Most of us pay attention to our appearance.
We may wear sweats and sandals around the house, but we put on appropriate attire when we head out for work at the bank. At the restaurant, we take a quick glance in the bathroom mirror to make sure the teeth aren’t showing a bit of salad. We work out at the gym for fitness, but also to shrink that belly and win the compliments of friends. We as a people spend a fortune on makeup, plastic surgery, and other cosmetics, all to improve our looks.
But how many of us give the same consideration to the way we converse with others, particularly when we first meet them?
When at a company convention, for example, do we ramble on while talking to a stranger? Are we so fixated on ourselves that we fail to read the signs on her face and in her body language that she’s desperate for an escape route? Do we ask questions and then listen inattentively to the answers? Do we interrupt her when she’s talking, like some of the hosts on talk radio? Do we tell inappropriate jokes and then wonder why she doesn’t laugh?
In “The Art of Civilized Conversation,” Margaret Shepherd and Sharon Hogan write, “Conversation, which is a craft as well as an art, requires only a little talent and a lot of practice.”
Here are some tips to help you master that craft. Let’s stick with the convention scenario, where our boss has introduced us to Abigail from accounting.
Remember names. A good number of us, including me, sometimes forget the person’s name to whom we’ve just been introduced within minutes. Not good. Here, we can help our memory by repeating “Abigail” several times during the ensuing conversation. We can also use tricks of language. At my local laundromat, when I first met the manager, she said, “I’m Marty. Rhymes with party,” and I’ve never forgotten her name.
Keep an appropriate distance from Abigail. No one wants a stranger up close and personal. Stay at least an arm’s length away.
Maintain eye contact. If you look at the floor or into the distance when speaking, you’re signaling disinterest. Focus on Abigail.
On the other hand, avoid staring. One man I know cocks his head and stares directly into my eyes for the entire conversation. I feel as if we’re in one of those “see who blinks first” contests from childhood.
Ask questions. If you discover Abigail grew up in Elkin, North Carolina, but now resides in Houston, you’ve just received a gift basket of questions. What’s Elkin like? How was it growing up there? Was the transition to Houston hard?
On the other hand, avoid interrogating her. Instead of asking question after question, bring your own experiences to the discussion.
LISTEN. That word deserves caps because listening is such a vital part of good conversation. We value people who possess this skill, who truly hear us. And we don’t listen just with our ears. Our facial expressions and body language send the message that we’re focused on what Abigail is saying.
Leaving aside the first tip, these tools will enhance any conversation: a casual talk with a friend on the porch, a work-related discussion with fellow employees, even a chat with family members.
As Shepherd and Hogan remark, “Civilized conversation, like all art, connects you to the best in other people and in yourself.”