The Art of Conversational Skills

Listening, turn-taking and topic control.

William Shakespeare once wrote that “Conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affection, free without indecency, learned without conceitedness, novel without falsehood.” As with everything in life, communicative exchange is governed by rules. These rules are often determined by context, demographics, culture, status, social influences and perceptions. When we are able to see the intricate pattern of these rules, regulations and preconditions, we can understand that communication can be defined as negotiating meaning. The more we know about communication, the better our communicative competence. This leads to a greater number of choices when communicating and a better understanding of other people’s behaviour. By improving one’s conversational skills, one will ultimately be able to understand and will be understood by people in any situation. Great communicators are made, not born.

It seems evident that to communicate, a speaker and a listener must be present. This basic fact of communication is the premise for all effective interactions, because as Francois de La Rochefoucauld said “the reason why so few people are agreeable in conversation is that each is thinking more about what he intends to say than what others are saying.” The speaker and the listener are equally involved in the conversation and their roles are equally important.

“As far as playing jazz, no other art form, other than conversation, can give the satisfaction of spontaneous interaction.” (Stan Getz). The intricacies of conversation are often underestimated and we tend to communicate without authenticity and sincerity. Conversation is not only an art, it is also a science. One has to have the ability to introduce, maintain and change the topic of conversation. After all, conversation involves the changing of ideas or the negotiating of meaning around the topic of conversation. One also needs to acknowledge the importance of concepts such as turn-taking and listening.

It is an art to introduce and maintain a topic. Some of us are natural communicators and keep the conversation going without effort, while the rest of us find it hard to find something to say. We often find ourselves thinking, “What should I say? What topics are appropriate? I do not want to expose myself. This is uncomfortable.” These automatic negative thoughts hinder the flow of conversation. The truth is that research has shown that it does not matter what you say as long as it is not negative.

Maintaining a topic over a couple of turns is often not a problem. In some cases, however, it can be a real issue. Think about meeting strangers at a dinner party and trying to make conversation. One often ends up thinking, “Why did I not stay home?” To maintain a topic, you must do the groundwork first: give an introduction to put your listener in the picture. One must also find out what the listener knows or thinks about the topic; therefore, questions are always a positive and effective tool to use. By asking questions, you will ensure that you do not bore the listener as it requires active participation in the interaction. We often proceed and neglect this step, only to find out that our listeners did not follow the discussion as it lacked a proper introduction. People want to know “where you are coming from” and “what you are aiming at”. It is only after they have an idea of how your story is put together that they will truly listen.

In order to change a topic, the first topic must be exhausted or one has to indicate the topic change. Richard Armour wrote, “It is all right to hold a conversation but you should let go of it now and then.” When the previous topic is concluded, the next topic is simply introduced. It may be that the conversational partner does not want to change topics. In this situation, it is best to respect this wish, unless it is of utmost importance that the topic be changed. Yet, remember that “secrecy is needed for conversations to be continued” (JH van den Berg). People often ask a simple question and get an intricate answer. It comes across as though the speaker will try to answer all future questions as well; the response becomes a monologue. As a result, the conversational partner does not attempt any further questions, as the level of answer by far exceeds the question.

All conversational partners should get an opportunity to take turns and be either listener or speaker. Nobody should overshadow the conversation and monopolise all the turns. A person should, however, not be forced to participate.

It is known that conversations do not always run smoothly. There are often misunderstandings, interruptions and problems with expressing ideas. One of the common reasons for a break in communication is the lack of actively listening. Active listening involves the skill of receiving the message accurately. Many people do not listen effectively. They concentrate on their reply, rather than on the message of the speaker. Larry King said it best when he said, “We are blessed with two ears and one mouth – a constant reminder that we should listen twice as much as we talk.”

Good listeners are interested, listen to the whole message, work hard at listening and use summary and paraphrasing to ensure that they receive the correct message. Effective or active listening can be learned. By listening one can open up to understanding before being understood.

Conversation is powerful, it is important and a tool for relationship-building. A Chinese proverb states that “a single conversation across the table with a wise person is worth a month’s study of books.” There are certain rules one has to follow to unlock this powerful tool and to be a competent communicator. The main aspects of a conversation are turn-taking, topic skills, empathy, non-verbal communication and listening. The most important facet of developing these conversational skills is practising these competencies in real-life communication situations.

To assist you in these communication situations, here are our 5 keys to unlocking effective conversation skills:

  1. We often feel that there are barriers that prevent us from conversing. We assume that we do not know the other person; we cannot presume they would want to talk to us; we are going to make a fool of ourselves; or we do not really know what to say. That is why we suggest that you practise. Practise introducing topics and establishing rapport with people you interact with everyday such as cashiers, people with whom you are in line, neighbours and colleagues. Find situations where you feel comfortable and introduce a topic whilst maintaining a calm and friendly non-verbal attitude.
  2. If you look at Key 1 and find yourself saying, “But what am I going to say?” We suggest that you read as much as you can. Become socially conscious of the world around you. Whether it is News24 or your favourite magazine, let the unknown make you curious and not unaware.
  3. Deploy question strategies. The person with the questions is the person with the power. Use questions tactfully to create a greater awareness of the conversational partner. In other words, find out with whom you are conversing instead of lecturing that poor individual.
  4. Be yourself. It is easy to pick up when someone is sincere and authentic and when they are not. If you force yourself to be someone that you are not, none of the conversational parties will enjoy the interaction.
  5. Listen.

“Communication is power. Those who have mastered its effective use can change their own experience of the world and the world’s experience of them.” (Anthony Robbins.)

For more information contact My Pocket Coach on or call (011) 781-1444