You probably know the big secret of being a great conversationalist - show interest in your conversational partner. That's just common sense. But here are five specific techniques for doing that. They can make your conversation more engaging for your partner and more interesting for you.
1. Ask open questions. Ask your partner questions, but take care not to elicit short answers. With a closed question, you usually know how the other person will respond (or you expect a narrow range of responses). Form your questions with one of these five open interrogatories: What… Why… How… Describe… or Tell me more… And ask like you mean it, without trying to know the answer in advance.
2. Listen. Listen actively to what your conversational partner is saying. Active listening is a set of techniques you use to keep yourself focused on the other person. It consists of 1) playing back, which is restating in your own words what was said to you, 2) summarizing, which is recapitulating at appropriate points what you have heard, 3) reflecting emotion, which is listening for the emotional component of whatever is said and highlighting it (e.g., “It sounds like that makes you angry.”)
3. Keep eye contact. Try to hold the other person’s gaze even a little beyond what you feel comfortable with. Most people won’t hold eye contact more than about 2/3 of the time during a conversation. Push beyond that, and you will demonstrate more sincerity of interest.
4. Connect emotionally. Listen for emotions in what your conversational partner is saying and try to identify with the emotions you hear. If you hear delight, enjoy it. If you hear sadness, embrace the sorrow. Remark on the other person’s feelings: “I imagine that made you pleased.”
5. Pace your conversational partner. Most of a conversation is nonverbal. Take note of your conversational partner’s body language and voice tone and try to match them. Be careful with this if your conversational partner has a very distinctive tone, posture, or way of gesturing, as they may recognize what you're doing and become suspicious. But most gestures, stances, and expressions are fairly ordinary. When you mimic those, you usually put your conversational partner at ease and raise their trust.
Those are five things you can start doing immediately to make conversations more rewarding for both you and a conversational partner. But there is a longer term technique that will pay off for you over the years: cultivate a large vocabulary. The larger your vocabulary, the more likely you can find the precise word you need in any situation. Work on your vocabulary daily. Don’t just memorize new words, use them. I don’t mean you should pepper your conversation with obscure or elaborate words; that can be off-putting. But try to avoid cliches and try to use newly learned words to speak with precision.
Now that you know better how to be engaging in conversation, learn the skills that will let you use conversation to accomplish your goals. Consider Communispond’s Mastering Interpersonal Communication™, which will teach you the key skills of productive dialogue and help you use conversation to accomplish your goals, or Persuasive Dialogue, which will help you master a process for guiding productive dialogue and gaining commitment from others.