The Art of Conversation

“A conversation, even a brief one, should have all the best features of any functioning human relationship, and that means genuine interest on both sides, opportunity and respect for both to express themselves, and some dashes of tact and perception.  Conversation can be such pleasure that it is criminal to exchange comments so stale that neither really listens”   Barbara Walters  (

Great conversationalists listen more than they speak, but when they do speak, they express genuine interest in the other person.  At the heart of good conversation is the ‘value’ of others.

From the site I quote Barbara Walters again as she debunks a common myth about the key to great conversation:

“I happen to disagree with the well-entrenched theory that the art of conversation is merely the art of being a good listener.  Such advice invites people to be cynical with one another and full of fake; when a conversation becomes a monologue, poked along with tiny cattle-prod questions, it isn’t a conversation any more.  It is a strained, manipulative game, tiring and perhaps even lonely.  Maybe the person doing the talking enjoys himself at the time, but I suspect he’ll have uncomfortable afterthoughts about it; certainly his audience has had a cheerless time.”

To be an artful conversationalist, one must learn to…

  • put themselves and others at ease
  • establish common interests
  • involve everyone in the conversation
  • be genuinely interested in others - even the ‘bore’
  • adopt an attitude of ‘learner’

Being adept at introductions is a key to starting a good conversation.  Awkward introductions often lead to awkward conversations.  There are three ingredients to a good introduction:

  1. When saying who the person is use their name and title, including Dr., Rev., Prof., or simply Mr., Mrs., or Ms.
  2. Address the person with greatest honor, rank or age first, e.g., ”Prof. and Mrs. Brown, I would like to introduce to you Ms. Jones…”  In our very informal Western cultures many young adults have never learned the courtesy of making a good introduction.
  3. Give a little detail of their relevance, i.e. how you relate to one another or the event

When training younger leaders a few years back, Sally and I taught how to make an introduction and we practiced until everyone was at ease with this lost art.

Steps to greater depth of conversation:

  • Recognize and acknowledge the value of the other person
  • Introduce a topic of conversation with a short statement of personal belief or opinion
  • Pursue the topic with thoughtful comments followed by a further question
  • Confirm the validity of the other person’s opinion or emotions even if you disagree
  • Share personal feelings or experiences without dominating or being disagreeable
  • Hear what other people are saying versus what they are telling you

Remember:  directness in conversation is the privilege of intimate friendship.  One can be honest while being tactful and sensitive.

To end a conversation politely:

  • Address the person by name and thank them for taking the time to speak with you, or:
  • Ask the person to give your regards to their friend or spouse etc., or:
  • Tell the person you are glad to have been able to hear their perspective and to connect with them.

On a personal note:  While living in Afghanistan many years ago, Sally and I were invited to the home of the American ambassador.  We were out of our depth for sure.  We were the hippy couple trying to act natural with heads of NGO’s, business people, a few CIA types, and an ambassador or two thrown in.  At a certain point, the assistant to the American ambassador made the rounds and politely said, “Thank you for coming this evening.  The ambassador would like to greet you as you go.  He will be by the main door for the next 30 minutes…”  It was time to end the conversations!

One more quote from Barbara Walters from about escaping from tedious conversationalists:

“I’m not in favor of escape as a unilateral policy.  There are painful, tedious people in abundance and some of them must be suffered kindly, maybe even until they run down and have nothing more to say.  Things being what they are in the world today, we are more and more driven to depend on one another’s sympathy and friendship in order to survive emotionally…    Furthermore, warm, sustaining relationships become especially important during those periods when we are our least loveable.  People bursting with good will and abundance of mental health are charming company; their need for ego-boosting, however, is minimal.  People sinking into self-pity and depression are dreary, but they can’t get out of it by themselves.  So every now and then, just sit there and listen, listen, listen.  You’re paying your membership dues in the human race.”

The way Walters advocates for listening as an act of sorely needed compassion, especially in those conversations where our impulse may be to flee, is essential in learning to value others no matter their likability.  Her warm wisdom rings all the more urgent, even if more difficult to enact, in our age of online conversation, characterized by a propensity for knee-jerk reaction instead of thoughtful response.

Nothing is quite so rare as a great conversationalist.  Artful conversations don’t take place by accident, and are the result of intentionality, courtesy, humility and regular practice.  Enjoy!