Let’s say that you need to improve your skills at conversation.
It’s easy to say that those who are shy, introverted, or inhibited need most to improve such skills, but, in truth, we should all be working at improving our conversational skills.
Whatever the reason or the cause, being conversationally challenged will make life much more difficult. In business or in romance, at the party or at dinner, you will find your options limited if you do not know how to engage other human beings in conversation.
Will therapy help? If your therapist converses with you, it might help you.
But, if your therapist, by some quirk of his professional training, has been taught not to converse with you, he will drive you further into yourself, causing your conversational muscle to atrophy.
Will it help to attend a seminar on how to pick up girls? If you are a guy, it might. But, then again, it might not.
The seminar will afford you the opportunity to practice your conversational skills in a controlled environment. But it will also give you the misimpression that you cannot approach a comely young lady unless you are armed with a brilliant line and a rapier-like repartee.
This works for some of the people some of the time, but it will not work for very many people for very much of the time.
When you come right down to it, the only way to develop your conversational skills is by conversing.
If you really want to get better at conversing, sit down with a living breathing human being and talk. There’s no substitute for face-to-face encounters. There is no shortcut around it.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. If you are conversationally challenged you will discover, once you try to converse with another sentient human, that you become anxious, shy, awkward, withdrawn, and tongue-tied.
And you will think to yourself that it was better to avoid conversation than to listen to foolish advice to jump into the deep end of the pool when you barely know how to stay afloat.
I grant that if you are conversationally challenged, you are entering unfamiliar territory. You do not know the rules of the game, and even if you do, you have no experience playing it. You are probably going to make a fool of yourself. You might even feel like you’re drowning.
Unfortunately, you might then say to yourself that you must be suffering from a severe emotional disturbance. You might conclude that you need to get out of the game and into your mind, the better to discover why you have this problem.
Surely, you suffer from a psychological impediment, something from your childhood that you have not dealt with. If only you can reprocess it, you will emerge from your therapeutic chrysalis, ready to fly off to meet the world.
Of course, if you have spent years in therapy learning how not to converse your first forays will be more awkward than need-be. If you have learned how to talk to walls your new interlocutors will get the feeling that they do not count for very much.
You might not drown, but you will surely crash.
John Hawkins wrote an interesting column the other day explaining how he had overcome his own shyness and introversion. He did not see it as a psychological impediment but as a bad habit. He did not try to overcome it with insight, but by engaging people in conversation.
When you start out on this road you are going to act strangely. You are not going to be very polished.
That means only one thing: that you need to keep at it. The more you do it the easier it becomes. The more you avoid conversation that more difficult it will seem.
How do you initiate conversation with a stranger at a reception or a party or a bar or even on the supermarket checkout line? Hawkins offers some advice that feels too easy to be true, but still, it works.
When you engage another person in a conversation, Hawkins says, you do not need to sally forth with a killer opening gambit.
“Hello” will do just fine.
After saying Hello, Hawkins recommends that you introduce yourself by pronouncing your full name and by stating a truth, namely, that the two of you have never met.
Thereby you have offered something of yourself and recognized that the two of you have something in common.
It sounds more honest than to walk up to a woman and state that you know you met her somewhere, only you have forgotten where.
You might think that that is clever and cool, but you have just told her that she is forgettable. It’s not going to win you too many points.
But, after Hello, your name, and the fact that you have never met, then what?
Try offering a comment about the weather, about the atmosphere in the bar, about the food at the party, or about the show you both saw. You can and should begin a conversation by commenting about something that the two of you are known to have in common.
Having a conversation is about finding common ground, not disputing climate change.
Remember this: you are trying to engage in a conversation, not to make a point. You should not be contentious or tendentious. Save your wit for a time when you know the other person reasonably well. One person’s wit is another’s insult.
In other words you are extending an open hand. You are not slapping the other person and you are not grabbing him or her. Either one of those will end the conversation before it starts. If it doesn't it should.
Conversation is about comity and amity, not about argument and disagreement. People who argue are disagreeable.
Then what? Hawkins suggests that you pay rapt attention and show that you are listening by asking questions.
We tend to like people who find us fascinating. Focusing entirely on the other person, blocking out the rest of the world, is the key to making yourself attractive and engaging.
People who spend fortunes perfecting their appearance and are so distracted by worrying about how they look often fail to show that they are fascinated by what they are hearing. It's a big mistake.
Ask questions that arise out of curiosity and interest. Do not end up sounding like the Grand Inquisitor. You are not in the business of asking the other person to reveal deep secrets or intimate personal details.
After all, you just met him or her.
Your questions might feel silly or superficial, but if you have just met the person you have no business prying.
The next step involves reciprocity. When it comes to conversation, reciprocity is the name of the game.
If you want to measure and control a conversation, if you want to know how the game is being played, it is being played on the field of reciprocal disclosure.
The truest measure of conversational engagement is the reciprocal and equal exchange of thoughts, feelings, and information.
If she tells you about her pet snail, you are obliged, by the laws of reciprocity, to share information about whatever pet you had when you were a child.
If he mentions his brother or sister, you are obliged to reveal the fact that you have or do not have siblings.
You need not share the fact that your half-brother is currently doing time for grand larceny, but you do need to mention that he exists.
If he mentions what his brother does for a living, you still do not need to mention that your brother is in prison, but you do need to say something to the effect that he’s been having a hard time lately. Better say that he is having a hard time than to say that he is doing hard time.
If one person discloses too much and the other person does not disclose enough the conversation will fade and the connection will be missed.
This also means that if you want to advance the conversation and to get closer to the other person, and you want to know something about him or her, don’t ask a direct question, reveal something equal and opposite about yourself.
If your interlocutor volunteers new information, well and good. If he or she does not, that means that you have overstepped and should beat a hasty retreat.