How many business networking events or parties have you been to when you’ve got chatting to a fellow guest who keeps speaking at you, complains incessantly and doesn’t bother asking you one single question? I’ve certainly been to a few. And what about Monday mornings? You ask a colleague about their weekend, then listen attentively to their response, but they don’t make the effort to reciprocate? And what about those individuals who only offer one-word answers. It’s so frustrating, and I’m sure you’ll agree, they’re hardly creating positive first (or lasting) impressions.

Many of the best conversations, whether on a one-to-one basis or in a group, are typically two-way with all participants given an equal opportunity to speak. There are of course exceptions to this – for example, during coaching sessions or when a friend simply wants a shoulder to cry on it is typically more acceptable to let the other person speak with minimal interruption. Similarly, during some formal gatherings it may be more appropriate for some of the attendees to lead the discussion and for others to make more limited contributions.

Mastering the art of conversation is a key life skill. Not only does it display good manners, it is also the foundation for building meaningful and lasting relationships in both your professional and personal lives. Getting it right at work will help you get noticed by the people who matter and can in turn  enhance career advancement.

Whether you’re a bumptious attention seeker and guilty of dominating a conversation, or a wallflower who struggles to even approach an unfamiliar face, follow these top ten tips and you’ll soon acquire the magical gift of meaningful discourse:

  1. Start with a compliment: Being kind and paying a compliment is arguably one of the best ways to open a conversation and works in both formal and informal settings. And the more specific the better. For instance, praising the speaker for their presentation at a conference or telling someone you like their shoes, tie or handbag have all worked really well for me. But remember authenticity is key here! Fake compliments are best left for fake friends.
  2. Embrace small talk: Personally, I’m not huge fan of small talk and find it all a bit tedious and not the most fulfilling way to spend my time. But we’ve all got to start somewhere, and besides, small talk is perfect for putting the other person at ease. Also, if you follow the rest of my tips then you’ll soon develop robust techniques to move onto deeper and more meaningful topics!
  3. Ask plenty of open questions: Open questions typically start with ‘how’, ‘tell me about’ or ‘what’. I’ve deliberately left out ‘why’ because questions beginning with ‘why’ can in some situations come across as a little bit confrontational or even patronising so I recommend limiting its use.
  4. Avoid being overly intrusive: A deep dive into someone’s private life such as asking about age, marital status or earnings are best avoided. That said, at some point in the conversation, if you do want stop talking shop then asking the following simple questions should help steer the chat away from work: ‘How do you spend your weekends?’ or ‘What do you like doing outside of work”’ or ‘What’s attracted your attention outside of work in recent weeks?’
  5. Turn up with something interesting to say: I have a keen interest in current affairs and will always have an opinion on recent news stories. This has served me really well during networking events and parties. But remember it’s not just your views – ask others what they think as well. So, next time you’re invited to a gathering (albeit virtual), as well as planning your outfit, spend some time thinking about what topics and subjects you could bring up to keep a conversation going. I’d also recommend researching the backgrounds on some of the other guests to look for common interests etc.
  6. Treat conversations as a learning opportunity: Finding common ground is a sure-fire way to strike an instant rapport with someone you meet for the first time. But try not to write a person off because they have a different background or interests to you. Instead, why not broaden your horizons and use it as an opportunity to learn about something new? What’s more, shining the light on others and letting them do most of the talking is more than just a key component of great conversation, it also makes others warm to you.
  7. Keep smiling and avoid the heavy stuff: People are more likely to gravitate towards those who are warm and exude positivity. So, smile and use open body language when approaching others as well as during the conversation. And avoid negative talk, such as moaning non-stop about your job or about everything that’s wrong with life at the moment (even though thanks to the Covid19 pandemic there’s currently plenty of material where that’s concerned!). Likewise, making unpleasant remarks about others or idle gossip is not a great way to start a conversation either.
  8. Be inclusive: When talking to others in a group or on a one-to-one basis be mindful of dominating the flow of conversation. Invite or encourage others to speak by asking if they’d like to say or add anything by using phrases such as: ‘What are your thoughts?’ or ‘What would you like to add?’ or ‘How do you feel about it? or ‘Perhaps X might like to offer some feedback?” Also, it’s much more polite to ask before offering your opinion. So, start by saying: ‘Can I tell you what I think please?’ or ‘Would you like my advice’? Other helpful phrases include: ‘Have you heard enough’? and ‘Are you happy to move onto……’?
  9. Listen attentively: As I wrote in my blog entitled: ‘Are you really listening or dreaming about what to eat for supper?’ listening attentively is without fail the most important ingredient in the art of meaningful conversation. You might think you’re the most interesting person on the planet but if you monopolise or hijack a conversation with your own anecdotes, comments and explanations you’ll soon make the other person feel disenfranchised. So, by all means, tell an amusing story or share an opinion but let the other person speak, and when they do be sure to give them your un-divided attention.
  10. End on a positive note: Don’t force a conversation or a part of it to last longer than it needs to. Common sense will tell you when it’s time to move onto the next topic or to draw the encounter to a close. Indeed, if the conversation is part of a meeting that’s scheduled for a fixed period of time then I’d recommend agreeing in advance how long you’ll allocate to discuss each topic. Then, at the end of the conversation, end with a simple: ‘It’s been a pleasure meeting with you [and I look forward to staying in touch].’

And if you’re still not convinced then let me finish with a quote from writer Samuel Johnson: ‘….the happiest conversation….where there is no competition, no vanity, but a calm quiet interchange of ideas.’

By Husnara Begum, Associate Career Coach and Contributing Editor