I stopped by a home improvement store this morning to pick up a few things for an after work project. Unable to find what I needed, a sales associate guided me to the right place and assisted in selecting the needed products. A casual comment led to an enlightening and engaging conversation with the salesperson who has led an amazing life. The discussion lasted for about fifteen minutes and I left feeling privileged to have had the opportunity to meet this person.
Yet as a counselor, the number of clients who struggle with social anxiety to the point they find it difficult to engage with strangers seems to be growing. In this technology era full of social media, cell phones, and the internet, the art of face-to-face interaction is completely lost. This has resulted in feelings of loneliness, fear of intimacy, and intense social anxiety.
Getting back to the basics of conversation is not difficult and a much-needed skill for any job interview, dating opportunity, or social engagement. In these environments, technology is still shunned and for good reason. But what makes good dialogue? Here are the ten commandments of a good conversation.
- Consistent eye contact. Staring someone in the eyes for a long period of time without glancing away on occasion is creepy. Conversely, refusing to make any eye contact at all leaves the other person feeling uncomfortable. There is a balance in between where the eye contact is consistent yet there are periods of time when a person looks the other way especially when thinking.
- Confident body language. This is where the saying, “fake it till you make it” is useful. Even if a person feels insecure, standing tall or sitting upright gives the impression of confidence. This naturally puts the other person at ease so more focus can be on what the words are communicating instead of the body language.
- Safe distance. Different cultures have different standards for what is an acceptable safe distance when speaking. For Americans, this distance is generally at arms-length. Any closer and it is a too intimate and further apart indicates uncomfortableness. Of course, the noise level of a room should be taken into consideration so a closer distance for noisy environments would also be acceptable.
- Opening question. Starting a conversation from nothing can be frustrating. So having a few standard questions is the best way to begin. “What is it you do for a living?” “Where are you from?” “What brought you here?” The other route to go is a simple inviting statement, “Tell me about yourself.” Most people love to talk about themselves so this is not an awkward way to open an exchange.
- Focused listening. Learning how to listen to another person without worrying or thinking about what to say next is an art form. There is so much that can be missed in a conversation if a person is focused on themselves instead of the other person. It is better to repeat a few words that were stated in the form of a question, “You were in Italy?” than it is to come up with new topics.
- Engaging questions. As the banter progresses, a sign of interest can be demonstrated by asking a question about something that is mentioned. Have prepared questions ahead of time feels more like an interview and less like a natural exchange. Try inquiring more about a topic that was brought up by the other person to show healthy curiosity.
- Talk less, smile more. This phrase is borrowed from the Broadway play Hamilton. The advice is perfect for a first-time engagement where it is unclear what the motives of the other person might be. However, too little talk is as uncomfortable as too much. In a good discussion, there is an equilibrium between speaking and listening.
- Equal sharing. For a dialogue to be good there should also be an equitable balance between sharing information. No one person should be giving out more personal information than another. A person who is not safe often gets far more detailed information out of another person without offering anything real about their own life.
- Gentle touch. A firm handshake, gentle touch on the upper arm, or easy fist bump is an indication of comfortableness during a conversation. Interestingly enough, a person who shies away from such touch sends a signal of past trauma which is usually the last thing a person wants to communicate with a stranger.
- Strong closing. Ending a conversation well is as important as starting it. It is often the last impression a person has that lingers. “It was nice speaking with you.” “I hope you have a wonderful day.” “Maybe we can meet again soon.” These words done in combination with eye contact and a smile go a long way in giving a positive impression.
The ten commandments of a good conversation are easy to remember but sometimes difficult to do. Try practicing these on friends before the job interview or date to gain the needed confidence.