I was scared.
My sister’s friend had just entered the room I was sitting in – doing nothing. I was scared – because my sister was not around – and now I had to talk to her.
I was usually scared in situations like these as a kid. It happened at school also. May be because all my friends at school were 1-2 years older than me. I thought they were smarter than me, because they could be clever while talking. May be they actually were, maybe they still are. I don’t know. Does it even matter?
Back then, I was not able to hold any sort of conversation with people. I am not sure how my friends felt about it, maybe they didn’t even care. But it was important for me, so I looked around.
They say when you (really) seek, you find. I found help in Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. This book is not about having great conversations. But it taught me an important lesson.
This lesson was to understand that if you make it about another person and not about yourself – you can win people. There was no overnight transformation. But I slowly started to get into YOU mode more than ME mode. And it worked.
I feel embarrassed to say that I faked it for a while. Saying things like – you look really good in this dress – when I didn’t exactly feel that way. This was totally my fault; because Dale Carnegie talked about being genuinely appreciative of other person and saying things when you really mean it. But I corrected myself as it is not in my nature to shower false praises. Now if I talk to you – you can be sure that if tell you that the gown looks good on you – then you can wear it to red carpet.
Now it is turning into a tale that is more about me – but my intent is to make it about you. Back to the idea that we started with.
How to be good at conversation
First principle is to be genuine in your praises and your discussions.
Also believe that conversations are important part of our lives. Conversations are the wires that connect us in life, at work. So it makes sense to pay attention to know how to hold an engaging conversation.
Settings do not matter much. You may be at home with your loved ones or meeting someone for business. Wherever you are – you will do good if you focus on other person. See this person – can be your boyfriend, brother, friend, son, father, husband, business partner, client, boss, a stranger – as your partner during the course of conversation. You chose to spend this time with this person – now better make it count.
My friend Rajesh Setty (he has an amazing life story, and you must check it out) introduced me to the concept of ROTI (return on time invested) – during our meeting at Blog Camp in 2006. The concept of ROTI is to give good return on the time – a person has decided to spend with you. It struck me as a powerful idea, and I try to remember and apply it whenever I am meeting people.
1. Give value to the person you are with.
This idea alone is worth more than any trick. As to tricks – I have none to share. Tricks in my mind are short time fixes. They are just that – short term. I am a long-term type guy – so let us talk about those ideas.
2. Be a good listener.
Do not do anything else. Just actively listen. A good listener does not think about what to say to you while you are talking.
3. Forget connectivity. Focus on conversation.
These days, connectivity is something that keeps us away from good conversations. It is strange that the tools that are supposed to enable a good conversation – keeps us away from it. How? You may think. Think about last time you were meeting a friend. How many times did you pull out the phone to check on your texts or to receive a call from someone you know or don’t. When you do that – you are not present in the conversation.
A good idea will be to switch off or mute the phone and just converse. This will make for a far engaging conversation.
4. Be present in the moment.
On an even higher level – If you are with a loved one – you may not say anything and just be together. This togetherness with both of you being truly present is also as good as any conversation can get.
5. Learn a bit about the world. Also know how to talk.
When your chance comes to talk it helps if you have something worthwhile to say. If you need to meet someone for business it makes sense that you prepare ahead of the meeting and learn about the business/industry and also about the person you are meeting. At least get a good macro perspective on the industry.
A blog is an amazing idea to learn about new things. Aim to teach via your blog. So you learn with an intention to teach others. During the course of writing this, I connected with my inner being, reflected and also tried to learn a bit more about the art of conversation.’
Reading also helps. I rarely read/watch news these days but I try to read about other topics – some regular and some out of the box. During my recent retreat, I read two books simultaneously. I did not finish reading them still, but even in the early pages I found a lot to ponder over.
One of these – Start with Why by Simon Sinek – though aimed at businesses and business leaders – helped me get a perspective about my own Why. Another by Dalai Lama “The Universe in a Single Atom” – helped me decipher the connection between science and spirituality. I do not read with an intent to use what I read, in my conversations. But ultimately it is there in your subconscious to dig in when you really need it.
So reading about different topics helps. Blogging helps.
Aim to know a good deal about one or two topics. You need not be an expert; but you should know more than a regular person.
6. Look softly in the eyes of another person while you talk.
This makes you look confident and sure of yourself. I think it is fair to accept that we are all vulnerable and have our pitfalls and grey areas. But people want to listen to someone who knows what she is talking about. So look confident and assure the others that you are there with them, and that you know your stuff.
7. Tell the person you are there.
You need a hook for the conversation. Words, eyes, gestures are part of that hook.
Nod your head to tell other person that you agree. Thought in some cultures nodding does not equal to agreement. But mostly it does. Know when it doesn’t. It situation where you disagree with something – be respectful while showing your disagreement
8. Comfortable distance and position.
Depends on your relationship with the person you are talking to. Under normal circumstances, maintain a comfortable distance. Not too much but do not sit too close also. Imagine yourself in a business meeting at a restaurant – and you are meeting this person first time – then good to sit across the table. If for same meeting – you are meeting in a boardroom then one corner of the table is fine. If you are with family or close friends then it is cool to sit side by side.
What else do you think makes for a good conversation?