From Patrick King, author of Improve Your Conversations, The Art of Witty Banter, and How to Talk to Anyone. King is a well established figure in the realm of self-improvement and how to relate effectively to others. He even offers professional consulting on improving charisma, conversation, and confidence. Check out some tips and tactics he’s shared with his readers on improving your conversational skills.
- Strong Eye Contact
This one seems obvious but knowing something is important doesn’t make you good at it. Being bad at this one can leave people with a negative impression, or worse, the feeling that you’re being untruthful. Luckily, King shares these three tips for improving eye contact during a conversation:
i. Gaze, don’t stare. Staring is akin to the look of a news anchor reading from a teleprompter. Gazing has a happier, interested feel, the kind of look you’d get watching puppies playfight.
ii. Maintain what appears to be eye contact by subtly moving your eyes around the other person’s eyes and upper half of their face, not around the room. This will relieve any awkwardness without giving the impression that you’re uncomfortable or you’ve lost interest in the conversation.
iii. Third, King suggests an exercise to up your game. Go outside wearing a pair of sunglasses and make eye contact with the people walking past you. It’s a safe way to get used to the tension of making eye contact without anyone being able to see your eyes. Brilliant!
- Get Your Game Face On
Warm up and get in the zone for socializing. Social skills are akin to muscles that need to be stretched before a workout. Show up ready instead of spending your first three conversations at a party warming up. King recommends reading out loud, from a children’s book with a variety of characters expressing a variety of emotions. If you’ve got any small children at home, this is a fun practice to engage them in. Be loud. Do the gestures, exaggerate the emotions. Push yourself to be as outlandish as you can. Now you’re warmed up, alert, and ready to face a crowd!
- React With Importance
The audience’s reactions are important to the person talking. If you’ve just told a joke, maybe it wasn’t funny, but failing to get any reaction from the person you’ve told it to is awkward and likely to bring the conversation to a halt. Failure to react causes a disconnect between the people in an interaction. If someone is talking, it’s because they want to be heard. Let the person you’re in a conversation with know you’ve heard them by reacting appropriately to what they’re saying! So, how do you react with importance? When someone is speaking to you, try to pick out the primary emotion they are conveying to predict the reaction they seek from you. It will likely be laughter, agreement, excitement, sadness, or validation. Give them the appropriate reaction and emotion to make them feel heard. Easy peasy.
- Don’t be so Literal
Looking for a way to escape small talk? Don’t answer questions literally. When someone asks how your weekend was, you don’t have to answer that exact question. You probably shouldn’t since they probably don’t care. King explains that the person asking the question is looking for something interesting from you, and offers this example of a better way to respond: “How was your weekend? Boring answer: Oh, I didn’t do much … Good answer: pretty slow but did I tell you about the time I went hiking and got stalked by a bobcat last month?!”. Choose the good answer to avoid small talk and have engaging conversations that interest the person you’re talking to.
- Curious as a Cat
When we’re truly interested in someone, we’re engaged and curious. Conversation flows easily because we care to know more detail and context. That rarely happens in our day-to-day interactions. Being curious leads us to ask clarifying questions and go deeper into the topic to learn everything we can about it. If someone did something over the weekend that you’re actually interested in, you might ask questions like “why did they do that? Why did they choose that location? Did they grow up doing this or are they new to it? Do they do other things related to this thing?”. Be curious.
- Weave a Story
Stories kill small talk. Typical conversations follow predictable patterns and topics you can expect like “how was your day/week/weekend? How’s the family, your dog, etc.?”
Since you already know the likely topics, take advantage of this knowledge and prepare short 15-20 second stories to answer the questions you know will come up.
This will give your conversations immediate depth and direction, and it also allows you to curate the image that people have of you. Remember, when people ask about your weekend, they don’t mean it literally. They just want to hear something interesting about you – give it to them in one way or another.
- Keep the Flow
People talk about things that matter to them. Their topic makes them happy, sad, angry, etc. It’s important to understand the emotion the other person is sharing to keep the conversation flowing. Go with them on their journey and take a back seat.
What does this mean? If someone tells you a story about skiing with their estranged father, focus on the emotional impact and not the fact that you have no idea how ski lifts work. Spot the emotion they seek to share and ignore everything else. It’s up to you to find the flow. Stay on the message that other people want and show them that you feel it too. Take a step back and think about the reason someone is telling you something or asking you about something in daily conversation. There’s probably a more deeply rooted reason than what appears on the surface. Missing the flow makes you appear annoyingly pedantic, narcissistic, and emotionally tone-deaf. Finding the flow makes you a mind reader.
For more helpful tips, tricks, and practices to help you gain confidence in conversation, become a better listener, and avoid dreaded small talk, check out King’s website for other titles, worksheets, and mini books to improve your social interactions.
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