How to Increase Your Conversational Skills


Dear David,

How do you make and keep friends when you are inept in conversation? I can be in a crowded room, sit in one corner and just people watch because I have nothing to say. Also, if I have an opportunity to go out to places where there will be more than two people, I find every excuse not to go. Sometimes I manage to push myself out the door, but rarely. Any ideas?

Sincerely,
A Couch Potato (in front of a computer)

Dear Couch Potato,

I can certainly say, “been there, done that!” I was painfully shy and socially inept well in to my thirties. Some would say I remain pretty socially inept. I guess my own situation explains in part why I chose to dive deeply into the study of psychology.

While in graduate school at Stanford, I volunteered at a Shyness Clinic that Phil Zimbardo was running as a part of his research. He eventually wrote an excellent book, Shyness: What It Is, What To Do About It. I recommend checking it out.

Before I began working with Phil, I had assumed most shyness was due to poor social skills. But it turned out I was wrong. The shy people we studied were actually quite skilled. The problem was they were also harsh self-critics and were extra-sensitive to social rejection. It turns out most of us fumble and stumble our way through social situations; and shy people notice their slip-ups more than the rest of us.

What helped these people the most was to practice conversations, warts and all, until they realized their fumbles weren’t any worse than anyone else’s. Of course, this practice also helped them improve their conversation skills. With that in mind, I’ll suggest a couple of ideas for practice.

Conversational Tennis. This game comes from my dear friend, Al Switzler. I’ve used it myself, and with many of my nieces and nephews. You play it with one or two other people, perhaps on a car trip or during a meal. Here is the setup: The goal is to keep the conversation going. One person begins by serving a topic across the net. The other person’s goal is to respond to the topic in a way that sends it back across the net, and keeps the conversation going. See how long you can keep the topic in the air. After a while, it will be the other person’s turn to serve up his or her own topic.

This game works well to practice keeping conversations alive. I find it’s really fun with teens who are used to responding in monosyllabic grunts and nods. They quickly see what it takes to participate in a conversation.

Topics to Discuss. You can find several websites that suggest conversation starters. And there is some excellent research on how the topics of conversations flow among strangers and friends. The basic finding is that we begin by talking about very broad and noncontroversial topics, such as the weather, traffic, or jobs. These are easy topics for others to hit back across the net. We use them to keep the conversation going while we listen for common interests and other, more personal, connections.

As we begin to feel safer with the person, we reveal more about ourselves. We test how safe and rewarding it is to disclose our interests, our hopes, and our fears. This phase of the conversation is a bit like a dance. Disclose too much too soon, or ask questions that are too personal too soon, and your partner will feel uncomfortable. Keep the conversation on surface topics for too long, and the person will think you don’t want a personal relationship.

The researcher, Arthur Aron, has studied this process in the lab, by giving strangers a series of questions to discuss with each other. The questions begin at a surface level but become increasingly personal over the forty-five minutes of the experiment. Because of the situation, people feel fairly safe with each other. As the questions become more personal, they often find themselves disclosing information they’ve never shared with anyone before. When they see the way their partner reacts to their revelations, they develop trust, liking, and even affection for them. In fact, these questions have developed the reputation as “The 36 Questions to Fall in Love.”

Rules of Improv. Where should you start? I suggest you begin with low-stakes conversations—perhaps with phone calls with family members. I don’t know about you, but I try to call my mom every day. Use conversations like these to test out topics that work for you. In addition, follow the First Rule of Improv: “Always AGREE, and SAY YES!” This rule doesn’t mean you should “agree” or “say yes” to everything your conversational partner says. Instead, it means you should respect what they’ve said, and hit the topic back to them in a way that is safe and easy for them to respond to. The rule is another take on conversational tennis.

I hope these ideas will be helpful. Now turn off your computer and call your mom.

Best Wishes,
David