If you can remember three things, you will master the art of conversation. An experience a few months ago reminded me once again how simple and effective this approach can be.
My wife works at a grade school. We were going to the annual Christmas party. She always liked the party. I dreaded it. When we sat down to eat, she sat next to the principal of the school. They were friends. I was next to the principal’s husband. He looked as miserable as I was. We didn’t know each other. Everyone else seemed to be the best of friends. After an awkward silence, I figured I had to do something and called upon my experience with conversation. I introduced myself, we shook hands and I asked him, “Are you an educator also?’
He told me he was in fact an educator and specialized in children with autism. I knew a little about autism and began to ask him questions. “What are the symptoms?” “How is it diagnosed?” “Is it true what they say about vaccinations as a link to the condition?” With each answer I thought of questions motivated by that response and continued to ask questions. When the evening was done we said our goodbyes. I had found him to be a very intelligent, compassionate and caring man.
The next day, my wife came home from school shaking her head. She said, “I had a lunch with the Principal today. What did you say to her husband!? I was taken aback and immediately went on the defensive. “What?” I said. “What happened? I hardly said a word.” My wife smiled and said, “He thinks you’re one of the most brilliant, interesting people he’s ever met. I guess he talked about you all night when they got home. He kept putting pressure on his wife to invite us over for dinner because he can’t wait to meet you again.”
I smiled and shook my head and said, “I didn’t say a thing. All I did was ask him questions about kids with autism. He did all the talking.” My wife walked to the refrigerator and said, “Well, whatever you said or didn’t say we’re going to their house for dinner next weekend.”
I’ve had this experience many times in the past and since. The point is simple. People like to talk about themselves. The key to great conversation is to let them do it. That’s why questions are so important. It gives people the permission to speak their mind; be heard and to share. I’ll admit I did have to work a bit. I had to think of my next question and it needed to be insightful and relevant to the evolution of the subject. I also kept the focus on him. Anytime he would ask me a question I would provide a polite and brief answer and then move the conversation back to him. If you stop to analyze the exchange three things become apparent.
- Questions are the key. A conversation has to begin with a stimulus. You have to get the other person to want to talk to you. The best way to do that is to let them talk about themselves. Unless they’re in the witness protection program, they’ll be happy to tell you all about “them.”
- Fuel the conversation with insightful, follow-up questions. But be careful here. If you relentlessly ask questions you may start to come off as an interviewer if not an interrogator. Pick your spots and make some observations along the way, but always let those observations lead back to a question.
- Let them know you’re listening. Keep your total focus on them and watch your body language. If you’re not making eye contact nod now and again. Let them know you are really listening. Offer an occasional smile or laugh and give the conversation a rest from time to time with a sip of water, a visit to the restroom, or a positive comment about something around the both of you.
It might sound like a lot of work, but it’s not. If you take the time to think about your questions, you’ll usually find that the person you’re talking to has something to say that is genuinely informative. Just remember: Stay interested in the subject, stay focused on the person and ask a lot of questions.