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It's often said that one of the keys to success in life is the ability to talk.
If you can talk well, the theory goes, you can talk yourself into the boss's good books and a woman's affections. The internet is full of offers to help you become a confident speaker.
The problem is, unless you're a lecturer or a stand-up comic, the real art is not so much in speaking well, it's in conversation. In your work and personal life, knowing how to converse will almost certainly be far more important than knowing how to talk to an audience. Deals are made, friendships sealed and relationships formed during the intimate to and fro of good conversation.
"Conversation is how we sort out problems, cooperate with people, resolve conflicts and create new opportunities," says Andrew Bailey, co-author of TalkWorks: how to get more out of life through better conversations.
"With conversation being so crucial to so many aspects of our lives, it stands to reason that the better we are at conversation the better our lives will be."
At the same time, new technology may be undermining the art of conversation. Though texting and email have their place, they are not a substitute for traditional face-to-face dialogue.
"They're never quite the same as sitting face to face with someone as we can miss some of the non-verbal cues that help us calibrate the full sense of what we're being told," says Jennifer Stenhouse, an expert in effective communication (www.howtomarketyourselfforsuccess.com).
Some men are natural conversationalists. Happily for the rest of us, the skills can be easily learnt.
Talk at the right time
If you're going to have a conversation, make sure you can spare it the time and attention it deserves. A half-hearted conversation is often worse than no conversation at all.
"Be aware of whether it's the right time and place for the particular conversation you want to have," says Andrew Bailey.
"If someone tries to start one and you're not able to give it 100% concentration, tell them: 'This sounds important. Can I finish this email and come and see you in a few minutes?'"
Always be aware of your audience, says Stenhouse. You need to have "a sensibility for what's socially acceptable and what's not in the company you're keeping." In other words, don't tell THAT joke if you're not 100% certain it will be well received.
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Effective communication also involves listening
Learn to listen
It may be counter-intuitive but the most fundamental part of effective conversation is not good talking. It's good listening.
"People often think that great conversationalists are great storytellers," says Bailey. "Well, they can be, but the best skill to have is to give someone your undivided attention. Listening with an open mind, not just for what you're expecting to hear or for your chance to jump in, is like pouring lighter fluid on a fire.
"People really open up when they really feel you're listening to them. So focus on what they're saying and show them that you're listening."
How do you show someone that you're really listening to what they say? Summarise what they just told you and check that you've got it right, says Bailey, and include both facts and feelings. "So you were really angry when she changed her plans," might be all it takes.
Ask and answer
How do you get someone to open up to you, and to feel part of the conversation? Easy. Just ask them questions. If the conversation is largely about you, ask for their opinion.
"Invite opinion - and listen to that opinion," says Stenhouse. "Ask questions like 'What do you think?' or 'Have you experienced that?' Show an interest in the other person - ask them about themselves."
This should lead to an easy exchange of information, ideas or opinions. If you're asked something, don't just answer with yes or no, or even "that's cool".
"These are conversation killers, or at best make it hard work," says Stenhouse. "However, if in doubt, say nowt. If you're not sure how to respond to something find a way of steering the conversation in another direction."
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Don't interrupt: be interested in what the other person has to say
Remember, you're listening to the other person because you're interested in what they've got to say, not because you're waiting for the opportunity to show off your knowledge of the subject. So know when to interrupt and don't do it often.
"Resist the temptation to constantly interrupt," says Stenhouse. "If you must jump in, wait until at least the other person has made their point before you speak. A good conversationalist encourages with nods and smiles, or even a 'yes' or 'I agree' every so often. It helps build rapport."
Of course, you may be talked at by a complete blabbermouth who won't let you get a word in edgeways. In that case, at least make sure they're between points before you interrupt, and if all else fails at least remember that, by acting as their sounding board, you're also getting into their good books.
Bring your chat to life
Appearing interesting and empathetic is not necessarily about telling a good tale. Listening and asking and answering questions properly are all essential. But putting a bit of thought into your speech can also help, says Andrew Bailey.
"Use details and description to bring your story to life. You know exactly what you want to say. You've got the whole picture in your head.
"But your conversational partner may have a completely different picture - or none at all. Remember, you need to supply enough information so that you each are seeing the same thing."
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Avoid arguing - even if you don't agree
Whether it's a date, the mother-in-law or a business contact, the worst thing you can do is allow a conversation to descend into argument. At the same time, you can't be expected to nod along with things you vehemently disagree with. So what's to be done?
"If you don't agree with another's point of view, stay clear of entering into an argument," says Jennifer Stenhouse. "Work out how you can put your side without causing offence. So you might say, 'I can see how someone might think that but my experience is different...' or 'That's an interesting perspective, but not one I can relate to. Here's what I think...'
So there you have it. Having a good conversation is about far more than being a good storyteller, even if that can help. And learning a few basics can have profound results.
"The art of good conversation will take you a long way in life," says Stenhouse. "It's a basic life skill."
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