In “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book,” Walker Percy writes, “Johnny Carson, when questioned about his aplomb on the stage before a TV audience of millions, replied: ‘Sure, I’m at ease up there—because I’m in control—but when I’m at a cocktail party and caught in a one-on-one conversation: panic city!’”
In his book of essays, “Wind-Sprints,” Joseph Epstein recounts an incident from the life of John Keats when the poet took a two-mile walk with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “one of the famous talkers of his day.” In a letter to his brother, Keats wrote: “I heard his voice as he came toward me—I heard it as he moved away—I heard it all the interval—if it may be called so.”
Regarding conversation, most of us probably find ourselves in the middle of these two extremes. Perhaps we do just fine when talking one-on-one with a friend, but clam up when we find ourselves at a wedding where half the guests are strangers to us. Perhaps we do better in a crowd, working our way around the room from person to person without having to engage anyone except on a surface level.
Whatever the case, all too often we forget to consider the art of conversation.
Why It’s Important
Few people, I suspect, look in the mirror and think, “You’re a great conversationalist! Keep up the good work!” In fact, most of us rarely think of talking with others as an art requiring any skill at all.
But being able to carry on a conversation—and even better, to make that exchange a delight for those with whom we’re speaking—is a vital tool in everything from building friendships to forging connections in the business world. And in these days where we communicate so much by our electronic devices, honing this skill takes on new importance as we seek to establish relationships by means of our voices and our words over a phone.
Fortunately, there are techniques and tactics that can improve our talents in this arena.
Opening the Dialogue
Whether visiting with a friend or meeting a stranger at a party, a smile and a compliment sincerely delivered establishes an immediate link with the other person. We may compliment that person directly—“That scarf looks great on you!”—or offer a remark on our circumstances—“What a wonderful place for a birthday party!”
With these accolades, we bring to any chat an immediate enthusiasm, a warmth that draws people closer to us and who are then more interested in what we have to say.
My longtime friend John is one of the most natural practitioners of the icebreaker I’ve ever seen. He has a vibrant, energetic voice, and people respond to that and to the interest he shows in their lives. When we travel together to visit my daughter, he’ll chat with the clerk at a convenience store. At parties and get-togethers with my daughter’s friends, John jumps right into the conversation, engaging strangers young and old alike. In the coffee shop I frequent, he once initiated a conversation with a high schooler, and by the time we left, John had discovered where the young man went to school—Fork Union Military Academy—what his parents did for a living, and what his future plans and some of his political opinions were.
Listening is also a vital part of any conversation. Most of us have undoubtedly spoken with another person at some gathering who’s not really listening to a word we say. Their eyes flit away, they mumble out some jumbled reply, and they are obviously somewhere else other than in the conversation.
Once I attended a wedding when an older man I knew well passed by a friend he hadn’t seen in a while. The older man was heading to the dessert bar, and as he passed the woman, he said, “How are you, Jenny?” “My husband died last month,” the woman said. “How bout those Redskins?” the man said as he trucked toward the table of cake and cookies. (I wish I were making this up.) The expression on this woman’s face was, to say the least, stunned.
Want to be a good conversationalist? Listen. Intently.
If you want to strike up a relationship, find out more about the other person. If a woman mentions she’s switched from working as an attorney to teaching in a public school, ask her about that shift. Was it difficult? What are the rewards? What are the costs? Why did she decide to leave the courtroom for a classroom?
Not only do many people enjoy talking about themselves, but we can also learn by our inquiries, adding to our own store of knowledge about them and about the world at large.
Of course, we need to be careful. Recently in the coffee shop that is my second home, a stranger introduced himself and then began questioning me about my life. No—let’s say he began interrogating me. One breathless question followed another. He learned a good deal about me, and he gave me almost no chance to discover anything about him.
In “The Art of Civilized Conversation,” Margaret Shepherd warns against other conversation killers: “don’t be a bore,” “don’t touch taboo topics,” “don’t interrupt,” and more.
“Don’t interrupt” is a particular complaint of mine. When I’m in my car and hear a talk show host cut in on a caller, I actually shout at the radio to let the person finish speaking. And when someone keeps interrupting me as I’m telling a story or making a point, it drives me just as crazy.
Unless the speaker refuses to let you get a word in, don’t interrupt.
Compared to my friend John, with one exception, I would judge myself as an average conversationalist.
That exception occurs during phone interviews I often conduct, especially with homeschooling mothers from across the country. As Johnny Carson said, I’m in control, but that means I’m not only asking questions, but also must make the other person comfortable and at ease with me.
And so I follow much of the advice given here. I introduce myself, often compliment them on the accomplishments of their children—I know these ahead of time—ask questions, let them talk at length without interruption while I’m making notes, and sometimes interject something from my own experience. I take pleasure in this time we share and in the stories of these folks.
Whether by phone or in person, good conversation enriches our humanity. Plus, we can have a whale of a good time!
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.