It’s getting harder to be good company in 2021.
Your friend has great stories and witty one-liners, but you also have a smartphone.
It’s a constant battle to resist pulling up social media accounts and checking halfway through your coffee to absorb all of their colourful temptation, dropping your head and parsing through profiles like a catatonic scrolling zombie.
Maybe you’ve noticed yourself doing this but, hey, you’re getting away with it! No-one has complained yet, right?
Except, there are complaints. We just don’t hear them.
Most people find it too awkward to pull us up on our annoying habits. They choose to avoid the ugly confrontation which requires them to say, “hey, can you put that away and talk to me while we eat?”. Or they feel worried we’ll snap at them if they do bring up our zoning out in the middle of meals to swipe through a dating app.
Instead, we’ll just stop getting asked out for lunch, and soon enough, drop off their diary entirely as they decide to ditch us for better company.
But, aside from checking our phone less, what are other ways to be better in conversation?
If you want to stand out and be above the mediocrity of what passes for modern socializing, here are some habits also worth learning:
1. Ask some damn questions…
Questions are gifts. And if we don’t give them freely and creatively, we’ll rarely get the best out of people.
Start slow: “What have you been thinking about lately?”, “What’s the latest project that has your attention?”
Then get into the bigger stuff: “Wow, that sounds tough. How do you manage your time between those?”, “Is that hard to deal with in your relationship?”, “What’s the part of programming/writing/teaching that excites you most?”, “What advice would you give to blah blah…”
It might sound basic, but most people don’t even get this part right.
Questions matter. And asking people more interesting ones than “what are you up to?” will let someone reveal emotions, knowledge, and insight that they rarely show to other people.
2. …then ask follow-up
An average conversationalist will ask one interesting question.
A great conversationalist will be able to follow-up and provide more value, be it in the form of:
- More questions (seriously, people love talking about what they’re struggling with or excited about, so let them!)
- Giving space for them to talk more
If we show others we want to listen, and give them plenty of room, they’ll feel comfortable opening up. But they can’t be forced – opening up has to be coaxed gently with patience, like a flower.
Most people won’t open up because they assume: “they’re not really interested” or “I don’t want to brag/bore them/be too vulnerable”.
But if you’re the person who gives them permission by displaying your genuine interest, they’ll feel excited to get to share what they really feel with you.
Show someone you’re compelled by what they say, and they’ll only get more interesting (plus, they’ll have the increasingly rare experience of talking to someone who actually pays attention).
3. Be a giver when it’s your turn to talk
It’s incredibly annoying when you ask questions in conversation, only to be met with flat answers.
There’s a technique they teach in improv classes known as “Yes, and…”.
In essence, this means that it drives a scene forward when you build on someone else’s premise.
E.g. “There’s a haunted house over beyond this fence”.
“YES, and there’s a weird old couple who live there who keep a monster tied up in the basement”.
In conversation, you can apply a similar idea, where you build on what’s already been offered by the other person.
If someone asks you for an opinion, explain your positon. Show how it relates them. Explain why you feel the way you do. This is how you keep things flowing easily and give someone else plenty of hooks to grab to lead the conversation somewhere else.
“YES, and here’s the cool thing about that…”
“YES, and I know you’d love this place because…”
“YES, and and that relates to what you said earlier about…”
4. Don’t make every story about you
We’re selfish animals.
We want everything to relate back to us. Even when it’s someone else’s turn.
If someone tells you:
“Britney at work is always blaming her screw ups on me.”
You might be tempted to respond:
“Oh my God, I had a co-worker EXACTLY like that once! What happened was…”.
And suddenly we’ve hijacked the story and made it about us. This is incredibly annoying, and yet we do it so easily. Keep focused on the other person. Get into details. Poke around a while before you go into your own stuff.
If you have a relevant insight from your own life, sell it in a way that makes it helpful, rather than as just a way to express your own feelings.
There are few things more annoying than trying to be vulnerable to a friend only to have them hijack the conversation with a story of their own.
5. Tell them when they say something great
“That’s a really smart point…”
“I’m DEFINITELY going to use that advice…”
“That’s fascinating! I never thought of that before. Where did you learn that?”
People need to be recognized. And not enough people do it.
Show people when their words affect you. When they change your mind. Or say something clever.
One of the easiest ways to have more great people in your life is just to be the person who makes others feel smart and interesting around you. And all it takes is a few simple but precious words.
6. Be a recommender
One great way of giving value in conversation is to be a serial recommender. That is, always think of things that might be of interest, joy, or useful to the person you’re speaking to.
You can even do this afterwards in a follow-up call or email.
E.g. “Remember you saying you loved Carlo Rovelli’s book on physics. Here’s another one I really enjoyed you might love!”
“I heard you really loved Japanese cinema. Here is a list of films you might love that I saw recently!”
Giving great recommendations not only shows we’re thinking about the other person, but it also makes us a source of inspiration and joy, especially when we tailor our recommendations to things they truly love.
This is something I do with books ALL THE TIME. In fact, if you’re a fellow obsessive reader, you might enjoy this podcast I recorded on the “9 Non-Fiction Books That Will Change The Way You Think”. (See, I can follow my own rules :)).
Next time a friend reveals their fandom for books, movies, cooking, basketball, meditation, European History, or any kind of idiosyncratic pursuit, note it down and think about something they might enjoy that you can turn them on to.
When you become the source of cool and interesting stuff, YOU become cool and interesting to other people.
What attractive habits do you LOVE in conversation?
Let me know in the comments!