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Working together to raise good conversationalists

Working together to raise good conversationalists

Recently, I was asked to speak to a leadership class at Tuscola High School and although flattered, I wondered if I was the best candidate for this experience.

In the past, I’ve served in leadership roles within the education system or on committees. But at this time in my life, I don’t manage a group of people or own a business. In fact, the only person that I professionally manage is myself. Working primarily from home on my own projects and with freelance clients offers benefits such as flexibility. But it also comes with challenges like being my own boss, ensuring I meet deadlines, putting income aside for taxes and so on. 

When I expressed my concerns to the teacher, she suggested I talk about growth and development or something of interest in my field, so I considered topics like content creation or time management. I agreed to speak to the class and as someone who communicates a lot, whether through writing, collaborations or my podcast, I initially decided to speak about effective communication. But when I started researching this topic, I found a lot of information about public speaking, and that wasn’t really the angle I wanted to take for this particular group. 

Instead, I decided to speak on the topic of how to be a good conversationalist. While researching for the talk, I learned quite a bit about characteristics of a good conversationalist, both verbal and nonverbal. Then I started observing the people around me, in small settings and in public, and discovered that a lot of folks struggle with how to have a fluid and productive conversation. 

I also realized that most kids and teenagers are never intentionally taught how to have a conversation, so no wonder we all grow up as adults who struggle in this same vein. We teach young people all kinds of other things, academic facts, athletic skills, hygiene regimens, how to drive a car, etc., but we don’t instruct them on one of the most important facets of life and something that’s crucial for us to thrive as a social species — conversation. It was enjoyable to research this topic because it’s helped me strengthen my own skills.

After watching several TED talks and reading a number of articles on how to be a good conversationalist, I compiled these nine tips, which pertain to both verbal and nonverbal conversation. 

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• Learn how to start a conversation — The simplest way to start a conversation is to offer a smile and simply say “Hi, how are you?” or “How’ve you been doing lately?”

• Learn how to keep a conversation going — After initial pleasantries, keep the conversation going by asking a question about the other person’s life, finding a commonality, offering a compliment or asking for their advice. These are all productive ways to keep a conversation flowing.  

• Be a good listener — In most conversations, there should be equilibrium between talking and listening. Work hard to truly absorb what the other person is saying instead of waiting for your turn to speak. 

• Be genuine and curious — Become interested in other people. Everyone has something to offer if you’re willing to ask questions. Curiosity in both parties makes a conversation more enjoyable.  

• Practice makes perfect — Like anything else, being a good conversationalist takes practice. It may seem awkward or stilted at first, but eventually it will feel normal to be chatty. Also, if you’re naturally shy or averse to small talk, sometimes you have to force yourself to do it until it becomes more comfortable. 

• Know how to end a conversation — Once the conversation has run its course, offer a simple exit statement, such as “It’s been great talking to you, I’ve got to run.” 

• Be future oriented — If you run out of things to talk about in the moment, move into the future by saying something like, “Do you have any fun plans this weekend?” or “Does your family have any trips coming up?” 

• Keep going — Don’t stop talking or leave a conversation if you say something you think is silly or ignorant, Just keep going. The other person is more likely to remember you abruptly leaving the conversation than a silly remark you made.

• Remember non-verbal cues — Don’t glance around the room while in a conversation or look down at your phone. Be pleasant and open. It’s also not wise to put your hands in your pockets or cross your arms across your chest. This can give the impression you’re bored or unwilling to engage. 

Along with not being intentionally taught how to converse, today’s young people are growing up in a very different world than older generations. They are communicating heavily online, often looking at screens more than human faces, and have experienced a pandemic that kept them isolated for years from their greater communities, so they need extra practice and instruction when it comes to conversing with others. After learning about this and talking with the group of students at Tuscola, I’ve developed a passion for this topic and want to encourage other older individuals to help kids and teens instead of getting angry or frustrated with them when they don’t know how to enter, maintain or exit a conversation. 

With technology exploding and attachment to devices higher than ever, fostering an awareness of and love for good old-fashioned face-to-face communication is more important than ever. 

(Susanna Shetley is a writer, editor and digital media specialist with The Smoky Mountain News and Smoky Mountain Living magazine. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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