Effective communication, especially conversation, is an up close and personal endeavor. All of the great communicators I know are great conversationalists. As with most things, I have one great piece of common sense advice on how to become a great conversationalist. Listen more than you speak. When I am in a conversation, I try to spend about one third of my time speaking and two thirds listening. I have found that this ratio works well for me.
Most people like to talk about themselves. The best way to get people speaking about themselves is to ask a lot of questions. When you meet people for the first time, ask “get to know you” questions. You know the kind of questions I’m talking about here. “What do you do?” “Where do you live?” “Are you married?” “Do you have children?”
Listen to the answers and file away this information for future use. The other day I called on an old client. Prior to going to see him, I spent time thinking about what I knew about him from our previous conversations. Here’s what I remembered. We know several people in common. His son is a music major at Ithaca College. His company was recently acquired.
I prepared myself for our meeting by coming up with four questions. 1) How is your son doing at Ithaca? 2) Have you spoken to Jo (our mutual acquaintance) lately? 3) I saw Tom (another mutual acquaintance) the other day, have you spoken to him recently? 4) How are things going with your new company?
By asking these questions, listening, and adding follow up comments and/or questions, I was able to keep things moving for an hour. At the end of that time, I was in a good position to ask the two questions that were my main reason for the conversation. “How are things going with your team? How can I help you?” This was a sales call, after all.
My friend Debra Fine, author of the bestseller The Fine Art of Small Talk calls this “going deeper.” A couple of years ago, I interviewed her on my internet talk radio show. Here is what she had to say.
“Don’t be afraid to dig deeper. When you say to someone “how’s work” they’re going to say ‘pretty good’ or ‘good’ or ‘great’ or whatever. Dig in deeper, let them know you’re sincere with one more question, Say something like, ‘So, what’s been going on with work, Bud, since the last time we talked?’ Or if you say to somebody ‘how were your holidays,’ and they say ‘great,’ you can follow up by saying, ‘What did you do over the holidays that you enjoyed the most?’” Let them know you are sincere.
“We say to our friends, ‘How are you Bud?’ If you give a one word answer like ‘great,’ I’ve got to follow up with something like ‘Bud, bring me up to date – what’s been going on in your life since the last time I saw you?’ Now you know that I really want to know how you are, otherwise ‘how are you’ will end up meaning ‘hello.’ That’s all it means.
“By the same token you don’t want to become what I can an ‘FBI agent.’ That’s why one follow up question is important, but no more after that.”
Debra makes some great points about the power of questions in conversation. The key here is to ask questions, listen to what people have to say and respond appropriately. Then file away what you’ve learned. I recommend writing it down so you won’t forget. Review what you know about a person prior to visiting with him or her. This will help you prepare for the conversation by choosing the questions you want to ask.