The Art of Fine Conversation
Facebook. e-mail. Cell phones. I-phones. Texting. These are the newest and also most common methods of communicating in today's busy society; and yes, it is convenient to stay in touch with family and friends with this technology. However, technology can foster brevity, superficiality, loneliness, and even withdrawal from personal relationships and community. The very devices that were intended to bring people together have, instead, begun to lead to the very opposite. Do you ever find yourself longing for a good, old-fashioned, face-to-face (not Facebook-to-Facebook) conversation? Don't mistake me; these technological advances have their place and are very useful. But, I hope never to see the day when people have forgotten entirely the art of real, in-person conversation.
There are some basic, but important, elements that need to combine for a conversation to be enjoyed by all taking part. Whether it is a quiet, intimate connection between spouses, lingering over dinner; four best friends catching up at the coffee house; or a large social gathering, like a staff Christmas party where guests mingle and socialize -- having the skills to communicate will allow you to participate, contribute, and feel fulfilled in a way not paralleled by three hours of text-messaging. To discover how you can improve your communication skills and learn the art of fine conversation, read on.
First, I use the term "fine conversation" intentionally to mean something other than the usual, mundane utterances that, if we're not careful, can rule our lives. You know - "...does the dog have food in his dish?...what time are you off work?...we need to get more toilet paper...Nancy called to say she'll be late..." - all of which are necessary to function in life. However, we are sentient beings, and as such, need more substance to thrive and feel connected to the people in our lives. Sadly, it's sometimes the people "closest" to us with whom we have the least meaningful conversations. One of the best places to make a change and start building one's skills is by truly listening, which is the first item on my list.
Listen More. You've heard it before, but it's true: we have two ears and only one mouth for a reason. Listen more, talk less. If you're extroverted and have no problem striking up a conversation, that's a good thing. But, if you seem to be the only one talking...incessantly...you'll need to learn how to stop monopolizing every conversation and begin listening, truly listening, to others. Also, if you're only thinking of what you want to say next, you really can't be listening very closely. If what is being said reminds you of something you want to contribute to the conversation, make a quick mental note to yourself and come back to it when the person speaking is finished. Sharing isn't just for kindergarten children; it also applies to giving one another equal opportunity to express yourselves and be heard.
Give Your Undivided Attention. This ties in to listening, of course, but goes a step further. While you're engaged in conversation with someone, be engaged. Don't let yourself be distracted by sending or reading a text message, or constantly watching everyone else in the room as they move about. Perhaps even put your cell phone on vibrate (or put it away), unless there's a chance you will be called in to the ER to perform a life-saving quadruple bypass. Here's another scenario: You're talking with your spouse, relating something that happened during your day. That's when you realize he/she has totally zoned out: eyes glazed over, looking through you, not at you, while muttering yeah, uh-hu, mmm.... Then you stop talking and realize they haven't even noticed you've stopped talking! Sound familiar? It can happen, and we all get distracted with our own thoughts, but really do try to extend the courtesy of staying tuned in to the person you're talking with. And, if you're the one talking, make sure you're talking with that person, not at him or her. Use direct eye contact, but don't stare the person down; this can be perceived as aggression, rather than interest, and also may be intimidating to some people. Simple words (yes, uh-huh, mmmm are all fine if they are used sincerely), short comments (wow, really?...that is so funny...what did you do next?), nods, and gestures -- all used without actually interrupting the one speaking -- will show you are following what they are saying.
Use Positive (but not feigned) Body Language to Show You're Interested. Individuals vary in how much body language they naturally exhibit when expressing themselves. Some people are naturally very demonstrative: there will be hands and arms a-flying, a whole array of facial expressions, and a body that isn't stationary for one moment. Someone else may sit very calmly in the same position with his lips barely parting. Both types of people can be equally engaging and stimulating conversationalists; neither is right or wrong. Indeed, most of us probably fall somewhere between these two extremes. Whatever type of personality you are, just be wary that your body language is neither dismissive and closed off, nor intrusive. Personally, I don't like people "in my face", and will remove myself from the conversation if someone crosses that barrier. The way I see it, if you're not someone whom I'm in the habit of kissing, you don't need your mouth six inches from me to be heard! (Two exceptions to this may be if you find yourself in a very noisy environment, and you need to lean in close to someone's ear so they can hear you...or you're whispering something to your best friend.)
Ask Questions. This is one of the best ways to start a conversation. Depending on your relationship to the person you're talking with, you'll need to be mindful of the type of questions asked. Direct broader questions toward someone you don't know very well, and ask more specific, or narrow, questions of friends and family. For example:
- A type of broad question: "Did you get away for a summer vacation this year?" Although this is also a closed-ended question (can be answered with a simple yes or no), most likely it will elicit a longer response and lead to a further exchange of questions between you both.
- A type of narrow question (not the same as narrow-minded): "How did your son do on his audition?" Or, "Did you get your tomatoes off the vine before the first frost?" These questions do require some fore-knowledge, but also show that you remembered something about them and are interested in following up.
A word of caution about asking questions: don't be nosy, just be interested. Don't follow up a question with your advice, unless it is solicited and relevant.
Be an Informed Person, But Don't Be a Know-it-all. Being knowledgeable and informed, with something interesting to add to a conversation, will help you relate to all manner of people, and aid in the natural flow of conversation. On the other hand, if you purport to be an expert on some subject -- or maybe you actually are -- and you speak with an air of exaggerated self-importance, you'll eventually annoy and alienate those around you. Nurture your natural curiosity about life; be the guy who reads, learns, and partakes of a variety of activities; but don't pretend to be an authority on every subject. Even if you are a cross between Albert Einstein and Queen Elizabeth II, you don't need to boast about it. Be yourself. Be interesting. But most of all, be respectful.
Relax, Unwind, Put Your Cares Away for a Moment, and Enjoy Yourself. In our hectic working lives -- often filled with disseminating information via e-mail, staff meetings, memos, couriers, and the like -- we probably don't have the luxury of expressing our own thoughts and feelings until we are home again. So go ahead; take the opportunity to indulge in a little "we time" with someone you care about, or would like to get to know better. Enjoying the company of another person or people can be one of the most rewarding aspects of life. And, when you can feel confidant about your ability to communicate and converse intelligibly, with respect and ease, the experience will transcend the ordinary. It can become another rewarding art: the art of fine conversation.
© Sharla Smith, September 2010; all original content.
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