Be a Conscious Conversationalist

Rebecca Morgan quote
Photo: Rebecca Morgan, Notre Dame, Paris, FR


Being a conscious conversationalist is critical to a long-term relationship, whether with a coworker, customer, or friend—at least for me. I’ve encountered many people who are conversationally challenged. Since it is doubtful your friends or colleagues will volunteer that you are an inept conversationalist, as a public service I thought I’d delineate some of the most common conversational culprits.

  • Taking most of the airtime. A conscious conversationalist will be aware of approximately how much of the talk time she is taking and when it begins to feel like she’s monopolized the conversation, turn the focus on the other person. You can simply say, “I’ve been talking non stop. Tell me (something relevant to them).”
  • Repeating yourself. If you aren’t paying enough attention to what you are saying that you repeat yourself, how much do you think the other person will feel you’re listening to them?
  • Turning the focus back to you. I had a recent conversation with someone I’d just met. He regularly turned the conversation to himself. We were talking about the world’s awareness of US affairs. Since I hadn’t shared much by this point, I said “When I was in Malaysia last summer, I was amazed at how many of my contacts watched the Democratic convention on CNN.” His next line was not, “What did you make of that?” or “What did they think of US politics?” or “What were you doing in Malaysia?” No. It was, “A friend has a manufacturing plant in Malaysia that makes dolls. He wants to hire me to do some work for him. Look it up at”
  • Not asking relevant follow-up questions. This same caller said he thought I was fascinating. Which I found odd because I had said barely 10 sentences after 30 minutes into the call. He could have found out about me by asking relevant follow-up questions to my comments, as I illustrated above. If both parties merely jump into a conversation with their own stories or thoughts, it’s as if two people are having sequential monologues. To really get to know someone’s thoughts, values, and opinions, you have to dig deeper into what they share.
  • Delving into unimportant details. Your conversation partner doesn’t need to know every detail of your story. Try to keep it pithy but still include relevant information. Most people could cut their chatter by half, if not 2/3, if they focused on just key elements to get their thought across. If someone wants more detail they’ll ask. Better to error on the side of pithiness.
  • Interrupting.When someone is talking, let them finish their story or thought. Of course, this is a challenge if they are going on and on and on about something of no interest to you. If you need to interrupt to clarify something, do so with, “I need to interrupt before you go on because I’m confused about…” You are interrupting to better understand what they are sharing, not to change the subject or focus the conversation back on you.
  • Not letting the other person answer your questions. If you ask a question and as soon as your conversation partner starts sharing, you interject, “That happened to me, too! Let me tell you about it…” you are showing you don’t really care to know about them.
  • Too many non sequiturs. If you can’t stay with the thread of the conversation and are continually changing the subject (often back to focusing on you), it is difficult to have an in-depth discussion. Yes, we all get reminded of something that is a little off the subject, and if you find your stream of consciousness takes you far afield, you can acknowledge that, “This is a tad off topic, but your comment reminded me of….” Or if you have more to share on the topic but your partner has gone on a tangent, simply say, “I had another thought I wanted to share on ….”
  • Short or curt answers. While I believe in being pithy, curt or short answers are not attractive. If you don’t want to talk about something, simply say, “I’d rather not go there right now.” or “I’ll tell you about that after we’ve gotten to know each other a bit better.”
  • Being unaware of what might be of interest to the listener. If you babble on about things that your listener probably doesn’t care about, then they lose interest not only in the conversation, but with developing a relationship with you. If your side of the dialog is filled with information about your children, grandchildren, first job, high school, your friends (and your friends’ children and grandchildren), you’ll soon lose your listener. Try to edit in your mind before spewing out whatever crosses your thoughts. Think, “Would this likely interest my listener?” and delete anything that you can’t say yes to, no matter how much interest it holds for you. Once someone knows and cares about you, they are more interested in the broader spectrum of your life. But not at first.
  • Boasting.If you are the hero of every story, it gets tedious to listen to you. If you are proud of something, you can start off with, “I’m so excited…” But to keep interjecting stories where you are the champion will earn you the title of bore.
  • Name dropping incessantly. This same caller told me how he had put up a Facebook page and a bunch of politicians had asked to be his friend. He named the politicians, none of whom I recognized. If you have to name drop regularly to show how important you are, you’re really telegraphing your insecurities.

We all have some poor conversational habits, myself included. The key is to get some honest feedback from those who care about you. Ask them to be candid with you. Show them the above list and ask if you are guilty of any of the items. And engage them to help you increase your awareness by saying something like “TMI (too much information)” if you start to go into unimportant details.

This will yield not only stronger friendships, but more solid relationships with colleagues and customers.
Leadership Lessons from Silicon Valley: How to Survive and Thrive in Disruptive TimesThis is an excerpt from Leadership Lessons from Silicon Valley: How to Survive and Thrive in Disruptive Times.