Becoming a master of conversation requires much more than a great command of language: it also demands a deft ability to navigate the nuances of everyday interaction. This ability isn’t innate – it’s learned. Those who seem to be able to talk to anyone with ease have mastered the rules of engagement. They have learned, for example, that conversation length should increase by exploratory increments, listening for clues to gauge the other person’s hooks and hot buttons. They know which courtesies to use for different situations, when and how to trade information, express an opinion or volunteer feelings. They involve everyone in the conversation, rather than focus only on one member and leave others dangling awkwardly on the periphery. And they know how to end a conversation gracefully. As reward for their being such good students of conversation etiquette, these guys are invited to every social and business function; they stand out in company events and best of all they get the best jobs.
Whether in a sales or business environment, communication is a skill. It’s the ability to understand another person’s needs and finding the mutual ground that will enable a connection to be forged, boosting the chances of a productive conversation. We don’t all have this skill: some people have a visceral fear of communicating outside their comfort zones; others have simply picked up bad conversational habits. And these bad habits can prevent us from building connections with other people.
Below is a selection of some of the most common conversational habits that are probably not doing you any favours. Time to break them?
1. Failure to Build Rapport at the Start
You could refer to rapport as ‘small talk’ and, yes, it’s a vital element of relationship-building. The best conversationalists make time for small talk in order to establish the right tone of voice and ensure their contribution to the conversation won’t offend. Small talk could be as simple as offering an innocuous observation or comment: “I noticed the X in your department - what’s the story behind that?” Neutral questions such as “What do you think about the new expenses system” are better than value-laden ones such as “Doesn’t the new expenses system suck?” because they help to avoid foot-in-mouth scenarios: the person you’re talking to might have been involved in setting up the said new expenses system!
2. Invading Their ‘Personal Space Bubble’
People have what I call a ‘personal space bubble’. If this bubble is invaded, the brain issues a subconscious alert about a potential threat. Talking to a person in this state will make them feel uncomfortable, which isn’t a good basis for a conversation. So don’t get too close!
3. Giving a Vacant Stare
Some people naturally avoid eye-contact; others have learned to do so, for example, for cultural reasons. Regardless of the reasons, if you break eye contact during conversation, it signals a loss of interest, whether you are the listener or the speaker. So whether you are talking or listening, maintain eye-contact and look interested!
4. Interrogating Them
From time to time you encounter a person who won’t stop questioning you. Although they may genuinely have an interest in you, in a business environment, this non-stop, intrusive questioning is usually perceived as rudeness. Excessive curiosity may be appropriate with friends and family; however, in a business setting, it’s a no-no. Keep your questions to a minimum, keep them relevant and listen more than you speak.
5. Being a Conversational Narcissist
Do you speak more than you listen? Are your conversations all about you? Do you often find that you can talk for hours without any comments or questions from the person to whom you are talking? If that’s the case, you’re probably a conversation narcissist. Excellent conversationalists listen more than they speak. But they do more than simply hear the other person’s words – they listen with empathy. If you have a tendency for long monologues, check out the “empathic communication coding system”, a hierarchical system used by the medical profession to conduct productive consultations with their patients.
A summary of the seven steps (the aim should be to communicate on the highest level):
- Level 6: Expressing shared feelings or experiences
- Level 5: Confirming of the legitimacy of other person’s perspective
- Level 4: Pursuing the other person’s perspective further
- Level 3: Acknowledging the other person’s perspective
- Level 2: Implicit recognition of the other person’s perspective but focusing on a peripheral aspect
- Level 1: Offering an automatic, perfunctory recognition of the other person’s perspective: “Hmmm” would be an example of this
- Level 0: Denying or contradicting the other person’s perspective. An abrupt change of subject also qualifies as your denying their perspective: phrases such as “That reminds me” or “By the way” are common ways of ‘denying’ the other person the opportunity to convey their perspective fully.
There’s a reason why your friends and family are happy to indulge your fondness for dominating conversations: they know you. You’ve earned that privilege. In a business scenario, this is unlikely to be the case: directness is a luxury and a privilege that has to be earned.
6. Not Steering Clear of Unpopular Views
This is especially relevant to you if you are opinionated, stubborn, or have a tendency to impose your opinion on everybody else. Although your friends and relatives might indulge your habit of peppering conversations with unpopular views, volunteering opinions that are at odds with the culture and norms of your place of work may not only prove unpalatable to your company, but to you, could mean career suicide – particularly if you’re offering those views to someone who could influence your career.
7. Editing Your Speech
While editing your writing is expected, editing your speech when you are talking is not. This form of editing begins with a small, silent voice inside your head convincing you to rephrase your comment or question to get a better response than the one you’ve just given. While in theory this type of behavior seems logical, in reality it produces the opposite effect. You don’t add clarity – you create a strong impression that you are unsure of what you are saying, you don’t know the subject well and you are not confident. Typically, the listener will try hard not to do their best impression of bemused and confused. But fear not: you can tame your turbid tongue. A simple mantra worth adopting is this: say what you mean and mean what you say. You’ll be surprised at how much this will improve your clarity. You’ll also come across as more confident.
Your aim should be to be understood by the other person. If you suspect you haven’t been as clear as you’d like, simply ask the question: “is that clear?”
You don’t have to be the world’s best conversationalist, but you can aim to be, at least, competent in the art of conversation. The rules are simple: think before speaking; build rapport; and listen deeply to what others are saying, rather than merely hearing what they are saying. And remember that although you might get away with breaking the rules of communication with your family and friends, in a work setting, being direct is a privilege that has to be earned.
Would you add any other bad conversational habits to this list? Add your comments to the box below.