5 Strategies for Becoming a Better Conversationalist

A few weeks ago, I was called by a consultant who was prospecting for business. He was a friend of a friend, so I felt duty-bound to give him thirty minutes to tell me about his company and the services he provides. Sadly, it was a complete waste of time.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/dwphotos, Image #6070301

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/dwphotos

For starters, the guy talked non-stop. I probably didn’t say more than three sentences in the entire call. Worse, he made all kinds of assumptions about me and my business. Most of them were wrong.

I gently tried to correct him, but he didn’t seem too interested in my point-of-view. Evidently, he had his script. He was determined to plow through it.

It made me wonder how many times I do the same thing with others.

The people I value the most are those who know how to listen. I actively seek them out. Interestingly, these are also the people who have the most influence with me. Why? Because I feel like they understand me.

Early in my business career, one of my mentors told me that conversations should be like a game of ping pong. You wait for the ball to come over the net, then you hit it back to the person on the other side. Then you do it all over again—and on it goes.

In a good conversation, there is both give and take. This is something we have intentionally tried to pass on to our own children.

I certainly have much to learn, but over the years, I have found the following strategies helpful in becoming a better conversationalist:

  1. Listen with your heart. Words are a small part of any communication. The intellectual exchange is only part of the exercise. You can pick up a lot by paying attention to the non-verbal cues, including the other person’s eyes, their tone of voice, and their body language.
  2. Be aware of how much you are talking. I try to talk in sound bites. Frankly, I learned this from doing hundreds of radio and TV interviews through the years. If I didn’t periodically stop talking and give the interviewers a chance to speak, they weren’t bashful about interrupting me or bringing the interview to a close. People are more polite, but you can still lose them, as the would-be consultant did with me.
  3. Hit the ball back over the net. Nothing communicates value and respect to a person more than asking them what they think. Unless you’re giving a formal speech, every encounter should be a dialogue. That means you have to consciously hit the ball back over the net and give the other person a chance to respond. The best way to do this is with thoughtful questions.
  4. Ask follow-up questions. The best listeners I know never stop with just one question. Like peeling an onion, they ask follow-up questions, going deeper each time. This is where you learn the most and where you tap into the possibility to add real value to the other person’s life. One question I like to ask is this, “How did it make you feel when that happened?”
  5. Provide positive feedback. A “poker-face” may help when you are playing cards, but it does not help build trust or develop relationships. People need to know that you are listening and understand them. Nodding your head and providing verbal affirmation are critical skills that anyone can learn, but they must be cultivated.

Your ability to lead is directly tied to your ability to lead powerful conversations. If you want to increase your influence, you have to perfect the gentle art of conversational ping pong.

Question: What have you learned about becoming a better conversationalist? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://robsorbo.com/ Rob Sorbo

    I’m great at ping pong, just not so great at serving–I can respond in any conversation, I just don’t know how to get it started.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Rob, you’ve nailed the hard part.  A mentor of mine taught me to get the conversation started, just ask the other person questions about themselves.  He said something that I never forget in conversational ping-pong:  “People love to talk about themselves!”

      • Jim Martin

        John, this is exactly how I have experienced some of the most interesting conversations.  You are right, “People love to talk about themselves.”

  • http://brandonweldy.wordpress.com Brandon Weldy

    Listening has always been something I have enjoyed doing. I enjoy being listened to, so I like to give someone the ability to talk. I listen with empathy. My heart-strings are tugged as people tell me their stories. Sometimes this has caused me to not ask good questions in the midst of listening. I take what could be a great growing experience and just turn it into them talking and me listening. 

    I have been working on finding good questions to ask during a dialogue. I want to internalize them so I can keep the conversation going and possibly challenge the “talker.” 

    • http://www.timpeters.org/ Tim Peters

      Wow.  I wished I was great at listening.  Any tips?  

    • http://joeandancy.com/ Joe Abraham

      Like reading your experience, Brandon. I think you got those good questions that you were seeking for from this post and many of the comments.

  • http://www.workyouenjoy.com Adam Rico

    We live in a culture where the expectation is if you have something to say you will just interrupt or talk over the other person. So when I speak with someone who is really listening it initially throws me off a bit.

    Then when I understand they are truly listening I’m thrilled to speak with that person. As a result, they often will facilitate a more deep and interesting conversation. Truly good listeners are a rare breed and I strive to give the gift of listening to others. Thanks for the great post Michael.

    • Jim Martin

      Adam, you make a good point.  Good listeners are rare.  They seem to much more difficult to find that those who wish to suddenly interrupt or cut off a comment.  

      Good for you in striving to give this gift to others.

    • http://joeandancy.com/ Joe Abraham

      truly listening” – that’s a key, Adam. Not simply hearing, but listening.

  • Lisa

    The most valuable lesson I have learned about conversation actually came from my years of classroom teaching experience: the concept of “wait time”.  Giving the person my silence  as space to answer a question I’ve asked helps communicate respect.  Being simply present without hurrying in to fill the silence expresses “I am with you” without words.

    • Jim Martin

      Lisa, I really like this!  The concept of “wait time” must communicate much respect and desire to communicate with this person.  Thanks.

  • Bonnie House

    I learned that I need to be a good listener. Also by listening then I can ask the right questions.

    • http://www.timpeters.org/ Tim Peters

      I am with you Bonnie.  I need a lot help in this area. 

  • http://talesofwork.com/ kimanzi constable

    People have real needs and when someone is selfish and not listening, who knows what that could do to someone’s life. By talking too much you might also miss out on important details, in the past this has happened to me with my wife (she wasn’t too happy)

    • http://www.timpeters.org/ Tim Peters

      Important details.  Exactly.  

  • http://twitter.com/justbeingstill Kimberly Burton

    I used this article in my 4th grade Language Arts class today!  From the start of the year, I teach my students about how important conversations are to their learning!  We do a great deal of it everyday.  Thanks for writing a blog post that I could use in my classroom (with help on several words of course:).  I talked through the entire article with them and got to show them a real-life example of why it’s important to be able to use the skills I’m teaching them!  The ping pong illustration was perfect for them!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      How encouraging! Thanks for dropping by to tell me. Awesome!

  • http://henryfiallo.wordpress.com/ Enrique Fiallo

    For me, empathetic listening is one of the keys to being a great conversationalist: listening for deep comprehension of what the other person is saying, and to completely understand their point of view. During this type of “listening”, I don’t think about what I am going to say, I don’t interrupt, I don’t prepare my “agenda” in rebuttal. I just engage in pure listening so that I may understand, and to walk in the other person’s shoes for a while. 

    One of the best teachers I ever had told me that if I just LISTENED intently to people, even if I didn’t say much, they would walk away from their interactions with me saying, “what a great conversationalist he is!” He was right. Pure listening makes people feel like you really care, that you truly want to understand, and that you value their point of view. Nice post!
    Enrique Fiallo

  • LaRae Quy

    I’ve found that the use of questions to be one of the most important tools in communication. Questions don’t have to be brilliant, but they do need to be wrapped in genuine curiosity and honesty. The response can cut through layers in one quick slice if the question is perceived to be genuine. 

    And I agree – there is nothing more frustrating that talking to a person who doesn’t show any emotion or expression on their face. Empathic listening is an incredibly powerful way of communicating with other people.

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      I am with you on this one. Authenticity is worth so much in a conversation. If I know someone really cares it makes all the difference!

  • R.J. Devine

    Great post very helpful! I am going to apply these 5 things from now on! Thanks for posting!

  • http://www.hope101.net Lori Tracy Boruff

     I have a bad habit of asking questions that require a yes or no answer. Does anyone have suggestions on how to break this habit?  There, I did it again!!

  • http://www.smallbusinessmarketingsucks.com/ John Tabita

    My problem is the exact opposite; I’m not a talker … which is fine if I’m with someone who is. (Which is partly why, I suppose, I married who I married.) But when I find myself with someone who’s quiet like me, carrying on a conversation can became, well, awkward. I’ve since learned that your item #4, “Ask follow-up questions,” is a life-saver. Even the most introverted person will open up if you take a genuine interest and ask follow-up questions. Good stuff!

  • Anonymous

    Not interrupting is a rare and beautiful thing in conversations these days!

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  • http://www.thadthoughts.com/ Thad Puckett

    I wish I could say my learning is over in this regard and I am now a great conversationalist, but I fear I am still in school.  But I believe I am better than I used to be, and I know I want to improve.   Keeping myself in perspective is useful…I need to remember to frame the interaction in my head in a way that encourages the ping pong effect.  

  • Kerry D Collier

    I think that the “art of conversation” has been lost because it’s much more than communication of ideas, thoughts, or emotion. It’s uniquely a human experience that we can share ourseleves and exchange love towards one another as we were mean’t to do. (the James verse outlines this perfectly) Great post and great comments!

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  • http://charlielyons.ca Charlie Lyons

    Good thoughts here, Michael. I continue to strive for good conversations. I’ve been reminded several times recently about the importance of asking good questions. That’s definitely key to this process of good conversations.

    Thanks for your ongoing wisdom and insights.

  • Bani K. Benjamin

    I have been doing these that you outlined and it helps me alot so it is just encouraging me to do it the more. thanks

  • https://twitter.com/#!/drewbordas Drew Bordas

    The best advice I’ve been given is to “be interested, not interesting”.  Easier said than done though.

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

     I subbed on Sunday for the college-age teacher (actually used your wise and foolish article to direct conversation). As typical, I plowed through the material and filled up the silences (too long between teaching gigs). The best conversations took place after I “taught.” We were now off script and just talking. That’s when I heard some excellent ideas about how to connect with other college-age folks in town.

  • Dan

    Good stuff. I never thought about the subtle influence conversations can have on people. 

  • Bmwbear129

    Back in the day of my early management years we attended a class for the betterment of our teamwork.  We had taken an active listening class and boy did I learn that I had some VERY bad habits when it came to listening.  One I rolled my eyes in my head often, not because I was annoyed, simply because I was “looking up” in my head for what I was going to say next and the other issue was I never actively listened to any conversation I was participating in because I was too busy thinking about what I was going to say next.  I have grown a lot in the area of listen, yet I still have some improvements to make….just ask my teenagers:)

  • Neil

    I love the ratio that God gave us, two ears and one mouth! 

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  • http://colebradburn.com/ Cole Bradburn

    Conversational narcissists have become very common in the digital age (though I suppose they were always around) when true social interaction – face to face – is increasingly rare.  

    My grandfather always said that a conversation should have an ebb and flow, like the tide.  There should be a natural rhythm that shows itself as it progresses.

  • http://www.dennisbrooke.com/ Dennis Brooke

    This post is a classic and I can attest to the effectiveness of these principles. As a consultant I was once brought into a client who had already selected another vendor but was told by purchasing that they needed a competitive bid. After spending a week with management and staff at many levels and using these type of techniques we were selected to handle the project because we truly understood their problems and business.
    It resulted in a multi-million dollar project and long term business and personal relationships.
    On a personal level, I don’t learn nearly as much with my mouth open as with my ears open.

  • http://www.struggletovictory.com/ Kari Scare

    “Speak loudly and clearly and make eye contact.” This is how I instruct my boys (11 & 13), and this is a point I made when I taught speech classes years ago. If direct eye contact makes you too nervous, look at the bridge of the person’s nose. They can’t tell the difference between that and direct eye contact. For me, when someone is looking around when I’m talking to them, I just want to end the conversation and move on. They really aren’t fully present.

  • http://www.feedingnineonadime.com/ Jenifer Harrod

    Today I read this to my two boys Zach and Zeke and little Nora. Zach(10yrs.) liked the part about ping pong.  Zeke(9 years) learned talking is like a ping pong ball game. Its like hitting a ball back and forth except its with talking. Nora learned about ping pong (she’s 3) I learned a lot too.  I liked the point about hitting the ball back over the net. Thanks!

  • http://unknownjim.com/ Jim Woods

    Sometimes, a game of ping pong is not possible. We all have different personalities, likes and dislikes.  Sometimes others are very quiet and/or shy.  Try your best to not take offense to this.  Have a positive attitude and remain upbeat. 

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  • http://www.dwaynes--world.blogspot.com Dwayne Morris

    I call this “creating collisions.” The average person tends to avoid “colliding” with others, so to do so and do it well helps you stand out among the rest. When you collide, you have the opportunity to Listen, Learn and Leverage. Listen to others as they share. While this is going on, you should be searching for common ground…things you have in common. Then you will likely learn something new. Finally, take what you learn and leverage it for the good of others.

    These are great tips! Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.dental-management.net/ DentalAccountant

    Yes I agree with all this tips. These is really helpful. Glad you share it to us. And I think one thing that is important is that we know when to speak and when to listen and be attentive, Am i right?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.freestone Mike Freestone

    We were given one mouth and two ears for a reason.  Very good tips that are good for anyone, in business or not.  In reading the recent book on Bonhoeffer their family was raised to make sure what they were saying was meaningful and relevant.  Very good training for everyone in the conversation of Life!

  • N_mott09

    I come from a family of talkers so listening has definitley been an area that I’ve struggled with my listening skills because if someone had something to say they would just over talk the other person until they got their points across. This article has helped me nd I will follow these insights to become an effective listener. Thanks everyone for your comments. As a young leader I need all the insight I can get. :-)

  • Mary Henderson

    My husband and I coined this phrase for ourselves: “More words mean less impact.” We try to be succinct with our wording to keep our listener engaged… Whether it’s our 17 year old son or a promising work connection.

  • http://twitter.com/grapejooooce David Welch

    A great deal of being conversational is empathy, which I am not good at. These are great points! Stephen Covey does an incredible job explaining this too in “7 Habits For Highly Effective People”: Seek to understand, then to be understood.

    Thanks for another great post! I’m currently working to improve my conversation skills(aren’t we all).

  • Javier Lee

    Thank you Micheal for yet another great write!! I’ve observed myself becoming more aware in conversations and catching myself waiting for him/her to end the sentences; wanting to say what I want to next, instead of listening intently to what they say. I will improve on this!Thanks Michael! “)

    Greetings from Singapore,

  • http://www.skipprichard.com/ Skip Prichard

    Mike, in addition to being a huge inspiration to me, I have noticed something about you. When we meet, I am prepared with a list of questions I want to ask you and yet I find you’re first out of the gate with questions. Why? You are generally interested. You want to learn. You want to gain perspective. You make the other person important. I walk away thinking “wow! how does he do that?” and I can see you put the formula down in this post.
    And FINALLY, I am up to speed on how to comment and using Disqus, etc. I may be slow, but I’m now here.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for your comment, Skip. You are such and encouragement to me!

      I am so glad you are up and running on Disqus. It is a marvelous system.

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  • Words of Wizedom

    My mom always compared conversations to passing a basketball back and forth. Same idea…

    I am such a bad conversationalist I created a website with tons of questions to help get convos started


  • Ankur V Misra

    “You can pick up a lot by paying attention to the non-verbal cues, including the other person’s eyes, their tone of voice, and their body language.”

    This is where I struggle most. I am not easy while talking to people and I’m too shy and nervous sometimes. I have been practicing a lot to be a better conversationalist. At first sight, nobody will say I am a shy and nervous guy while talking. It gets revealed as I spend more time talking. How can I improve?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Act your way into a new way of being. Act confident and your emotions will follow.

  • Danielle Chambers

    Thank you Michael for the great tips! I like that you said in your last paragraph that your ability has to do with you ability to lead a powerful conversation. There are so many wonderful leadership tips and shoulds and should not tips but being able to lead a powerful conversation is usually not seen.