If you find yourself walking away from tête-à-têtes feeling like you’ve said to much or too little, you might be in need of a lesson or two in the art of conversation. From working a room full of strangers to precious catch ups with busy friends, networking expert and author of What Do I say Next and How to Work a Room, Susan RoAne, shares her top tips for being a better conversationalist…
IF YOU’RE… meeting people for the first time
If you’ve got an event coming up where you’re bound to meet new people, it helps to do your homework and come prepared with some discussion topics, advises RoAne. “Whether it’s an event, meeting or charity fundraiser, we can prepare by reading up,” she says.
Many people feel shy about what they have to offer – conversation wise – when meeting people for the first time, so it can help to come armed with three ‘just in case’ subjects of your choice.
IF YOU’RE… catching up with friends
When it comes to chatting with friends it’s just as important to listen as it is to share and respond. “Not sharing, hogging the floor or over-sharing are all conversation pitfalls," says RoAne, who believes this can easily be remedied by being fully present in a conversation and gauging when it’s appropriate to speak, listen or change the topic.
IF YOU… feel like you can’t get a word in edgeways
“If one person does all the talking, it’s a monologue not a conversation,” stresses RoAne. In her experience, many more women than men complain about doing all the listening in conversations, while not being asked questions or getting enough airtime. If this happens, try not to see it as a reflection of you. “Some of us don’t like being asked a lot of questions as it feels invasive, and we’re reluctant to appear nosy in return,” she explains.
If you find yourself struggling to be heard in conversations, there are several techniques you can try to remedy this. “Share your own stories relevant to the topic being discussed, instead of waiting for a direct question to come your way,” suggests RoAne, and practice your stories to make sure you’re sharing them in an engaging way.
If you’re repeatedly spoken over in conversations, when this happens use the next pause to pleasantly come back in with: “As I was saying”, before repeating your point – it’ll get the conversation back on track while acting as a polite reminder that you were speaking before being interrupted.
If this happens repeatedly in a conversation with people you don’t know, it’s probably worth removing yourself from the conversation altogether (why waste your time on those not interested in giving you the time of day?), while if you find it often happens with alleged friends, you might want to revaluate the friendship altogether.
IF YOU’RE… guilty of dominating the conversation
If you’re worried you might dominate the talk with friends or new people you meet, RoAne believes you’re already half way towards solving the problem. “It shows you’re in tune and concerned about how you’re coming across,” she says.
To avoid it, make sure you ask questions of the listener between each of your own stories – asking about jobs, weekend plans and holidays are usually safe topics. RoAne also favours the phrasing “What about you?” over “What do you do?” – explaining it helps you get to know the whole person, rather than just their job title.
Similarly, when talking to friends, pay attention to what they’re saying; listen with your eyes as well as your ears and focus on their words.
IF YOU’RE… working a room full of strangers
According to RoAne, the three things you need to prepare before entering a room full of people you don’t know is your attitude (how you want to come across), a plan for how you’ll introduce yourself and some conversation topics; asking others how they know the host or what they think of the food is an easy way to get the conversation flowing.
“Bring your smile, remember to make eye contact and have a focus but not an agenda,” RoAne says, and don’t try to one-up other people’s stories. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with recounting a friend’s story if it’s relevant, but avoid any temptation to pass it off as your own – things could get awkward if you’re asked further questions that you can’t answer.
If you’re at a conference or other formal work event, wear your nametag if you were given one (on your righthand side, so it’s in line of sight with your handshake) and try to sneak a peek at the nametags of others so you know who you’re talking to – it’ll help you feel in control.
RoAne’s top tip? Talk to the people standing alone. “They may be shyer than you and think of themselves as introverts, but would welcome your attention and conversation,” she says.
IF YOU’RE… looking to make a swift exit
The golden rule for walking away from a conversation is to interrupt yourself, not the person you’re talking to, explains RoAne. Make a point of the fact you’ve enjoyed talking to them, adding how interesting it was to hear about ‘xyz’ (acknowledging a topic they spoke about) – this summarises the conversation and shows you were listening.
You could take this further, offering to exchange business cards or contact info, but if you don’t want to end up hearing from this person again, head straight to another person or group, or leave the room altogether.
IF YOU’RE… catching up over the phone
If you’re having a conversation with someone over the phone, FaceTime, Skype or similar, it can be tempting to try and multitask, and get on with something else while you’re chatting. But RoAne points out it’s always important to give the other person your full attention – after all, it’s very off-putting to tell a story to someone you can hear tapping away on their keyboard, or who leaves a long silence after you’ve delivered the punchline, suggesting they weren’t even listening.