5 Strategies for Becoming a Better Conversationalist

What Leaders Can Learn from a Good Game of Ping Pong

A consultant prospecting for business gave me a call a while back. I was reluctant to meet, but he was a friend of a friend. I mistakenly gave him thirty minutes to tell me about his company and services. Complete waste of time.

I gently tried to interject my thoughts, but he didn’t seem too interested in my point of view. Evidently, he had his script. He was determined to plow through it.

It made me wonder how many times I do the same thing with others.

The people I value most are those who know how to listen. I actively seek them out. Interestingly, these are also the people who have the most influence with me. Why? Because I feel like they understand me.

Early in my business career, one of my mentors told me that conversations should be like a game of ping pong. You wait for the ball to come over the net, then you hit it back to the person on the other side. Then you do it all over again—and on it goes.

In a good conversation, there is both give and take. This is something we have intentionally tried to pass on to our own children.

I certainly have much to learn, but over the years, I have found the following strategies helpful in becoming a better conversationalist:

  1. Be aware of how much you are talking. I try to talk in sound bites. Frankly, I learned this from doing hundreds of media interviews through the years. If I didn’t periodically stop talking and give the interviewers a chance to speak, they weren’t bashful about interrupting me or bringing the interview to a close. Ordinary people are more polite than media hosts, but you can still lose them, as the would-be consultant did with me.

  2. Hit the ball back over the net. Nothing communicates value and respect to a person more than asking them what they think. Unless you’re giving a formal speech, every encounter should be a dialogue. That means you have to consciously hit the ball back over the net and give the other person a chance to respond. The best way to do this is with thoughtful questions.

  3. Ask follow-up questions. The best listeners I know never stop with just one question. Like peeling an onion, they ask follow-up questions, going deeper each time. This is where you learn the most and where you tap into the possibility to add real value to the other person. One question I like to ask is this, “How did it make you feel when that happened?”

  4. Provide positive feedback. A poker-face might help when you are playing cards, but it does not help build trust or develop relationships. People need to know that you are listening and understand them. Nodding your head and providing verbal affirmation are critical skills that anyone can learn, but they must be cultivated. And whatever you do, don’t ever glance down at your phone. That communicates all the wrong things.

  5. Listen with your heart. Words are a small part of any communication. The intellectual exchange is only part of the exercise. You can pick up a lot by paying attention to the nonverbal cues, including the other person’s eyes, their tone of voice, and their body language.

More recently, another friend asked me to meet a leader of a major nonprofit. This experience was a 180 degrees different from the would-be consultant. The back and forth was engaging and enjoyable throughout the meeting. When we were finished I was excited to see how I could help him.

Your ability to lead is directly tied to your ability to lead powerful conversations. If you want to increase your influence, you have to perfect the gentle art of conversational ping pong.

What have you learned about becoming a better conversationalist?

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