Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Lost Art of Conversation

I am thinking of writing and publishing another book.
The subject I am considering is the lost art of conversation. This article is the basic start of the book.

Once upon a time there were no computers, so there was no email, or text messaging. People did not carry cellphones with them capable of text-messaging their friends in a constant wash of digital chatter. People actually laughed, they didn't "LOL". In those days, the following assortment of letters and numbers, "ruok? 2g2btru. k. gr8. g2g. ttfn." didn't have any meaning. These days that passes for an entire conversation.

In this golden era of yesteryear, there also was no television, or even radio. And frankly, it wasn't all that long ago, really. Those inventions are all from the last few decades. So what did people do to entertain themselves in the thousands of years before that since we have had civilization in this world? Well, some learned to play musical instruments, some took up painting, some were driven to sports. But pretty much everybody talked.

That is, they had conversations, real conversations. Conversations that could last for hours. You might think, "What, every day? With the same people? What in the world would they find to talk about once they had exhausted the topics?"

Well, therein lies the art of conversation. This is the knack of speaking with someone and retaining their interest, engaging their mind and emotions, entertaining yourself and them, connecting to their inner person. Truly communicating with a person. People who master the conversational skills usually rise to the higher
levels of whatever field they go into. It is a universally valuable skillset. If you can carry on a conversation with anyone, including those who don't have very good communication skills, then, chances are, you can make friends with them. And it always helps to have friends - especially in the right places.
And in these days of digital communication where everyone uses email and text messaging to communicate more than their voice, the art of conversation is almost lost in the general population. It's sad to think, but there is a silver lining to that dark cloud. That means that you can, with very little effort and skill, become a better conversationalist very easily. People are so bad at it, that if you
have any skills at all, you can be fantastic by comparison.

So what is the art of conversation? What are the tricks? How is it done, and how does one improve their skills? Below are some guidelines you can use to create better conversations. Use these to improve you social status, your relationships and your life overall.

1. Listen. Hear and understand what the other person is saying. Joey from the TV show Friends said once on one of the episodes, "Look, there are two parts to the conversation. Speaking..... and waiting to speak.". That sounds hilarious, and I laughed out loud when I heard him say it, but frankly, the reason it's funny is because so many people DON'T listen. They talk over other people. They seem to have an agenda that the only important reason for the conversation is for them to convey
some information. Or they mumble something while walking away. They don't feel the other person has anything valuable to say. Or they are afraid to hear it. Or they are merely going through the motions of conversation for the sake of form. Or boredom. Or they simply lack conversational skills.

2. Be polite. Don't talk over the other person. Let them make their points.

3. Be respectful of the other person's privacy.

4. Have something to talk about.

5. Be aware of time. Don't start a two hour conversation when you know you're only going to have 10 minutes to talk.

6. Be genuine. Say what you mean, mean what you say.

7. Be aware of the other person's needs.

8. Learn to read body language and other sub-text signals. Know when you might be offending a person, when you have interested a person, angered a person, know when the conversation should be ended or the subject changed.

9. Be in the right mood, and make sure your partner is also in the right mood. Match your mood to theirs. If one is ebullient and the other is grumpy, it won't work.

10. Don't move in too close to the details too fast. Start general and at a polite distance from the details. Stay at a high level, then gradually drill down to the details as the conversation progresses, and as you receive signals from the other person to continue.

11. Avoid swearing or speaking in a vulgar manner.

12. Speak clearly, concisely, calmly, and don't keep repeating yourself. yourself. yourself. yourself. yourself. yourself. yourself yourself yourself yourself yourself yourself. How many times was the word "yourself" just repeated? Chances are you don't know - you'd have to go back and count them. The reason is that when we detect repetition, we tend to tune out. We shut off the reception, and say, "OK, I get it. Move on." The same attitude and reaction holds true if you are listening to a person repeat an idea several times. Say it once, or possibly repeat the concept using different words if you suspect that the idea is not getting across.

13. Unless it is a sales call, don't have an agenda other than just friendly conversation. If they suspect you are trying to sell them something, then most people will immediately shut you down, tune you out, ignore what you say and avoid you. If it IS a sales call, then make that clear up front - don't mislead them into thinking this is a friendly conversation and then try to use that to weasel a contract for life insurance. People are not stupid. They see that, and they won't
like it. It seems manipulative, and it is. And it's disrespectful. The implied assumption is that you know they don't want to talk to you about whatever you're selling and so you have to trick them into it. If they are caught in that, then they will most likely remain polite, but they will not buy what you're selling because you abused their trust already, and they will try to end the conversation as quickly as
possible. These kinds of tactics are why most people find salespeople annoying and off-putting. A better technique for a salesperson is to use the first conversation as just conversation to establish a relationship. Find common ground. Build rapport. Then, on a subsequent meeting, once the relationship has been established and the salesrep is seen as a person and not just a salesrep who wants something, THEN, they might try a sales call - but make it clear what the intention is. Be upfront, and respect their intelligence. This goes for sales, for recruitment, for borrowing money, or signing a petition. Don't use your conversational techniques to trick people into a situation they don't want to be in so you can benefit. Be honest and genuine and respectful of their feelings and their time.

14. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Assume they are intelligent, knowledgeable, practical, sensible, responsible, kind, considerate, and wise. People respond well when they think they have left that impression, or if they think they have a fresh start to wash away old mistakes and be able to prove themselves again. Show them that they have an excellent opportunity to impress you and prepare to be

15. If you are impressed with them in some way - express that. Give credit where credit is due. But if you are not really impressed, then don't gush out your accolades. It is insincere, and ultimately it is disrespectful of their intelligence and their feelings. Honest appreciation at the right level is best.

16. Learn to use humor well. That is, learn some harmless jokes and use them to lighten a mood. But be careful of humor that might insult or offend the other person. Not everyone has the same sense of humor. Humor can be used to make a person a friend or an enemy very quickly. It is powerful. So use it wisely. Usually, self-deprecating humor is the safest type.

17. Learn how to end a conversation properly. Don't end it abruptly by going silent and refusing to answer a question, or switching to a different person and ignoring the first person.
It is okay to let it trail off into silence. Two people on a long flight together don't have to talk all the way there. Signaling that you have to go can be fine. Recapping the original points to bring the conversation circling around to the beginning can be a classy way to end it nicely, by artistically finalizing it and simultaneously showing that you were listening to them, valuing what they had to say, and will remember their points. Thanking a person for the conversation is also a very gracious and polite way of ending it.

18. Ask their opinion on the subject. Don't just say yours and leave it at that or change the subject. Give them a chance to respond to it.

19. Show the person you understand their points and appreciate their conversation by repeating their points back to them.

20. Don't keep changing the subject too quickly. Finish making your points on one subject, and letting them make their points before moving to the next subject. On the other hand, know when a subject is dead, don't keep poking it with a stick long after it's stopped breathing.

21. Pace yourself to match their speed. If one person is calm and the other is all excited and talking fast, there will be disconnects. You can talk but you won't really connect.

22. Be open minded. Always consider that they might have information that you don't and they might be right and you might be wrong. As long as they feel you are open-minded and willing to listen to them and consider their opinions, they will continue to voice them. But if they think they are talking to a wall, then they will shut down, because they don't want to waste their time or energy.

23. Respect yourself. Don't automatically surrender your points to the other person. If their opinion is the opposite of yours, stick to your guns a little until you can see whether their argument is better than yours. If it is, then gracefully acknowledge their better position. Also, if the other person is being vulgar, petulant, arrogant, obnoxious or unpleasant in any way, learn a few techniques for shutting down the conversation. You can tell them that you've found it best not to discuss that subject with people because it usually leads to problems, or change the subject to another less dangerous one, or if that doesn't work to disarm an annoying person with unwanted conversation, simply excuse yourself and walk away.

24. Breathe once in a while. Don't let out a nonstop barrage of words and ideas and expect the other person to just take it all in in one piece. It's impolite, and besides, most people don't have an attention span to last long enough to hear everything you said. Also, most people only have enough intellectual and memory capacity to be able to retain one or two ideas in their head at once. If you present too many points in one gulp, then they cannot absorb your points, and remember their own comments they want to make at the same time. If the other person is spraying a barrage of word and ideas, then offer them a drink. Most people can't speak and swallow at the same time. Speak when they drink. Also, you can offer them a sincere compliment. You might find that a person shuts up when you are saying something about them that they want to hear.

25. Know your audience. You probably aren't going to be able to discuss theoretical physics with a 12 year old child, or the adventures of a cartoon hero with an 80 yr old man. Also, there are topics that men favor, and other topics that women favor more than the other gender. Men don't get down, have a few beers and talk about flower arranging, crafts, and decorating the babies room very often. Women don't often get into conversations about hunting, or guns, or replacing the transmission on the pickup truck. They usually don't think about which size truck and which class of hitch is required to tow a 10,000 pound trailer. You might want to avoid talking about Christmas movies to a Jewish person, or women would do well to steer around the subject of pain and discomfort and mess of menstrual periods with men in social situations.

26. Don't try to trump the other person by claiming to be an authority on the subject when you are not. If you speak responsibly and authoritatively about the subject, then you will create credibility for your positions and ideas based on their own merit. They shouldn't need the added emphasis of your resume to prop them up. Not only is this kinder and more polite, it is also a way to keep the other person engaged in the conversation. If the conversation is about physics, and you state that you happen to be a professional physicist, and hold a PhD from Princeton, and have published your work on 10 dimensional closed-loop superstring theory, you might find that the other person has shut down, and the conversation is over.

You will need something to talk about. Do you have a favorite topic to discuss? Would you like a few suggestions? Well, there are hundreds of topics to discuss, of course, but here are about 100 different topic areas that can be good conversation-starters to get you going. And many of these have many other topics within them. If you look these over, and do a little thinking about them, and remember a few key facts that are useful to bring up when needed, then you should be
able to carry your own weight in any conversation situation. If none of these topics work with the person, then you are trying to talk to the wrong person. Just leave them alone.

1. Context-sensitive. The train station you are in. The plane you're on, flying. The bus you are on, the restaurant you are both eating in. The class you are both taking, etc. The game you are both watching - whatever is around you right at that moment.
2. Obvious shared interest - They have a t-shirt with the logo of your favorite band on it, your favorite sports team, they drive your favorite car, etc.
3. Current affairs, items in the news.
4. Everyday topics - smalltalk. The weather. The traffic. Losing weight, Cold, flu, how they are feeling, etc....
5. Common friends or acquaintances
6. Other people
7. Funny observations
8. Ask them about themselves. People love to talk about themselves. Where they live, where they came from before that, what they do for a living, etc.
9. Ask where they got their name from. A relative? A famous actor? A character in literature, the Bible, a movie? Named for a place?
10. The old days before computers.....
11. The future. The days when things will be better.
12. Common problems:
13. Time management
14. People who borrow things
15. In-laws
16. Aging family members
17. Dealing with teenagers
18. Dealing with store clerks with attitudes, accents, lack of knowledge, etc.
19. Tips on shopping
20. Tips on doing something smarter or better
21. Trying to keep a clean house
22. Trying to find things around the house, only to have to buy it again
23. Amazing coincidences
24. Your experiences
25. Travel. Where you've been. Where you'd like to go. Where to stay away from.
26. Useful, polite warnings.
27. Food. Favorite foods, least favorite foods, preparation of food.
28. Restaurants
29. Places to go for entertainment
30. Favorite books, authors.
31. Favorite movies. Least favorite movies.
32. Famous actors.Their lives, their marriages, their work.
32. Science and technology. Mysteries of the universe.
33. Fun gadgets.
34. Crime - new high tech crimes, identity theft, spamming, etc.
35. Computer problems.
36. Dating problems. Who to date, who not to date, logistics, who pays? how to find the right person? Serious, not serious.
37. Houses. Designs, layouts, good plans, bad plans
38. Locations - where to live
39. Real estate prices, the market
40. The national economy. The cycles, indicators and barometers, speculation on the future. What the experts say will happen.
41. The international economy. Trade, cycles, trends, how wars and other global events affect the international economies.
42. The past - what has changed since the old days
43. The future - what will it be like in the future. What has to happen first.
44. Progress. The balance of good vs. bad, and how it changes.
45. Astronomy.
46. Sports - pick any sport, discuss the players, players salaries, promising new players, old records, players shifting from one team to another, a teams chances at winning this year, etc.
47. Favorite pastimes - collecting something, Carpentry, doll-making, painting, etc
48. Music. Your favorite musical recording artists. Favorite concerts you've seen in the past. Concerts you want to see in the future. Trends in music.
49. Gardening - tips and tricks. Mistakes.
50 Cars. Favorites. Cars you've owned. Cars you want. Prices of cars. Quality. Changes over time. Styles, trends. reliability. Gas mileage.
51. American Idol. Your favorites, etc.
52. Reality shows on TV
53. Soaps on TV. What is happening in your favorite daytime dramas
54. Kids. Cute things they say. Their actions. The trials and tribulations of raising them.
55. The school system. Where it's working. Where it's not. Where is it heading?
56. Privacy. Do we have as much as before? Is it threatened? How?
57. The art of conversation itself. People don't talk to each other anymore. The communication problems we all share.
58. Speaking different languages. learning new languages - which to pick? Dealing with accents
59. Strange coincidences you've noticed. In your life, in the world.
60. Fringe science - UFO's, Aliens, Ghosts, Lochness Monster, Chupacabra, Yeti, Bigfoot, sea monsters, demons, etc.
61. Time travel. Problems it presents. Is it possible? Has it already happened?
62. The occult: Witchcraft. History of occult. believers vs non believers. Spells. Book of Shadows.
63. Playing a musical instrument. Which instruments? How long? How taught? Favorites? Problems? Techniques? Equipment issues?
64. Sex. Trends or what is socially acceptable and how that has changed over time. Different types. Promiscuity.
65. Sex - Gender transitioning, Gay-lesbian community, social stigmas, new options.
66. Internet affairs. Ones you know about or have had. Lessons learned. Opportunities for finding a mate, meeting people.
67. Illnesses of the world, illnesses and how they have changed and evolved over time.
68. Current state of health care in this country vs world healthcare.
69. Drugs, pharmaceuticals. Problems with them. New ones coming out.
70. Photography. Your experiences, favorite cameras, techniques.
72. Taxes. Changes and trends. Tips to lessen taxes.
73. Running a business. Hiring people, firing people, setting up offices. traps to avoid, challenges. Getting customers, advertising, marketing, selling, competition, pricing, product problems, distribution, management, labor, unions, government regulations, safety.
74. Planned obsolescence in manufactured products.
75. Extended warrantees on cars and other items you buy.
76. Love relationships. Mistakes made. Lessons learned. How to start them. How to end them. How to find someone, etc.
77. Pets. Your favorite species and types. Favorite pet stories. Cute things, funny things.
78. Jokes. Humerous stories. Careful here though -
79. Chicken Soup for the Soul stories. It's a whole series of books filled with short stories that touch the soul. Read a couple and use those stories.
80. Fears. Everyone has fears of some sort or another. Not everyone will reveal them to someone else, but if you have established a rapport with a person, this is a topic. They can be reasonable, or unreasonable fears. They can be personal or general across people in your family, company, country or the world today.
81. Mental illness. There are a lot of aspect to this. Clinical trends, personal experiences, etc.
82. Career aspirations. Someday, I'd like to do THAT for a living, etc..
83. Trends in business such as offshore outsourcing, multi-branding, etc.
84. Immigration. This is a big issue, and some of it is politically charged, so be careful
85. Conspiracy theories. Weather control, who really shot JFK?, government cover ups, etc.
86. Urban legends.
87. Gangs, and organized crime
88. Violence on TV, in movies and how that is reflected in the real world.
89. The number of people in prison. How that differs between America and other countries.
90. Pollution and saving the environment.
91. Global warming. The evidence and the effects.
92. Preparing for natural disasters.
93. Space exploration.
94. The possibilities of intelligent alien lifeforms.
95. Space mining and exploration.
96. Literacy in the world today. Current status, how to fix it.
97. World hunger. How to help solve it.
98. World ignorance and lack of education. Where the inequalities are, ahow to help.
99. Living in the arctic or antarctic.
100. Read a blog that has some interesting topics in it, and use those in conversation.

Topics to avoid:
1. Politics
2. Religion
3. War
4. Racial Issues
5. Your own income, or the other person's income.
6. Your own medical problems and aches and pains.

Ironically, although common sense tells us to avoid these topics because they lead to passionate feelings, and clashes and confrontations, it is precisely those reasons that make them fascinating topics. You can have some very stimulating conversations
on these topics as long as you know the people you are talking with and have the skills to approach these subjects in an open-minded fair minded manner so that no-one's feelings are hurt and no-one's perspective is insulted. But that takes some skill.
So unless you are adept at walking the fine line of diplomacy without getting bogged down in dogma, doctrine, opinion, and agendas, or unless you are good enough friends with the other person that they will forgive your trespasses and missteps,it's probably better to just avoid these subjects.
Talking about your income or another person's income can be very tricky if they are far apart either way. Emotions are engaged with this topic, and generally speaking the other person will usually think they are underpaid and you are overpaid regardless of what the amounts actually are, so it's best to just avoid the topic when possible.
As for the last one, it's amazing how many people want to talk about nothing more than their aches and pains and medical conditions. But the simple fact is that no one but your doctor want to hear about them. There is nothing quite as tedious as hearing someone go on and on about their litany of complaints about their aches and pains.

Always remember that some people just want to be left alone. Or they might just be in a mood where they want to be left alone. Learn to recognize the telltale signs if you don't want to be taken for someone trying to sell them something. Move on to someone else. There are lots of people just dying to meet someone like you who knows how to have a friendly, meaningful conversation.

What is your opinion on this?


At 9/19/2006 6:40 PM, Anonymous igor said...

Doesn't the "lost art of ..." sound too grim?

May it be, that the intre-personal communications just change with time, and we, old blokes, cannot keep up and lament about smthing being "lost" ?

At 9/21/2006 11:29 AM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

I think that communication itself is not lost, it has simply morphed into a new form. It's now much MORE interpersonal contact, but it's faster, and digital (text messaging mainly), and uses shortforms like OMG and LOL and punctuation like ;-), etc.
So they still communicate. But it seems much more shallow than many of the deep conversations we used to have as a kid. At least the ones *I* had as a kid. ;-)

Anyway, there is an art to the conversation itself, and because of the morphing into a different form, I think we are losing that art.

But then things do move in cycles, too. So who knows, maybe it'll come back!.

At 9/21/2006 8:28 PM, Blogger Igor said...

I see your point!

Did you notice that kids today sometimes use thumb to point, instead of the index finger? ;-)))) thanx to cellphones and text messaging, I guess.

Also, I wondered, whether the title of your post says "conversation" instead of "communication" intention-nally...


Anyway, as per your invitation, I'd like to say about what I consider the most important in the Art of conversation/communication.

It's empathy.

Empathy makes you a good listener (which is 90% of technical skills of the Art, imho).
Empathy allows you to understand the person you are in conversation with.
Empathy makes what s/he is talking about interesting/important to you also, thus the conversation flourishes.
Empathy greatly increases the tolerance/acceptance level for controversial topics, thus making a whole lot of topics open for productive discussion - and important topics are always controversial!


Thanx, Val, for raising this important issue.

At 9/21/2006 8:50 PM, Blogger Igor said...

... and one more thing:

do you notice that face-to-face conversation has magic?

That magic is the non-verbal communication (eyes, facial expressions, body movements, tone and pattern of voice, etc). Words are only part (and often a small one) of what is being communicated between 2 primates (er, us!) during face-to-face communication (ie conversation).

That flow of information from constant minutest movements of facial expression, smallest changes in voice, movement of eyes, body and hand movements - all is being soaked up by your sub-consious-ness and gives that special aura (magic) to the Conversation.

That could be magic, but that could be witchery also.

Val, you did mention non-verbals in your post, but I am afraid you didn't give it enough credit ...

At 9/24/2006 8:01 AM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

Igor - the Empathy is a good point. You have to CARE about what the other person is saying. Otherwise everything is just going through the motions and it seems like a waste of time. The conversation is perfunctory and you might as well not have it.

As for the sub-textual conversation, I agree completely. I am planning to have an entire chapter devoted to that. The power of a raised eyebrow. The power of a well-timed wince. 12 different kinds of smiles from a derisive sarcastic smirk to a conspiratorial smile, to an inviting suggestive nod. So much can be said with facial expressions.
I actually wrote a song about it once called "The Arrangement". It's about a man and woman who meet, go to the coffee shop, look deeply into each others eyes, go back to his place, kiss, make love, all without ever saying a word. Their entire conversation was non-verbal. In the morning he wakes up to an empty bed and a note. When he opens the note it is a blank piece of paper. The gesture of leaving the note at all was enough to convey the message.
This song is a pop song style with lots of vocals. Cascading vocals even. They are all me of course, I just multi-track them to layer them together.
Have a listen to the song at my music website here:
It's on the "songs" page. Just scroll down till you see it.
At the same time, you can see my new frontpage photos of the band.

At 9/25/2006 8:32 AM, Blogger Igor said...

Val !

I think I have heard that song of yours somewhen, somewhere. Could it be? I don't remember what or how, but I do remember the refrain: "I never know what to say to a girl like you."

At 9/25/2006 10:17 AM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

That's it! Yes, exactly. The actual line is, "I never know what to say to girls like you"

You remember this from some previous time? Wow - that's interesting.
I originally wrote that song in the late 1980's and recorded it then on reel-to-reel tape, and then I re-recorded it with a modern digital Pro Tools system about a year ago. Turned out pretty good I thought.

I would imagine you heard it from my website over the past year. I can't imagine you heard the original version from the original recording back in 1988 or so. That would just be too weird a coincidence!


At 9/25/2006 4:35 PM, Blogger Igor said...

you are most probably right.... if the song had never left your hands, then I must be mistaken... still I was so sure I had heard that refrain some long time ago, when my english was just enough to understand only refrains and general meaning ...

At 9/25/2006 4:54 PM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

Well, I wouldn't say it never left my hands..... I did distribute copies of my tapes to friends, etc. And you and I both did live in the same city, so it is possible that a friend of a friend, etc.
I'm not sure if it was ever played on the radio. I know one of my Christmas songs was played on the radio there ever year for years.


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