Great conversation is as coveted as the last seat on a long-haul subway ride. It's hard to come across, especially when you really need it. But when you find it, it's comforting.
What many people fail to understand, however, is that great conversation requires a joint effort. While you might be wondering, how do you deal with a bad conversationalist, it's worth looking inward to recognize that perhaps you, too, can work on becoming a stronger, more skilled conversationalist. If you can do that, all of your conversations will improve, regardless of with whom you're communicating.
How do you become a conversationalist?
First things first, let's dive into what a conversationalist really is. You may be wondering, is conversationalist a real word? Yes. A conversationalist refers to a person who is adept at or, at least, fond of engaging in conversation.
So what are the qualities of a good conversationalist? They're articulate with their word choice; they're active listeners; they're deep, critical thinkers; they're knowledgable about subjects that interest them and, equally, keep an open mind to learn more from their conversation partner.
Here's are seven things all good conversationalists do.
1. They study up on subjects that interest them.
To become a good conversationalist, you need to first have subjects about which to talk. You need material. If you're into politics, make sure you know what's going on in the world; read the news. If you're into astronomy, pick up some books and study up on the stars. If you're into food, start collecting an arsenal of recipes you love and ones you want to try.
2. They come up with thoughtful, open-ended questions to ask a partner in conversation.
A good conversationalist is one who can establish rapport with their conversation partner and get them to open up. Part of this is by asking open-ended questions that make the other person think harder and deeper than surface-level questions that may only warrant a "yes" or "no."
For example, if you're interested in environmental issues, you might ask someone "What are the ways in which you try to reduce your carbon footprint?" instead of "Do you try to reduce your carbon footprint?" This elicits a more nuanced response from your partner, that'll then incite further points of conversation. They might mention that they've actually recently planted their own garden to start growing their own vegetables, for example. Now, not only have you learned something new and interesting about this person, but you can also ask them more questions, such as about the kinds of vegetables they grow or where they got their green thumb.
3. They learn to think before they speak, so they can articulate themselves both clearly and accurately.
A good conversationalist thinks before they speak. Instead of talking in circles or word vomiting all over their partner in conversation, they've thought out what they want to say and organized their thoughts in a way so that, when they verbalize those thoughts, their words are spoken clearly and accurately. This, of course, helps the conversation flowing because it means less time clearing up and re-explaining what exactly you meant. Never mind that speaking with conviction, which you can do when you've thought out what you want to say, makes you seem like a better conversationalist, even if you're not so confident in what you're saying.
4. They practice active listening to engage their partner in conversation.
Conversation is a two-way street. This means that, as much as you need to be an effective communicator in order to be a good conversationalist, you also need to be a good listener. Active listening refers to mindfully and attentively listening to your partner so that you truly hear what they're saying — and not just on the surface level. You listen to them with all of your senses, so you notice their body language, the tone in their voice and any inflection to get a comprehensive understanding of what they're telling you.
Listening to the other person also means not always having to inject your personal opinions or experiences into the conversation. While it can be easy to fall into talking about ourselves all the time (after all, it's what we know!), your partner will appreciate feeling heard if you're engaged in their opinions and experiences.
5. They mirror nonverbal communication with their partner.
A wealth of research suggests that we establish trust and comfort, and can better understand each other's present experience and emotions, if we mirror each other's body language. This means holding eye contact, nodding the head to let your conversation partner know that you hear them and empathize, and even imitating their posture.
6. They don't try to fill empty space with meaningless words.
If your conversation partner takes a pause that feels longer than comfortable, don't try to fill the empty space with words just to avoid the awkwardness. They may be thinking of something to say — or of how to articulate themselves clearly and accurately, as well. Give them time, and don't rush the conversation along.
Equally, if you don't know what to say, don't fill the space with words just because you're afraid to admit that you don't know the answer or you're not so well read on that subject. Just admit to it when you don't know much about a topic, as this will fill the void naturally when your partner goes on to teach you.
7. They know when to move on from the conversation.
Not all conversations are the best conversations for certain people. Be attentive and look out for signs of possible discomfort in your conversation partner, especially if the conversation is surrounding a touchy, emotional or controversial topic. If you sense that the topic is making them feel uneasy, change topics. You can't, and shouldn't, force it.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.