I’ve just posted this article to some local newspapers as part of my job as PRO for our local Toastmasters club, but I thought I would post it here also, as it’s a subject that interests me greatly. Please let me know what you think. Would you have anything to add?

One of the most important life skills is the ability to start and hold a conversation with new people. Conversation is an art that requires tact, understanding and self-knowledge.

When starting out on a conversation with strangers it usually works to think small. Small-talk on topics such as the weather, the immediate surroundings, a recent news or sporting event or a pleasant comment about what the other person is wearing can be a very effective way of beginning a dialogue between two people. Small talk is particularly good for two reasons – it will help you both start from a common, neutral position and it will also give you an indication if the other person is interested in a conversation at all. Sometimes, for whatever reason, people might not want to talk and that’s OK. A flat response to an innocuous topic is signal enough to end the conversation and move on.

Things that get most people talking are topics to do with themselves. You can use the FORE technique – Family, Occupation, Recreation and Education. How are the kids doing? What project are you working on? What sports are you interested in? Where did you go to school? All these questions may open doors to the other person’s life, making it easy for them to talk with ease.

A useful approach in conversations is to use open ended questions. Questions starting with “Did”, “Are”, “Can” or “Is” are fine in a court of law, but might not move the conversation forward as they may only elicit “yes” and “no” responses. Instead, you should ask open questions that require the other person to elaborate. “What”, “How”, “When” and “Why” type questions are often much more appropriate if you want to get a conversation moving.

When conversing with strangers it is good practice to keep the conversation positive and to avoid negativity as much as possible. Criticism or sarcasm, whether direct or implied, can have an immediate effect of putting others on the defensive and closing them down. If your aim is to get the other person talking, but you disagree with what they have just said, you are often better off staying quiet or perhaps adding a different perspective, than flat out contradicting them.

Finally and most importantly, you need to actively listen to what the other person is saying. Repeating, paraphrasing, building on what the other person has said or adding an anecdote or a bit of humour helps to make people feel at ease and keep the conversation flowing.

You might note from this article that the art of a good conversationalist is to focus on the interests, opinions and experiences of the other person, not you. People will often leave with a good impression of you when they feel they have been truly listened to and not subjected to a monologue about your thoughts and attitudes. Economy can sometimes be the key to a successful conversation.

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