The Art of Conversation
“GOOD talk is like good scenery—continuous, yet constantly varying, and full of the charm of novelty and surprise.” So said author Randolph S. Bourne.
Indeed, people find great delight in good scenery. Similarly, those who develop the art of conversation derive great pleasure and benefit from it. They enjoy exchanging ideas, opinions and sentiments with others.
‘I wish it were always easy and delightful to converse with my acquaintances,’ you may remark. ‘But all too often, that is not the case. What can I do about it?’ Perhaps a great deal.
Time and Place
First of all, do not be discouraged if your efforts to converse falter occasionally. Everyone has that experience. After all, you can hardly have a good discussion with someone who just makes a terse reply and really does not want to talk. Perhaps he has a very pressing matter on his mind.
When it comes to conversing, time and place are important. Admittedly, it is futile—even inconsiderate—to try speaking at any length with a cook when smoke is pouring from her kitchen. The urgent matter of the moment is that burning cauliflower or flaming steak!
The Bible makes the point very well. It says: “For everything there is an appointed time . . . a time to keep quiet and a time to speak.” (Eccl. 3:1, 7) Possibly, a person is meditating, reading a book or adding a long column of figures. Or a serious problem may have arisen and the individual is deep in thought. In such cases, how true the old saying, “Silence is golden”!
Preparing for Good Conversation
But at social gatherings or informal dinners you would like to engage in good conversation. What can you do about it?
Advance preparation may be required, especially if you are the host. You might make mental notes about current events and matters of interest in the community. Consider the occupations and activities of those invited to the gathering. If necessary, do some research. Then you should be able to say something about the work, hobbies or interests of those present.
Even in spontaneous conversation, do not feel that you have nothing to say. Actually, you have been preparing a long time for your next conversation. How so? Well, you have taken in knowledge by schooling and life experience. Moreover, likely you have done some reading. Perhaps you have gleaned points from personal study of the Holy Scriptures. So, you see—you do have something worth while to talk about. At the right time and place, you can make excellent contributions to good conversation.
Organize some thoughts ahead of time. Determine generally what you might say on a particular subject. Perhaps some details will be unnecessary. But you may need to supply facts about who, what, why, when, where and how, particularly if you are going to tell about an incident.
Promoting Good Conversation
Questions can be very helpful in promoting good conversation. Robert Louis Stevenson once remarked: “You start a question and it’s like starting a stone from on top of a hill; away the stone goes, starting others.” Comparably, a thoughtful query may bring prompt response and open the way for pleasant conversation.
Therefore, to start a conversation, or to keep it going, why not use choice questions? No, not the prying, personal type. (Why have you and Mrs. Smith separated after twenty years of marriage?) Nor the kind that amounts to a test of intelligence. (What were the seven wonders of the ancient world?) Questions like those would probably make most guests wish they were elsewhere.
On the other hand, searching questions that call for opinions are not amiss, as long as they are not deliberately controversial. Leading questions might deal with current events or problems. (How do you think food can be provided for earth’s starving millions?) Even a hypothetical query may not be objectionable. (During what period of history more than any other would you like to have lived?) But do not overdo this type. And, naturally, the conversation will progress much more smoothly if we are polite and do not interrupt when questions are being answered.
Fine experiences can add zest and interest to conversations. So, think about things that have happened to you, or activities in which you have shared. These experiences may be worth telling. Of course, a detailed account of one’s recent hospitalization or surgery may be factual, but is it encouraging to listeners? How much better to select experiences that bring them delight! When true Christians gather socially, they often tell fine experiences about their activities in preaching the good news of God’s kingdom.
When relating experiences, you will please your listeners if you eliminate unnecessary details. This gives the story clarity and saves them mental effort that might otherwise be needed to sort out the facts. Another point: Why continually be the hero or heroine of the account? Take a broad view, showing the role that others may have played.
Keep It Dignified, Uplifting
You know that if the air becomes laden with smog, even the most beautiful scenery can lose appeal. Comparably, a good conversation can become unappealing, even distressing, if it is not kept on a high plane. The atmosphere or prevailing mood must remain good for a conversation to be appealing and beneficial. How vital, then, that it be kept dignified and uplifting!
Dignified conversation does not call for extremely big words and high-sounding language, however. Of course, there is something to be said in favor of vocabulary building. Nevertheless, a friendly conversation is no time to show off with verbal blockbusters.
Asked about housing accommodations, a diplomat once replied: “We are in the ambassadorial residence, subject of course to some of the discomfiture as a result of the need for elements of refurbishing and rehabilitation.” What was that? Well, one writer gave the gist in these words: “We’re redecorating right now, so the house is in a bit of a mess.” Unquestionably, plain talk is preferable and most people appreciate it.
Risqué stories and unclean speech certainly are out of place among those who have self-respect and regard for others. Quite appropriately, the Bible advises: “Let a rotten saying not proceed out of your mouth, but whatever saying is good for building up as the need may be, that it may impart what is favorable to the hearers.”—Eph. 4:29.
Yet, what if a guest is telling obscene jokes and using profane language? Others can try to change the subject. If these efforts are unavailing, the host might take the person aside and tell him that his speech is displeasing. A harsh measure? Not really. Left unchecked, the offender may ruin the occasion for everyone present.
During a conversation, some remarks may be made about people. These statements may be upbuilding and quite unobjectionable. But what if the conversation deteriorates, turning toward injurious slander? Will you lend an ear to such talk? You can hardly do so unless you want to be classed as a participant. Then, will you have the courage, perhaps as the host, to direct the conversation back “uphill”? Doubtless others present would appreciate that.
Adding to the Pleasure
Pleasant conversation can be enhanced in various ways. For instance, the person speaking with us can let his face “talk” in a pleasing manner. How? By smiling when that is appropriate.
One who has done well in developing the art of conversation also contributes to our pleasure by speaking distinctly. Moreover, he has empathy. He puts himself in our place and avoids saying things that needlessly would cause us pain or embarrassment. Such an individual never talks down to us either, as though we were far beneath him mentally.
You probably have noticed that some people are interested in talking only about themselves. If the conversation momentarily touches on your experiences, opinions or problems, such a person quickly shifts it back to what interests him, what his opinion is, what his day was like. Obviously, though, the good conversationalist is not self-centered. For that matter, he avoids talking too much.
The Need to Listen
Yes, the good conversationalist gives the other person a chance to speak. He knows that rewarding conversation is a ‘two-way street.’ Its essential elements are talking and listening.
Manifesting empathy, the good listener tries to understand the speaker’s viewpoint, perhaps even entering imaginatively into his situation. However, since the mind thinks much faster than a person can talk, there is time to analyze what is being said and then to draw conclusions. Why not try this during your next conversation?
Ask questions, too, and show real interest in the answers given. Look at the person conversing with you. Naturally, you do not want to stare at him. But avoid gazing at some object in the room or continuously glancing from place to place, for the speaker might then conclude that you are insincere or disinterested. By all means, give him your undivided attention. How much all of us can learn by really listening to others!
Persons who develop the art of conversation will find that “good talk is like good scenery.” Both can leave delightful impressions on the mind. Make the effort to engage others in conversation and often you will find it full of novelty, surprise, pleasure and lasting benefit.