Increasing our skills at conversation

“In good conversation parties don’t speak to the words, but to the meanings of each other.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

I truly love getting to know people. I don’t mean just getting to know the outward facts about them, like their name, what they do and so on. I mean that I truly enjoy getting to know what makes a person tick. I am fascinated by people’s life stories, what drives them in their daily life, and what is important to them.

When I am getting to know someone, whether in a personal or professional environment, I know that if I can learn more about them, about their “meaning”, as Emerson puts it, that I will be enriched for the experience. I know that the more I learn about others, the more I end up learning about myself as well.

The best way to get to know people is to listen to them. I get to know exactly zero about someone else when they are silent and I am talking, unless you count the knowledge of whether they give a care about what I am saying. It is only when I am doing the listening that I learn.

People who know me in person know that I love to talk. When I was a young boy of 12 or 13 years old, my nickname in Boy Scouts was “motor mouth”. I have always had the gift of gab, and the ability to talk to, and in front of just about anyone. That natural ability has served me well when it comes to things like public speaking, presenting at meetings, or making initial contact with people. When I was in High School I started to get the idea, though, that if I wanted to have friends, and if I wanted to grow and learn in life, I’d need to keep my mouth shut more often than not. There is an old adage that says that God gave us one mouth and two ears to remind us to listen twice as much as we talk. That was a hard lesson for me to digest as an adolescent, but it has paid off.

It really isn’t a hard skill to learn to get someone else talking about themselves. The first, and most important thing to learn is to listen and not talk so much. After that, it’s a matter of asking the right questions to get the person going. Some great conversation starters that you can memorize get things moving in the right direction include:

  • What is your name?
  • Where do you live? Where did you grow up?
  • Tell me a bit about your family.
  • What kind of work do you do?
  • Have you taken any interesting trips or vacations?
  • What do you enjoy doing in your leisure time?
  • What do you think about ____?

Memorizing these few questions or conversation starters will give you a framework for a great conversation. Once you have these in mind, there are literally hundreds of other questions and starters that can flow naturally from the answers. As you develop the skill, you’ll learn how to naturally flow from one question to another.

Also, note that each question becomes increasingly personal. The flow starts with the most public thing – a person’s name. From there you can go deeper with each of the starters until you can get to a person’s ideas about a particular subject.

Remember, the key is to listen. When we listen we learn. And, remembering that this is a book about Winning Friends and Influencing People, we also let the other person know that we care about them, and want to know more.

Keep in mind that for you to be successful at this principle, you will first have to Become genuinely interested in other people. If you aren’t interested in their answers, then don’t ask the questions. And if your interest is only self-serving, you will soon be found out as a fraud.

As you are building your skill in conversation and getting to know people, remember Emerson’s words. Remember that it is the “meaning” of the person, or what they are all about, that is important. It isn’t about the gathering of facts or amassing data. To be skilled in this principle, you must have a genuine desire to understand more about the person.

Principle 7 – Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

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