Conversational Strategies For The Conversationally Impaired
An iconic NYC radio station shuttered last week. It’s insignificant in the scheme of things. Nobody cares about FM radio anymore. My kids don’t even know it exists. Still, the announcement made me nostalgic for my childhood.
I called a friend of mine to share the news. We exchanged funny childhood stories that we associated with the radio station. Nostalgia makes conversation easier by dredging up fond memories and stories. It’s one of the four strategies I’ll share with you.
As a mostly quiet individual, I was always a poor conversationalist. I managed the introductory pleasantries well enough but then seemed to lose my tongue unless my conversation partner possessed the skills and desire to string me along.
Entering the sales profession forced me to improve. I was fortunate to have amazing mentors back in my sales days. It’s been fourteen years since I left that profession, but I still use these techniques to carry me through conversations.
Speaking is overrated
Sure, you need to talk to converse, but don’t underestimate the power of listening and observing. Pay attention to body language, tonality, and words.
Most salespeople are taught the 7% Rule at some point in their careers. It states that “55% of communication comes from body language. 38% comes from tonality, and only 7% is the words themselves.”
This rule stems from a misinterpretation of experiments run by Dr. Albert Mehrabian in 1967. Decades later, smart people accept these numbers as if God handed them to Moses as the eleventh commandment.
Communication is multi-faceted. Body language, tonality and words matter forget about ratios and percentages. You need to pay attention to all of it.
Watch for body language hints: a dismissive hand wave, roll of the eyes, staring at the floor, a smug smile. You know what these mean.
Listen not only for tonality but for nuances in speech. Compare these two sentences.
“I really liked that movie.”
“I kind of liked that movie.”
Now compare these two. The first statement implies commitment. The second one implies indifference.
“I love your idea on how to make this work better. Can I get involved?”
“Interesting idea on how to make this work better. How does one get involved?”
Conversation starters and extenders
Now that you understand the importance of gathering inputs: watching body language, paying attention to tonality and nuances in speech, you can tackle the conversational techniques.
1) The art of the compliment
Everyone loves a sincere compliment. Both the giver and receiver benefit from the exchange.
Few people ever consider the complexities that go into a well-crafted compliment. Anyone can throw around a clumsy compliment. But crafting praise requires thoughtfulness, precision and preparation.
What’s the difference?
Compare these two compliments.
Hey, Kim. Loved your presentation. The whole thing was awesome, every minute of it. You owned it.
Kim, loved the way you closed your presentation by tying together your three arguments into a single all-encompassing conclusion. It answered my objections and convinced me of the merits of your proposal. How long have you been working on that?
The first compliment covers Kim’s entire presentation. It’s nice, yes, but it’s lazy. Was the giver even paying attention? Was he only trying to be polite? How will Kim respond to such a compliment? She’d probably say thank you and then go about her business.
The second compliment focuses on a narrow point of her presentation — the closing. The giver also provides specificity. It shows that he listened to her presentation. He goes on to point out the effect that it had on him. Finally, he wraps up the compliment with a question to move the conversation forward.
Kim will be all too happy to talk about the work she put into her presentation now that the complimenter demonstrated a genuine interest in her work.
What if you’re getting to know someone for the first time?
These situations challenge you because you can’t give sincere praise when you know nothing about the other person. I argue that after five minutes of conversation, you can compliment anyone. All you need to do is pay attention.
People often sneak in hints about their passions and skills — valuable fodder for compliments. If your conversation partner mentions something about a baseball card collection, motorcycles or scotch, they’re hinting at the things they value.
In these cases, you can give an implied compliment. Don’t compliment this person about their baseball card collection. That comes across as insincere. Instead, ask how someone builds a valuable collection or becomes a collector of valuable things. Asking about the positive attributes of their passion acts as a subtle, unstated compliment.
Always keep in mind the three pieces to a perfect compliment.
Narrowness + Specificity + Follow up question
2) Ask meaningful questions
Every conversation guide ever created stresses the importance of questions. You must ask questions, but the kind of questions you ask matters. Let’s keep it simple with two common sense rules.
Don’t make your questions sound like homework.
Keep it light in social situations. Don’t ask questions that will stump the other person. Never try and catch them in a contradiction.
Your questions should entice the other person to stick around, not prompt them to make an escape. If you notice the other person struggling to answer, rescue with self-deprecating humor.
“Sorry. I often ask the dumbest questions at parties like these.”
When in doubt, follow their lead. If your partner talks about their job, ask them questions about their career. If you get sharp, one word answers to your questions, it’s a sign they desire a change of subject.
Don’t ask meaningless questions.
Is there anything more annoying than someone walking up to you and saying, “What a great beer. Where did they grow those hops?”
And you’re thinking, “Oh for f*ck sake, why would you ask me that.”
If your question is pointless, rhetorical or obscure, think of something else to ask.
If your question doubles as an insult or pickup line, think of something else to ask.
3) Soften plus Reversal
Fifteen years ago, I spent several months working with my mentor to master this technique. It comes naturally to the more charismatic type, but it takes practice if you struggle in that department.
Reversing is a way of lobbing the conversational ball back to your partner. I use the term lobbing because your return needs to be soft and gentle.
These are some of the common reversing questions and statements
- Why is that?
- How so?
- Tell me more
- How does that work?
- How did you get into that?
- What’s the secret behind that?
- Why do you ask?
- When you say [fill in the blank], what do you mean?
- I don’t know. What do you think?
- Can you share your expertise/experience/opinion?
If you were to ask me a question and I was to respond with why is that, you might cock your head back at the harshness of the response. That’s why we use a softening statement to lob the conversational ball back.
“Oh, that’s interesting. Why is that? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Wow. I haven’t thought of that. Can you share your expertise… I mean you don’t have to divulge any trade secrets, of course.”
The verbiage around reversal questions softens the response and frames it in a way to make you sound curious rather than critical.
Reminding someone of a nostalgic memory will make you the hero of a conversation. Think of it as your secret weapon.
Nostalgia is more than a memory. It’s a feeling — a deep yearning for a sanitized version of an ideal past. We accentuate the positive attributes of that memory and strip out or reframe negative aspects.
It’s no wonder it works so well as a mood lifter.
You can trigger nostalgic feelings by following three steps.
- You need to know your conversational partners. Age, geography, religious, cultural, educational, and economic background all provide useful information.
- The experience you reference should be shared between all parties.
- You need a trigger. The phrase “remember when” is the most straightforward trigger, and it works well.
Remember when we all thought flip phones were cool? (age, culture, tech)
Remember when you needed a phone book to find a plumber? (age)
Remember when there were only three major television channels? (age, geography)
The trigger questions generate warm nostalgic feelings. The conversation often takes on a life of its own where people in the group share their stories.
Your introduction of the trigger needs to fit within the context of the conversation. You get better results from this technique in larger groups. The sharing of stories allows for more effective bonding.