play a vital role in modern culture, there are aspects inherent in a face-to-face engagement that can’t be replaced.

An in-person exchange gives us the opportunity to see and be seen by our cohorts — a seemingly small detail with significant consequences. Body language and facial expressions allow for a more nuanced understanding of a person’s tone and overall message, which is key to building trust. Visual cues also engage the brain’s mirror neurons, which fire when we express an emotion or when we see someone else do the same. This process, commonly referred to as empathy,  helps us forge closer, more meaningful relationships, and learn more about others and ourselves.

If you feel a little reticent about engaging in a more sophisticated tête-à-tête with your fellows — up close and personal — read on. Even the most introverted among us can learn how to diversify, deepen and comfortably practice the simple art of conversation.

How to Start a Conversation

Just striking up a conversation with a stranger is daunting. In part because all that initial, seemingly meaningless chatter about sports or celebrities or the weather can feel disingenuous. But even close acquaintances usually warm up a bit before getting down to the soulful stuff. “Small talk is the appetizer for any deeper relationship,” says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills — and Leave a Positive Impression! (Hyperion, 2005). And it doesn’t have to be a chore. Approached thoughtfully, small talk can be fun and energizing. Here are a few ways to break the ice.

Hang around the food table at a party, counsels Margaret Shepherd, author of The Art of Civilized Conversation(Broadway Books, 2005). You’ll meet everyone who eats (which is almost everyone), and the cuisine will serve as fodder for conversation.

Chat about something you really enjoy and invite others to do the same. If someone asks a rhetorical question like “How are you?” offer up some specifics and a follow-up question in your reply. For example: “I’m doing great! I collect rare books, and this week I found an early edition of a Dickens novel. I’d been hunting for that book for eight years. Do you keep any collections?” This approach gets both parties to engage their genuine passions.

Don’t be afraid of sincere flattery. Take note of something you truly appreciate about a person and then follow up with a question: “What a lovely coat. Is it vintage?”

Use open-ended questions. These give the person answering some latitude in how he or she responds, says Fine. Some useful queries:

  • “What keeps you busy outside of work [or school or taking care of the kids]?” This usually leads directly to energizing, engaging subjects.
  • Discuss the situation you currently share: “How do you know the host?”
  • If you’re stumped for a question, listen to what people ask you and then ask them the same thing in return, advises Shepherd. “The person is probably asking the question because it is on his mind and he wants to talk about it himself.”

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