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The Art of Conversation

Over the past couple months, various members of the Allieway Marketing team have attended an assortment of events – weddings, galas and professional networking gatherings were among these occasions. As we swapped experiences, we found that a commonality between each event was that we all had extremely negative interactions with other attendees. This isn’t to say anyone was deliberately rude or unkind – no name calling or drinks thrown! What made the interactions negative, from our perspectives, was the quality (or lack thereof) of conversation. During these encounters, we were each struggling to engage or create a meaningful connection with our new acquaintance. But why? What made these interactions so stale, boring, and at some points, painful?

While some folks believe that Emily Post’s code of etiquette is dated, we find that many of her original thoughts on holding a conversation and meeting new people are quite relevant and modern. The Allieway team has taken Emily Posts’ basics of being “The Good Conversationalist” and used them at a variety of networking and social occasions. These are some examples of “Bad Conversationalists” and how we use Emily’s advice to help us avoid crimes in conversation or steer a struggling conversationalist in the right direction:

The Egotist

The most common (but fixable!) crime in conversing is to endlessly speak about yourself. Put simply, this indicates to your conversation partner that you have little to no interest in them, their opinions or their feelings. Not to mention, when you talk about yourself to no end, it is boring to others. Most importantly, you will never be able to form any meaningful connections because you will walk away from conversations having learned nothing. To avoid becoming The Egotist consider the following:

Think First – Speak Later: What is the context of this conversation? What topics would be relevant? What topics are off limit? Come into scenarios with loaded questions based on your company and the situation you are in.

Listen First – Speak (even) Later: The last thing you want to do is spend time in your head rather than listening. When a person is talking, practice engaged listening. When they are done with their thought, you should be able to offer up your own thought based upon what they have shared. Here are some of our favorite Peggy Post listening skills:

  • Empty other thoughts from your mind and concentrate on what the person is saying.
  • Make eye contact, nod occasionally, and intermittently say, “I see” or “Really?” to indicate that you not only heard but understood what was said.
  • Once you’ve picked up the rhythm of the other person’s speech, you’ll be able to inject longer confirmations without seeming to interrupt.
  • If you don’t understand something, ask for an explanation, a habit that comes naturally to a good listener.

Ask Questions: We know that everyone likes to talk about themselves so as a gracious conversationalist – let The Egotist do what they do best by asking them questions. This is an especially important tool if you are shy or a little uncomfortable in social settings. While it can be disheartening to just hear someone rave about their recent successes without acknowledging yours, hopefully your thoughtfulness will lead them to want to return the favor. Our gal Emily Post advises The Good Conversationalist to be super specific. Ask direct questions based on the topic of conversation. If your conversation partner has told you they just moved from working at a company to launching their own business, ask them something relevant– “Do you like being your own boss?” or “Why did you decide to go into business for yourself?”

The Interrupter

Related to The Egotist, The Interrupter is one of the most formidable opponents to the Good Conversationalist. So whatever you do – don’t be this person! Emily Post says the only time it is appropriate to interrupt someone is when you need to communicate something that cannot wait. In such a case – always lead with “I’m sorry to interrupt” or something similar. Sometimes it can be painful when a person drones on and it seems impossible not to interrupt. But keep smiling and nodding while you begin to figure out your exist strategy (see below).

The Close Talker

Body language is important in any conversation. Smiling, eye contact, nodding, good posture, appropriate facial expressions are all important signals when you want to emote friendliness and interest. Personal space, depending on where you live in the world, is a slippery slope. For us living in the USofA, according to Emily, we should stand no closer than about eighteen inches apart when we speak. This is close enough to hear what the other person is saying but not so close that you can smell the varietal of the wine they are sipping.

The Grim Reaper 

It has happened to the best of us. You are chatting it up with someone and then out of nowhere: Silence. When your conversation goes uncomfortably DOA, fear not! Peggy Post has some follow up question ideas you can ask to get the conversation going again:

“What do you do for a living?”

“I just graduated college. I’ve been applying for jobs in marketing.”

“Is that what you studied?” (There’s the follow-up question. So easy.)

“No, I was a studio art major, actually. But I want to put my art skills to work at an advertising agency or something like that.”

“Really? I have a friend who’s working with JMP. Did you try applying there?”

“Yeah, I did, but they aren’t hiring right now. So what do you do for work?”

Once you are able to engage someone, your greatest tool is listening. By demonstrating your listening skills, you will show this person that you are interested and excited to speak with them – hopefully helping them become more relaxed and at ease in your discussion.

The Space Cadet

We have all done it. We zone out in a conversation by accident or we find ourselves scanning the room for no real reason. Or worse – we look down at our phone. The only way to cure this behavior is to put yourself directly in the shoes of your conversation partner. Imagine how horrible it would feel if you were sharing something personal with a friend or new acquaintance and they were not only zoning out, but looking away! Emily Post’s active listen tactics is a great way to solve this problem. While your spacy-ness may not be intentional, it has the potential to be very hurtful to others.

The Elegant Exit Strategy

Sometimes we run into situations that are simply too much to handle. The Egotist who won’t stop talking about their amazing vacation home, The Close Talker who just spit food directly onto your face, or The Space Cadet who decided to pull up Instagram mid-conversation. When enough is enough, there is nothing more important than plotting your elegant exit strategy. Never simply walk away – even when you encounter the rudest of conversation partners. Emily Post suggests using “The Magic Words”. Yes – those words! Those that we learned as children – “Please” and “Thank You.” Make sure you keep it simple; “Please excuse me, I need to find the restroom.” or “Thank you for saying hello, it was lovely to see you.” Tada!

 

Have you encounter any of these conversation criminals? We would love to hear your “Good Conversationalist” techniques!

 

(photo: Kathryn McCrary)

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