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From quick discussions with your coworkers to presentations for your association leaders, conversations are one of your most-used skills. Yet, it’s likely not a skill you’re working to improve on a daily basis. 

Just like you can work to become a better leader  – your conversation skills can be refined and improved, growing your authority and making you a more effective communicator.

But what goes into being a better conversationalist and how can you train those skills? Here is everything you need to know to start having better conversations.

Defining a Conversation

From a simple smile to a full-on discussion, we’re communicating with others on a daily basis. However, conversations are often more structured, slightly more in-depth and often have unspoken rules in terms of etiquette that can all impact whether or not you’re considered a “good conversationalist.”

So what is the definition of a conversation?

According to Merriam-Webster, a conversation is an “oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.” 

Common Types of Conversation

Although conversations are a common part of our daily lives, not all conversations are made the same. Depending on the goal, style or participants, your conversation can fall into one of the following categories:

  • Dialogue – An exploratory conversation aimed at learning more about others. These conversations have less of a specific structure, like a debate, but still rely heavily on exploratory questions, observations and anecdotes, making it one of the more common styles of conversation.
  • Debate – A competitive conversation where the goal is to either defend your position, change someone's mind or defeat someone else based on the judgment of a third party. Debates can often get a bad rap, but as long as everyone has an option to offer their side, it can be a constructive type of dialogue. 
Related: 3 tips for moderating tough conversations Learn More >
  • Discourse – A one-way conversation where your aim is to deliver information. This can include situations like presentations or conversations with your team. While they’re often focused on you as the speaker, there is still space for communication with others. 
  • Diatribe – A one-way conversation where the only goal is to make others know your beliefs. These are one of the less constructive styles of conversation and are often challenging, particularly if you’re speaking to others that don’t have the same set of beliefs. 
  • Deliberation – When you need to make a decision – your conversation will take the form of a deliberation. This is where two or more people are able to outline important topics or points and pass judgment on them. However, before making a decision, there likely needs to be some debating in place as well. 

Like any skill in your repertoire, your ability to converse in an engaging and effective way can easily be trained and improved. 

Celeste Headlee: 10 Ways To Have a Better Conversation

I had the pleasure of participating in my favorite hobby last night: mindlessly scrolling through social media. However, instead of watching funny cat videos or meme compilations, I wound up watching an endless series of Ted Talks. 

While they were all inspiring, one in particular resonated with me the most: “10 ways to have a better conversation” by Celeste Headlee

“A conversation requires a balance between talking and listening, and somewhere along the way, we lost that balance,” said Celeste Headlee.

Celeste has an interesting relationship with traditional advice on being an active listener: make eye contact, nod, smile or repeat back what you’ve heard. 

“I want you to forget all of that,” Headlee said. “It is crap. There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.” 

Instead, she offers 10 basic rules for enjoying better conversations.

1. Don’t multitask.

As clear as this rule may seem, many do not understand that it does not simply mean putting down your phone or avoiding other tasks. It really means to be present. Don’t think about the outcome you want, or arguments you’ve had that day. Engage in active conversation while showing your colleague the respect of paying attention.

“If you want to get out of the conversation, get out of the conversation, but don't be half in it and half out of it,” Headlee explained.

2. Don’t pontificate.

In layman’s terms, it’s not all about you. Enter a conversation with the mindset that you are coming to learn, not teach.

“If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth, write a blog,” Headlee said.

3. Use open-ended questions.

In a bid to fill silence or reduce awkwardness, we tend to ask short and simple questions.

“In this case, take a cue from journalists: Start your questions with who, what, when, where, why or how,” Headlee said.

4. Go with the flow.

In her Ted Talk, Headlee describes a situation that is all too familiar: We are watching an interview where a guest is speaking for an extended period of time, and the host pops in with a question seemingly unrelated to what the guest just said, or had previously been answered. She explained that this usually happens when a host thinks of a question he or she deemed clever and has been waiting for a break in the conversation to ask it, instead of paying attention to the conversation itself.

“Stories and ideas are going to come to you. You need to let them come and let them go,” stated Headlee.

5. If you don’t know, say you don’t know.

You are not expected to be an expert, so don’t hold yourself to that level. Err on the side of caution: If you don’t know, say so.

6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs.

“It's not the same,” said Headlee. “It is never the same. All experiences are individual. And, more importantly, it is not about you.”

When someone feels vulnerable enough to share their feelings or experiences with you, be respectful of that. Just because your conversation partner is sharing their story doesn’t mean they want to hear about yours.

7. Try not to repeat yourself.

Similar to Headlee’s previous rule, every conversation is not about you.

“It's condescending, and it's really boring, and we tend to do it a lot,” says Headlee. “Especially in work conversations or in conversations with our kids, we have a point to make, so we just keep rephrasing it over and over. Don't do that.” 

8. Stay out of the weeds.

Keep your conversations conversational. The dates, names or little details are not as important as the basic point of the conversation. 

“They don't care,” explained Headlee. “What they care about is you. They care about what you're like, what you have in common. So forget the details. Leave them out.”

9. Listen.

There is an innate difference between listening to what your conversation partner has to say, and just waiting for your turn to speak again.

“I know, it takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone, but if you can't do that, you're not in a conversation,” Headlee said. “You're just two people shouting out barely related sentences in the same place.”

In her talk, Headlee shares a quote from Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” that could not be more accurate. 

"Most of us don't listen with the intent to understand,” claims Covey. “We listen with the intent to reply."

Related: Are You a Toxic Coworker? Learn More >

10. Be brief.

As the final rule for having better conversations, being brief may be one of the most important. During her presentation, Headlee shared a quote from her sister. 

“A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.”

Your conversation should be the size of a miniskirt.

As a final piece of parting advice, Headlee shared her personal actions during conversations that she believes everyone should adopt.

“I keep my mouth shut as often as I possibly can, I keep my mind open,” she said, “and I'm always prepared to be amazed, and I'm never disappointed.

Work to Improve Your Conversation Skills

Whether you want to improve your skills as a leader, expand your network or simply want to be a better communicator within your association, training your conversation skills is vital. The best way to do so is by practicing constantly. From signing up for debates to taking the lead on a project, the more of a chance you have for conversing, the better your skills will be. 

Of course, getting into a conversation is only half the battle. Having effective skills and techniques like those outlined by Celeste Headlee, including always listening, avoiding comparing experiences and avoiding repetition, can all help improve your skills and build better relationships with anyone you choose to connect with.

Ashley Neal
Post by Ashley Neal
August 11, 2020
Ashley is a marketing and communications professional with expertise in sales conversion, copywriting, and social media.