The Art of Conversation (Part 2 of 4)

This week we continue The Art of Conversation, part 2 of a 4 part blog series… be sure to check back weekly and let us know what you think of the art of conversation. If you missed part 1, click here.

Conversation Killers

We’ve all had the experience of starting a conversation only to have it collapse into awkward silence. While any number of things might have gone wrong, there are a few subtle faux pas sure to put an early end to an otherwise pleasant discussion.

Phone-gazing. “The minute you look down at your phone,” says Fine, “it’s as if you’ve said, ‘Shut up!’ If you warn me in advance that you might glance at your phone periodically because you are expecting an important call, I’ll understand. Otherwise, it’s rude.”

Closed-ended personal questions. Avoid potentially touchy queries unless you already know the answer, stresses Fine. For instance, something seemingly innocuous like “Are you married?” is the last thing you want to ask someone in the midst of an ugly separation.

Dwelling on the downside. Negative pronouncements, like “Kids these days!” or “What a terrible sweater the host is wearing,” put you at risk of alienating people, who must either agree or disagree, which could be particularly uncomfortable for someone you’ve just met. What’s more, if the first impression you leave is that of a grump, you might not get a chance to make a second one.

Niche topics. Too much minutiae about an early-American cookie-jar collection can quickly drain the life out of a conversation. Test the waters with a limited revelation of your passions first. If your partner glazes over, change the topic.

Beware the monologue. “If you’re at lunch and everybody else is finished and your plate is still full, it means you’ve been talking too much,” says Shepherd. Or if someone suddenly excuses herself at a party and you realize you don’t know the first thing about her, this can be a good clue about why the conversation died.

How to Talk to Someone You Talk to Every Day

When it comes to talking to spouses, children, siblings or coworkers, it’s easy to fall into a rut. We default to logistics (“Who’s picking up the kids tonight?”) or the things we know we have in common, and we stop thinking about how to find deeper, truly satisfying topics of conversation. Here are a few ways to spice up your verbal relationship.

Listen Up. “People who see each other every day sometimes stop relating,” says Minneapolis psychologist Jan Hoistad, author of Romance Rehab: 10 Steps to Rescue Your Relationship (Sterling, 2010). In many cases, she notes, we’re busy thinking about what we’re going to say while the other person is talking. If you catch yourself doing this, turn off the inner dialogue. Listen closely, says Hoistad, and “your spouse or coworker might actually surprise you with something new.”

Reveal a little. “If your partner or child asks you how your day was and you answer with one word, you have missed a huge opportunity. Give him or her a sentence instead. The minute you self-disclose, he or she is more likely to self-disclose,” says Fine.

Ask for more details. Instead of responding with a phrase like “I know exactly how you feel,” Hoistad encourages people to say, “Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me more.” When you keep the focus on your conversational partner, it will encourage him or her to open up further.

Mix it up. Both Baldry and Shepherd suggest that a change of venue can often be all it takes to spur a deeper exchange with someone familiar. Arrange for a meeting outside the office. Go to a restaurant that’s new to you and your partner, or take a walk on a new route. Novelty stimulates the production of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, which can help us loosen up and share more.

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