How to be a fascinating conversationalist
My husband is half Japanese and his grandmother on his mother’s side was a geisha. She died long before we met, so I never had the pleasure of meeting her. But my father in law used to say she was “a wonderful conversationalist.”
The funny thing about that is, he didn’t speak Japanese, and she didn’t speak any of the languages he spoke (which included but weren’t limited to Dutch, French, German, and English). So, what did a Dutch academic and an old Japanese woman — who was so unworldly in some ways that she brought her own television with her to Canada in the 1970s so she could “watch her favourite Japanese TV shows” — talk about?
“I don’t remember,” he said, in his eighties by this time. “It was so long ago.”
Of course, geisha are trained to be experts in conversation – as well as in music and culture – but what does that mean when you don’t speak the same language as someone else? The answer seems obvious. She probably didn’t talk at all. She probably just listened.
That’s the No. 1 rule for being a brilliant conversationalist: shut up. It’s counter-intuitive but it works.
I’ve read a lot about the 50/50 rule of conversation, whereby each person should supposedly be doing 50% of the talking. I think 50% is far too much. The other person should, in my opinion, be doing most of the talking. Not all, but most, while you gently drive the conversation forward with the right questions and nudges.*
(The one place where the 50/50 rule does work is the job interview, where you have to do more of the talking because the interviewer needs to know about you. But still don’t go over 50%.)
Be careful, though. Getting others to do the talking doesn’t mean “interrogate them.” A lot of people hear that they should “listen and ask questions” so they pepper some poor innocent victim with questions – “What do you do? Do you like it? Where do you live? Do you like it? What’s your favourite TV show? Do you have kids? Have you ever been to Spain? – until the person excuses themselves to “get a drink” and escapes out a window.
It means making the right noises, and saying things like “Oh, is that right?” And it means avoiding awkward pauses.
If you do it well, people will find you fascinating, and think you’re the best conversationalist they’ve met in weeks. It’s a valuable skill that will have a big impact on your career trajectory.
Here are four things you can say or ask that are pretty much guaranteed to keep the conversation flowing and make everyone you meet think you’re awesome.
“That sounds hard.” In a post on Medium, Paul Ford writes, “Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me,” and suggests that when someone tells you what they do for a living, you should always say, “Wow. That sounds hard.” Why? “Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult.” Try it. It works wonders.
“What do you think?” This is a trick used by the former head of the FBI’s behavioural analysis unit to build rapport with people. Ask their opinion about something, and then, even if you disagree vehemently with them, don’t judge them for their opinion.
“What should I do?” Research shows that asking someone’s opinion makes them think you are smarter and more competent. The study authors wrote, “[W]hen you ask for advice, people… think you are smarter. They reason, ‘I’m brilliant (of course), so this guy’s smart for asking for my advice.’.. [It] strokes the adviser’s ego… Indeed, seeking guidance from others encourages information exchange and meaningful connection between us and our friends and colleagues.” Caveat: make sure to ask about topics they know. The researchers found that asking people advice on something they don’t know about had the opposite effect.
“What did you take away from that?” I use this one when someone tells me about an experience they’ve had – or something they read or watched – and I’m not sure where to go next. Someone I met was telling me about a silent meditation retreat he went on where he couldn’t talk for weeks. I had already asked what it was like but knew there was more, so I asked this one. “What a great question,” he said, before talking for another 20 minutes.
Do you have a trick for getting people talking? Share it with us.
*I think some people call this “active listening” but I’m not going to use the term because I see it used to mean different things and don’t want to use it improperly.