The elusive art of conversation

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Texting and email are valuable innovations, but overdependence on them has left people gasping when faced with ordinary conversation. Add to that a sprinkling of incivility, and we’re left with a comical – yet startling – generation of social misanthropes.

So if you know someone (ahem) whose conversation has been hitting false notes lately, or whose chatter is gurgled by stage fright, here are some pointers for fine tuning communication skills.

Above all, be natural – yourself! – in interactions with others. This doesn’t imply giving into the bad side of your temperament, but rather avoiding artificiality. The great paradox of human relations is that the more someone tries to please people, the less respect he or she will receive.

The most successful conversations flow when ideas and topics are discussed instead of petty or personal matters.

One of the masters of facile talk was the late British radio host, Sir Terry Wogan. For decades he had a daily audience of 8 million listeners, which is remarkable for a country of 64 million. When he passed away recently, his colleague, Paul O’Grady, disclosed the secret of Wogan’s success: “[T]here was no falsehood about him … people can sniff out inauthenticity in a second and whether you like him or not, there was nothing phony about him.”

Both introverts and extroverts have positive attributes to lend to discussions. The former usually have more substantive commentary, and the latter can help ease awkward social situations. So if you’re shy, simply remember to be open and conversant. And if you’re talkative, be sure to stop and listen. Also, if you’re strong-willed, you need to refrain from dominating the conversation.

The most successful conversations flow when ideas and topics are discussed instead of petty or personal matters. Avoid talking about your private life, and don’t proffer your advice unless asked. It’s always possible to be warm and considerate without being too familiar or gushing.

Don’t ask nosy questions: A good conversationalist will keep the talk flowing by encouraging people to discuss their thoughts on important and interesting things (not highly-charged issues), or by having them talk about their areas of expertise and hobbies, without prying into personal subjects.

The golden rule of conversation? Never, ever badmouth anyone, and remember that unsaid words are rarely regretted. Be discreet about others and try to overlook or excuse their faults and weaknesses.

Here are some friendly reminders:

– Include others in the conversation. Do not isolate yourself in a tiny group of friends. Mingle.

– No bragging or competitiveness. Be happy for other people’s success. Jealousy kills both conversations and friendships.

– Be sincere. “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” Both duplicity and manipulating people show a tremendous lack of character.

– Don’t argue or correct anyone publicly. You can politely disagree with someone, but don’t rudely contradict a person, unless it’s a bully.

– Try not to interrupt people while they’re talking. Nevertheless, keep in mind that brevity in speech is always more attractive than verbosity.

– Unless you’re being shouted down by a military superior, or guarding yourself against an overeager suitor, maintaining eye contact is a must. (But no need for devouring eye contact either.)

– When leaving a group while the conversation is flowing, excuse yourself politely.

Inevitably, you’ll have to deal with impertinence. If you come across a complete egotist, the best solution is to ignore him. Rude, self-important people want an audience, so it’s better not to engage in any conversation.

Never, ever badmouth anyone, and remember that unsaid words are rarely regretted.

One instance, however, when it’s difficult to ignore someone is when you’re asked inappropriate questions in the midst of a discussion. At a social occasion, no one should be put on the spot with invasive inquiries into one’s personal or professional life.

Should this uncomfortable situation befall you, here are a few tips on how to sidestep the inquisitor:

– Simply smile and say nothing

– Finesse a change of subject

– Reply, ‘I think the real question is …’

– Say jokingly, ‘that’s on a need to know basis’ or ‘what is this, 20 questions?’

But if the person is truly rude or insulting, just say nothing and walk away. An exception would be if someone unjustly attacks your faith or loved ones, in which case you are honor-bound to come to their defense – non-violently, of course!

A word on telephone manners, since they have declined along with face-to-face conversation. The key? Sir Isaac Newton summed it up nicely: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” It’s always nice to hear a courteous voice say “hello” when you’re phoning someone. But if the person on the other line answers with a grouchy “Yes?!” then the caller is inclined to respond in kind.

For example, when placing a call, an uncouth curmudgeon might yelp, “Bill Smith!” instead of “Hello, may I speak to Mr. Smith please?” And an abrasive receiver might respond, “Hold on!” instead of “One moment please.” The polite reply to that is, “Thank you” rather than “Hmmf!”

If Bill is not there or is detained, our killjoy may respond, “He’s not here — call back” instead of courteously saying, “I’m sorry, Bill is unavailable at the moment. May I take a message?” To which you should reply, “Would you please ask him to phone Jane Jones at 301-555-1212” rather than, “have him call me.”

These conversational guidelines are difficult! Treating others well and rising above things should be our aim. That said, we can all lose our tempers and our composure, and if we’re culpable, an apology later is de rigueur.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].