How to be a Good Conversationalist

During the summer of 2005, I was in Paris doing research on French rappers and urban unrest with a friend of mine.  The research went well (and ended up predicting the French riots of 2005) but by the end of the first week, my friend and I were ready to strangle each other.  It all finally came to a head over dinner:

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

“I just feel like you’re not interested in my life because you never ask me any questions,” I replied.

“Well I feel like I’m always being interrogated by you because all you do is ask questions without ever telling me anything about yourself,” she retorted. 

Wow, did I feel like an idiot. 

Since I was in middle school, I thought that the way to have a good conversation was to take turns asking questions about each other’s lives, thoughts, and feelings.  If someone wanted to know something about me and my life, they would ask.  If they didn’t ask, they didn’t care.

In contrast, my friend grew up with the belief that a good conversation involves each person taking turns sharing stories and thoughts about themselves.  You tell me an interesting story, and I tell you a similar story from my own experience. 

This revelation smacked me upside the head.  All of these years, I thought that most people were totally self-absorbed and selfish because they rarely asked me anything.  But during that dinner with my friend, I realized that I had been the selfish one by never sharing anything about myself with other people without being prompted. 

Obviously, there is no single “right” way to have a conversation.  But over the years, I’ve learned that a few approaches work well, in addition to sharing stories about my own life: 

1.  Ask questions.  You don’t have to be a member of the Spanish Inquisition, but if you sometimes find yourself with “nothing to talk about” in conversations, try asking questions about something the other person cares about.  One introductory question I like to ask is “What makes you happy?”  You can usually get a good conversation going based on that question alone.  

2.  Focus on being interested, not interesting.  Whether you are asking questions or commenting thoughtfully on the other person’s thoughts and opinions, focusing on the other person’s experiences will usually result in a pleasant conversation for you and your companion.  Everyone is the center of his or her own personal universe, so showing genuine interest is a wonderful gift you can give someone in a conversation. 

3.  Don’t be afraid of silence.  If you wait a moment without having to respond immediately, your companion will usually keep talking and may actually share a profound thought or experience with you.  We’re often queuing our next response while the other person is talking, but sometimes just giving someone a non-judgmental space to talk and reflect can be incredibly powerful.  

As the center of our own universes, it can be easy to get lost in thinking about ourselves all the time.  But once we share the gift of good conversation with others, it’s remarkable how many friends we will make and how much wisdom we will learn by listening and inquiring with genuine interest.  

Do you have any good tips on how to have a great conversation?  I’d love to hear about them below in the comment section!  


Posted on October 9, 2014 .