5 practical ways to have better conversations

If the art of talking and listening doesn’t come easily, try these easy ways to master conversation skills.

Sydney journalist and author Jane Hutcheon has been striking up conversations for more than three decades.

But the former foreign correspondent and creator of interview program One Plus One knows conversation skills don’t come easily to everyone.

“A third of us love to chat and will talk any time of the day, on any subject,” Jane says.

“But the remaining two-thirds of us aren’t chatty types.

“We find conversation challenging because of shyness, introversion, social anxiety, communication disabilities or learning difficulties, or because we don’t feel fluent or articulate.”

How the pandemic interrupted conversation

Conscious communication expert Karina Chapman says for many of us the pandemic has only made things worse.

Research shows that not only are we lonelier than ever before but that more of us are struggling with connection,” Karina says.

“A lot of our communicating has been over technology, so we’re totally out of practice with reading people’s faces and gauging social cues.

“It’s made conversation difficult even for those who love to converse.”

REBEL: Strategies to boost conversation

In her book Rebel Talk, Jane shares the secrets she’s built up over thousands of interviews to boost conversation skills.

Rebel is an acronym she has coined that serves as a call to action.

“It’s about harnessing your inner rebel and being deliberate in conversation,” she says.

“Don’t be the silent one, be the person who can speak your mind. It comes with practice.”

R is for: Readiness (research and prepare)

“Think about your resources, intention and outcome,” Jane says.

“What information do you need, what is the aim of your conversation and how do you see the outcome?

“When you answer those questions you already have a measure of preparedness.”

E is for: Empathy (connect and engage)

You have to find the door marked “empathy” if you want to connect with people, the professional conversationalist advises.

“Actor Hugo Weaving once told me about how in the Bodyline miniseries, he played the role of English cricket captain Douglas Jardine, who he discovered wasn’t instantly likeable,” she recounts.

“When he discovered the Englishman enjoyed fishing and was very close to his family, these aspects of his personality helped Weaving connect with Jardine’s character using empathy.”

B is for: Be curious (ask questions)

“If you really do want to know how someone is going, try being more specific,” Jane says.

“Remember your last conversation with them and follow through.

“Recall what’s happened in their lives. Ask simple questions to raise them up, not to wear them down.”

And she says, be a question collector – recycle the questions that you know resonate.

E is for: Engage attention

This step is about what Janes calls humble listening.

“When you start to take listening seriously, you can think of throwing a cocoon around you and your conversation partner,” she says.

So, don’t interrupt. Lock eyes and ask questions afterwards, short ones to make sure that you have understood what you’re being told.

“By asking questions, the other person knows you are serious about listening,” Jane says.

L is for: Lead the way

“Once you have the tools to improve your conversations, you can be deliberate about the path you take,” Jane says.

“It’s about taking control and it feels great.”

And some final advice.

“When you speak with someone who is going through difficult times, they want to know that you’ve listened and that you care,” she says.

“This is not the time to tell your sad story. Good conversation is as much about listening as it is about talking.”

Written by Liz McGrath.