The Art of Discourse

“There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation.”

~ James Nathan Miller

I attended a social function last weekend; a mid-afternoon mix of people I knew and others who I’d yet to meet. I’m often aware at such functions, not critically aware, simply as a participant who listens and watches, just as much as I engage. Remember, this was a social gathering. πŸ™‚

I am a “connector.” I enjoy bringing unknown parties together. Sometimes these random introductions click and other times they fizzle. I’ve developed an interest in watching and trying to understand why some new couplings/groupings flourish and others wane. What I’ve gleaned (this may be unsurprising to some) is that there are gifted conversationalists and there are those who have yet to learn the art of effective and engaging conversation.

We know that conversation is a great way to share our everyday stories. It often greases the ‘connection’ skid. Think about some of the most important moments in your life and about the relationships you have. The foundation of nearly all of these is conversations. When we are learning about one another, we are listening and enjoying simple moments together.

Some people are conversation naturals. Others may think they are good at conversing. Most recognize that taking one’s turn in a conversation (think weaving in a tidbit here and there) and thinking before you speak (beware of foot-in-mouth), are generally accepted and encouraged etiquette. Yet there are other practices that can help one become an even more appreciated communicator. For your consideration, these three:

  • Come to an occasion with topics in mind. En route to an event, think about the (known and unknown) people who will/may be in attendance. Brainstorm stories you can share and questions you can ask. Think, too, about things that may interest those you meet for the first time. Be prepared to ask them about the unique aspects of their locale. Consider asking those who do not know others better for some background information.

  • Try to ask open-ended questions; questions that cannot be answered with “yes or no.” Asking someone if they enjoyed the show calls for a “yes or no” response. Asking what they thought about the performers requires more thought. Be ready to contribute to the conversation.
  • Exercise courtesy. Remove and turn-off all electronic devices. How can you have a meaningful conversation when you allow yourself to be distracted by a Β  Β  Β  technological instrument? If you have to stay connected put your phone on Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  vibrate and if you must take an important call, excuse yourself from the Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  conversation. A lack of consideration is simply rude. Agreed?

86 thoughts on “The Art of Discourse

    • What a lovely location for a tattoo. πŸ™‚ What does it resemble? Kidding aside, as a mild introvert, I have had my fair share of foot-in-mouth experiences too. They can be even more pronounced for we ‘silent type.’ πŸ™‚

  1. Hi Eric. Good tips for connecting via conversation. Bringing a list of questions or topics to a social function might be over the top for me. XD And you know I’m partial to listening as a key skill in conversation and life. blessings,

  2. I interrupt. I talk too fast when with others. I am so awkward inside. I “want” to be quiet. But for some reason OTHERS are uncomfortable with my silence. So often I am talking when I don’t want to be. I think I’m a rude conversationalist. Because I’m so uncomfortable at it. πŸ™‚

    • Yours is a significant acknowledgment, Colleen. You are beautifully aware of who you are and how you act/react in conversational settings. So many can’t even figure this out about themselves.

      We who practice and, at times, revel in silence are fortunate. It’s in those periods of quiet that you and those with whom you are conversing are intentionally creating space within which all parties to the conversation can think and reflect before uttering their next words. I’d suggest not losing or changing that aspect of who you are. Simply learn and find ways for others to appreciate the silence (whether an extended pause or discomforting dead air). Perhaps make light of it in the conversations and invite others to share how they fell and deal with silence. That alone seems a fascinating conversation starter. πŸ™‚

      Being a good and effective conversationalist, as surprising as it may seem to many, takes practice. And maybe a little modifying. πŸ™‚

      • Thank you Eric. πŸ™‚ My love of words comes mostly in written form. The speaking of them I don’t feel comfortable with. And I’m okay with that. Though because of job and personal relationships I do, of course, have to speak. I do need to find a way to stay truer to me. Hush when I don’t want to speak, instead of speaking to keep others ease.

  3. I have never “come prepared” as I’m more of a go-with-the-flow kinda girl… I guess I am lucky that I can easily connect with just about anybody – from the janitor to the president – with the same comfort level. I truly believe it is a gift (Does that sound cocky? It’s not meant to be… I am just trying to acknowledge my good points!)

    • Indeed, a gift, Dale. One many would like to have. As I shared in the post, some are natural conversationalists and those people don’t need to “come prepared.” You (proverbially) are often seen (and sometimes, envied) as the ‘life of the party’ or whatever the setting may be. Recognizing this about yourself is not cocky at all. It’s simply confidence, a strength, and a good point. The question that begs is: Can you can and sell it?

  4. I have never thought of first point! It would require quite an effort! Thanks for sharing.
    May I add a tip, Eric? I am reminded of an analogy that I had read long ago…’conversation is like the dribbling of a ball, unless it is passed on – it is one sided game, which nobody can enjoy.’

  5. Well now you have something new to think about, Balroop, in advance of your next business or social outing.

    And of course you may add a tip; add ten! πŸ™‚ I only cited three, fully aware that there were countless more. Yours is a good one and it parallels what I shared above with Brad: meaningful conversation is a team sport. So now we’re both in sports metaphor mode!

  6. Such good advice… One thing I’ve learned is that even quiet, introverted people who claim they’re not good conversationalists have a lot to say. Starting with simple questions about what they do with their time, a several follow-up questions that request more information about particular parts of their world leads to delightful, meaningful conversation!

    A friend of mine is a whiz at making two strangers feel comfortable around each other by introducing them with important facts about each other, which sparks a conversation – “Mary, this is Joan. Joan is my friend from college and teaches high school math. Joan, Mary and I met while volunteering for habitat for humanity. She’s a hospitality manager at a local hotel.” It’s thoughtful of her to identify details and helps guests feel like they have a place to start conversation…

    • How correct you are… starting with simple, non-intrusive questions can comfortably ignite a meaningful dialogue. When this is coupled with genuine, focused attention on the other person, all kinds of social interaction can bloom!

      Your friends introcuctory style and techniques sound wonderful. The fact that she works in the hospitality sector doesn’t surprise. πŸ™‚

  7. Thanks for such an interesting post.
    I think the open-ended questions point is great as it really helps those who are shy to open up and relax. I suppose, though, one needs to pick one’s questions with care!!!

    • Indeed, Jean, be cautiously selective about the questions one asks, especially in a new introductory exchange, is prudent. You don’t want your new acquaintance to turn and run for the nearest bar or exit. πŸ™‚ Thank you for sharing this good point.

  8. Thoughtful, reflective piece, Eric. Being present and listening is one of the greatest gifts we offer to another. That alone can bring calm to an otherwise anxiety producing (for some) event. Being calm; a soft, flowing presence in the space can be fun…you can watch the energy shift. Some calm with and move toward you, while others become so uneasy they move away from you; and It’s all good. πŸ™‚

    • I, too, find “calm” is a good approach, Carrie, though there are some (many?) who prefer everyone be as bombastic as they are. πŸ™‚ Those people, to me, are simply the type to navigate around and one’s I pass on introducing to others.

  9. I remember years ago when a friend of ours brought his girlfriend for dinner. My attempts to engage the lady in conversation left me feeling embarrassed and guilty, as though I’d committed some horrible, social faux pas. I did everything on your list as well as many more, but my efforts were only met with an occasional grunt. Mostly just dead silence. It was awkward to say the least. To this day I have no idea where I went wrong. I’m usually pretty good at that kind of thing.

    • Sounds a bit like leading a horse to water, Elizabeth. πŸ™‚ Some people are simply socially awkward or disinclined to engage, even when invited/politely prompted. I’m willing to bet that you did not go wrong, anywhere. In these situations/outcomes, it is always about the other person, not you or anything you did/didn’t do. What I’m wondering is: Did your friend continue his relationship with the grunt? πŸ™‚

      • Yes, he married her and they visited a few times, I was never able to engage her, but my husband had no problem. She’d speak with him for hours. So obviously it was something about me. They divorced a year later. He eventually married again and his new wife and I became good friends. πŸ™‚

  10. I’d bet that a lot of people who struggle with conversation lack confidence in their ability to articulate ideas or come up with substantial opinions. Many times have I been told, “I really loved your blog post the other day,” followed by further thoughts on my topic.

    Followed by me encouraging a posted comment on future blog posts.

    The typical response to that is, “Oh no. I have nothing worthwhile to say. I’d feel stupid compared to all those people who leave comments.”

    • I agree, Eric. I find the WordPress community to be much more genuine, thoughtful, and engaging than most other social media sites. Ergo, and comparatively, it does take some mental muscle to contribute/engage on this platform yet said time and consideration is almost always acknowledged and appreciated. It need not be a profound comment. A simple personal expression or considered perspective is welcome on/at any blog I’ve followed. As with you, I almost always attempt to encourage continuous engagement. After all, isn’t this one of the drivers behind blogging?

  11. Whenever I’m uncomfortable, I tend to be the one asking questions and attentively listening, to mask my own discomfort. When there are VERY bubbly people around, all trying to contribute their piece, it does make me feel suffocated and I do question their awareness/interest in others. My group therapy experience, to date, is up against people who seem to find listening a bit of an inconvenience.

    • Those overly-bubbly people can be suffocating, Cat. I’ve learned to quietly find others with who to engage. The fact that you are the one asking questions and attentively listening is to be applauded. These are key ingredients to effectively conversing. Bravo on your perspectives and your awareness of what makes you comfortable!

  12. Eric, I so delight in the window your provide us as to how you approach life. You take something as simple as a “social” gathering, and use it as a means for reflection and awareness. I think you show us again how every moment, every action can be a space for awareness.

    • In turn, I delight when your share such kind comments, Kim. Thank you. Your beautiful artwork and accompanying thoughts are one of many inspirations that encourage the sharing of my messages/perspectives.

  13. When you don’t have anything significant to say, revert to a listening mode. This is one thing I believe is absent in the thought processes of so many people. They feel if they aren’t chattering away, something awful might happen. Perhaps a conversation with sone “meat” in it? All good points to remember when entering conversations with a group or even one on one.

    • Your first sentence is so true, Cheryl. Yet so many choose not to. Silence can be a thoughtful and respectful space for people. It provides time to consider what has been said/shared and to reflect on how they might like to reply. The trick is knowing how to use silence (even intentional pauses) without causing discomfort in someone else. This, in part, why I titled the post, “The Art…” πŸ™‚

  14. When I ran the domestic violence program, part of the training for the CIT volunteers involved learning how to LISTEN. β€œBeing heard” (for anyone, but especially for victims of domestic violence) is truly empowering. I find that if I seek to understand, rather than to be understood, I am a better listener.

    Of course, when I have thoughts and ideas that I’m anxious to share, I don’t always LISTEN the way I’d like. 😎

  15. There’s an art to being a good conversationalist, I’ve found. For many years, I was in sales and marketing, and I learned to ask the kinds of questions which show an interest (in my case, quite genuine) and which help to put the person at ease. I think most people are awfully worried about what you think about them and when you can help them lower their guard, true conversation can begin.

    • Beautifully and accurately stated, Barbara. There are innumerable techniques to enabling a good conversation. Skill, practice and (to your comment) genuine consideration for others can take a conversation (and a budding relationship) into very meaningful territories.

  16. I reckon the “be ready to contribute to the conversation” is the key – I can think of many a social function I have attended, leaving that “be ready” at home 😦

    • When we enter a room/event “ready” it can boost our confidence and the presence that we emit to/with others. Sans preparation, Ina, I think many of us know the depleted feeling that it can yield. Thanks for highlighting this good point.

  17. An art that many feel is slipping away, Aveline. I always try to create awareness in its value when engaging others. Too many seem to be growing more comfortable with cursory, virtual connections at the expense of real connection. Perhaps the definition of connections is changing…

    • I agree with you big time and it seems to be across generations too my age and below. I find myself wondering if teaching social rules for conversation will need to be taught as a life skill some day in the near future…not just for my students with autism or social communication disorders! You’re right the definition of ‘connection’ seems to be changing…

    • And to a snippet shared in the post, Shree, sometimes the types of questions asked is as important as simply asking. πŸ™‚ But absolutely, engaging and as I shared in another reply, recognizing conversation as a team sport, with all players participating, is important to. I suspect you are better at it than you give yourself credit for.

  18. Nothing quite like getting out and conversing with others…listening, learning and then showing appreciation with a thoughtful reply ~ so hard to do, but made easier with your ideas and suggestions Eric. Well done (again!).

    • Agreed, Randy, so hard to do, yet when we practice “listening, learning and then showing appreciation…” — with intention, the act and the art converge… finding ourselves conversing much more naturally. Thanks for your always insightful and kind comments.

  19. Very interesting post Eric! And to judge from the lively discussion, and engaging topic. I could never “prepare” for conversations…I have so many stories I me that at times I have to “lock them in” and just focus on listening. Sometimes I go to charity events where I know just a few people in the crowd. And I decide to just listen, but it happens on occasion that somehow I find myself telling stories and conversing with a lot of people I’ve never met before. Life is funny that way πŸ™‚

    • Rarely do I find any approach or solution – to anything – one-size-fits-all, Tiny. Acknowledging you could never “prepare” for conversations may well be the case with many. With so many possibilities to choose from for considered action(s), I often struggle with which three (sometimes four) suggestions to ‘put out there.’

      I, too, find that (given my propensity to share stories), I often enter conversations somewhat reserved. If/when an invitation or opening presents and I feel a story is relevant or potentially of interest, I find myself taking a path similar to yours. Then, voila! We have an engaging interaction. πŸ™‚

  20. Hello Eric!

    Wonderful clarity!

    Two things I’m pondering:
    1). When you say that you are a connector, are you referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s, ‘The Tipping Point?’

    2). According to Albert Mehrabian, the total impact of a communication/message is only 7% verbal (the words themselves), 38 percent is vocal (volume, pitch, rhythm, etc.), and 55 percent is body movements (mostly facial expressions) [qtd. from McKay, Davis, and Fanning. p.59]

    I look forward to learning more about your blog in time – thank you for coming to my blog and visiting, as your presence invited me to visit yours.


    • Thanks, Ka. 1) No, it’s not Gladwell although I am familiar with “The Tipping Point.” “Connector” is one of my five strengths, as identified via the Gallup Strengths Finder assessment and; 2) As a practicing public speaker, I am aware of the percentages you reference. All three are integral and important to both effective communication and tangentially, to conversation. Appreciate your adding these aspects to this thread!

    • Perhaps, you may rethink, lest you get a headache or reconsider your kind following of this blog.

      Kidding aside, Aaron, I simply consider myself a messenger. If what I choose to share resonates with a reader; encourages one to rethink life choices and/or; to ponder a redirection of their perspectives (and perhaps, actions), then such outcomes make writing these posts worthwhile.

      If you choose to forage, I would welcome your thoughtful perspectives and alternate point(s) of view. Your mind and ability to write eloquently are appreciated.

  21. Hey Eric, I enjoyed this post and thought it was very interesting. When it comes to conversing with others I find myself always the interested and encouraging listener except those times when I run into someone who seems not to have much to say, and then I find my conversation style is more so of an open-ended questioner. I don’t know…it’s natural for me, and besides I don’t mind at all making the other person the star of the show ;=) Anyway, thanks for sharing.

    Be A Blessing!


    • Thank you, LaTrice, for creating time to read and share your thoughtful comment. I know well the very situation that you describe and I applaud you for, on occasion, desiring to make the other person the star. That is a beautiful gesture and practice.

    • Funny, the sculptures, particularly the three women, was part of what inspired the post. πŸ™‚ I’m an introvert too, but I’ve practiced this art over the years to the point where I am now comfortable conversing in most settings. One-on-one was never a problem. Thanks for adding your personal experience here.

    • It’s also a skill, that when practiced, can yield wonderful engagement and outcomes. I don’t think some people work at being good conversationalists, Jackie. Imagine what verbal communication would be like if we all put intentional effort into being better at it. πŸ™‚

  22. Excellent posting, Eric! If I were still teaching, I would begin the year with a discussion of it. Electronic devices!!! I TURN my Cell phone OFF whenever I am with someone or have company at my home. I abhor the lack of etiquette when it comes to that particular device. And I see it happening with every age group! I read somewhere that texting is an addiction–more addictive than gambling. It appears that both gambling and texting alert that part of our brain that responds favorably to that particular stimuli–only with texting, even if it is not a positive conversation, the person still gets some type of gratification from it and so positive or not, the person will continue to text.
    Thank you for your many visits to my blog. Your presence encourages me so much! Thank you!

    • Texting as an addiction. That is very interesting, Jane. I will further research this as it makes sense to me, especially in the cerebral and gratification contexts. Thank you for highlighting this poignant observation — and contribution.

    • I wonder if any of us have mastered the art of listening. Challenging, indeed, but as long as we are aware of how attentively we are listening, most deserve ample credit for their focused effort. Thanks for sharing here, Alicja. Your comment is appreciated.

    • I like that term… pass the conch. Sounds very Key West-ish. I hear and agree with you.

      Honored you’re choosing to listen to one of the show podcasts. If you make it through the whole show, I’d love some feedback. I can also fill in some of the obvious missing details about Robin’s tragic loss.

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