The Art of Ordinary Conversation

Some general guidelines for good conversation.

Bring out the cleverness in others.

Jean de La Brùyere:

The true spirit of conversation consists more in bringing out the cleverness of others than in showing a great deal of it yourself; he who goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased with you.

Preserve silence.

Via – Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness:

The power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse; and those who cannot preserve it, have really no business to speak. … The silence that, without any deferential air, listens with polite attention, is more flattering than compliments, and more frequently broken for the purpose of encouraging others to speak, than to display the listener’s own powers. This is the really eloquent silence. It requires great genius—more perhaps than speaking—and few are gifted with the talent …

Never give sharp answers.

Via – Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness:

Never give short or sharp answers in ordinary conversation, unless you aspire to gain distinction by mere rudeness; for they have in fact no merit, and are only uncivil. “I do not know,” “I cannot tell,” are the most harmless words possible, and may yet be rendered very offensive by the tone and manner in which they are pronounced.

People default to advocacy.

Via Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works:

In any conversation, organizational or otherwise, people tend to overuse one particular rhetorical tool at the expense of all the others. People’s default mode of communication tends to be advocacy— argumentation in favor or their own conclusions and theories, statements about the truth of their own point of view.

It’s better to foster assertive inquiry.

“I have a view worth hearing, but I may be missing something.” It sounds simple, but this stance has a dramatic effect on group behavior if everyone in the room holds it. Individuals try to explain their own thinking— because they do have a view worth hearing. So, they advocate as clearly as possible for their own perspective. But because they remain open to the possibility that they may be missing something, two very important things happen. One, they advocate their view as a possibility, not as the single right answer. Two, they listen carefully and ask questions about alternative views. Why? Because, if they might be missing something, the best way to explore that possibility is to understand not what others see, but what they do not.

We wanted to open dialogue and increase understanding through a balance of advocacy and inquiry. This approach includes three key tools: (1) advocating your own position and then inviting responses (e.g., “This is how I see the situation, and why; to what extent do you see it differently?”); (2) paraphrasing what you believe to be the other person’s view and inquiring as to the validity of your understanding (e.g., “It sounds to me like your argument is this; to what extent does that capture your argument accurately?”); and (3) explaining a gap in your understanding of the other person’s views, and asking for more information (e.g., “It sounds like you think this acquisition is a bad idea. I’m not sure I understand how you got there. Could you tell me more?”).

Yes, and …

Via The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success:

Anyone who has ever taken a class in improvisation has learned the “yes, and…” technique. Ever wonder what keeps a great improv troupe from falling silent? It’s simple. No one is allowed to say no. Whatever is said, the other actors are forced to accept it and build upon it. This conversational style pays immediate dividends. Instead of creating blocks, or, “stops” to the chatter, it allows group discussions to build on each other. Talking takes on a spirit that floats higher and higher, as opposed to the use of what some called “conversation stoppers” thrown in by negative nellies. These sound like, “I don’t believe that,” or, “what’s your proof for that?” or, often, simply, “No.” Those stuck in a deconstructivist frame of mind often can’t help but bring down conversations. You know them because they often leave people feeling like a balloon has just been popped and its remnants have crashed to the floor. Popping other people’s balloons is a sure-fire way to discourage them from telling you how they really feel; and a terrible way to break out of plateaus caused by becoming stuck in a feedback-proof cocoon.

Where we learn the art of conversation.

Via Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation:

The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” — its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on — are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there.

Cicero and the rules of conversation.

In 44BC Cicero wrote the following rules, distilled for us by The Economist:

The rules we learn from Cicero are these: speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.

Probably only two cardinal rules were lacking from Cicero’s list: remember people’s names, and be a good listener.

Six Rules.

via the Financial Times:

1. Be curious about others; 2. Take off your mask; 3. Empathise with others; 4. Get behind the job title; 5. Use adventurous openings; 6. Have courage.

Compliment this with ten techniques for building quick rapport with anyone.