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Enhance Conversational Skills

by Harwant Khush, PhD, Research Consultant, Tero International


Whatever your position, if you know how and when to speak...
your chances of real success are proportionately increased.
- Ralph C. Smedley

Knowing how and when to speak is a valuable characteristic of interpersonal communications popularly known as conversation, small talk, or chitchat. It is also referred to as spontaneous, unprompted, and informal dialog between two or more people. Based on its casual characteristic people tend to underestimate its importance in their everyday life. However, social research validates that there is more at stake during casual conversation as compared to any other type of communication, and it has a major impact on one's professional success and personal fulfillment.

"Leadership is a conversation" according to an article published by Groyserg and Slind in the Harvard Business Review (June 2012). Researchers confirm that in the age of globalization, a new model known as "conversations or let us talk" is fast replacing the traditional management system of command and control. Success of business enterprises depends on the ability to connect, engage, and build relationships with clients. This can be accomplished only if there is dialogue, discussion and open exchange of ideas amongst the participating parties.

At the personal level, conversation fulfills basic human needs such as emotional and social bonding, physical proximity, intimacy, and trust. The importance of conversation to build and sustain personal relationships can never be underestimated.

There is no denying the fact that conversation is the most popular interpersonal communication skill and permeates all parts of our life. However, some individuals feel nervous, anxious and uneasy to start conversation and think they do not have the right skills. They rationalize such inability with proverbs such as they are not born with the "gift of the gab" or it is not part of their biological heritage.

The good news is that the conversation is, indeed, a skill; it is not genetically determined. Just like any other skill, it can be enhanced, mastered, developed with practice and knowledge of its techniques.

There is a vast amount of literature based on theories, principles, and models to enhance conversational skills. The basic elements to all the theories are to show genuine interest, express empathy, and depict sincerity. According to Dale Carnegie, "It's much easier to become interested in others than it is to convince them to be interested in you."

Multiple articles from various sources indicate that interest in others can be demonstrated through many factors, including three basic techniques known as Look, Listen and Repeat, as well as the steps known as the Conversation Process.

Look

Looking at the person during conversation allows the listener to better comprehend what the speaker is trying to say, allowing a relevant response. Looking does not mean just staring; it means paying attention to the person's verbal as well as to the non-verbal behavior of the speaker. It means to maintain eye contact; understand tone of voice, notice facial expressions, observe hand movements, gestures, and body language to understand the impact of conversation. It is a well-known fact the famous detective Sherlock Holmes could tell a person's profession by looking at the hands and body movements of that person.

Nevertheless, be cautious on how, where and how long you look. Follow the Goldilocks rule - Too much of a gaze is perceived to be rude, intimidating and arrogant. Too little may show indifference and not caring. Maintain balance; look more while talking and a bit less while listening.

Listen

Listening is not the same as hearing. Listening means to pay attention, understand and to acknowledge what the speaker says without interruptions and suggestions. It is to show empathy and compassion to speaker's views by saying such as, "I understand how you feel." During any conversation, people often do not pay much attention to what is being said, because they are busy planning their own comments, responses, or what to say next.

Listening satisfies a basic human need. To know that someone is paying attention, values and appreciates what is being said, sends message of recognition, respect, and appreciation. Thus, listening can lead to rewarding and productive dialog.

Repeat

The most popular technique to keep the conversation going is to repeat the same idea and content if the listener does not know what else to say and how to respond. This approach is also known as reflective listening and is often used in Psychotherapy. Literally, it means to use one's own words and terminology to reflect the thoughts, views and emotions of the speaker. If a speaker says, "I always feel lonely," a response could be, "At all times?"

Repetition also verifies that the listener is paying attention; it helps to create rapport, trust and empathy with the speaker.

Conversation Process

In addition to the three techniques discussed above any conversation goes through a series of steps known as a conversation process. The process may take time and multiple meetings or it may happen at just one meeting if the parties connect socially or professionally.

A typical conversation process consists of:

Greetings

Greetings open up the opportunity to start a conversation. Greetings combine verbal as well as non-verbal behavior. Verbally, we may say, "Good morning," "Good afternoon," "hello," etc. However, it is not what you say, but how you say, that would determine further interaction. Eye contact, voice inflection, smile, gestures, and upbeat tone are all indicators of whether the parties want to continue to talk. If so, the conversation moves to the next stage.

Introduction

Introduction involves sharing brief but objective information. It involves statements of general interest, such as, "my name is ...," "what brings you to this meeting?" "have we met before?" or "you look familiar." In this interchange, parties try to assess if they have something of mutual interest. If the parties find common interests, then the conversation continues.

Interchange of Facts, Views and Opinions

At this stage, the parties begin to feel comfortable and start exchanging information with each other. It may be something like, "where are you from?" "what do you do?" or "what do you study?" Conversing parties enjoy chatting, meeting and feeling free to agree or disagree with each other. This free exchange leads to sharing of common interests and personal feelings.

Sharing of Common Interests and Personal Feelings

At this level, the speakers begin to trust each other. They realize that they have much in common and can depend on each other to solve their mutual concerns and problems, and can share common interests and/or personal feelings. Not all conversations will get to this final step, but all will have a conclusion.

Conclusion of Conversation

The conclusion conveys the message as to whether the parties want to continue with the conversation, or would like to end it. Statements such as, "It was pleasure meeting you," or "it was nice to see you" may indicate that a person does not want to continue the dialog. The words "call me when you are in town," or "let us get together sometime soon and discuss it further," could indicate that the parties concerned are interested in meeting again to engage in further conversation.

Conversational skills, like any other skills, take time, patience and practice to hone and develop. Being a good conversationalist has a great impact on one's personal fulfillment and professional enhancement. Success in leadership, business and personal relationships is highly dependent on conversational skills. The best part is that we can enhance these skills if we would just pay attention and practice some of its basic techniques and processes.

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