Conversations can elicit a range of emotions. They may be daunting, or they may be dreaded. They may be awkward, or they may be monotonous. The good news is, you, as a participant in any conversation, have more control than you think about whether these emotions overtake the dialogue.
Having a successful conversation is about striking the balance between preparedness and flexibility, between explaining your thoughts clearly and knowing when to pause or check in. It’s about being upfront about your preferences and ideas while being open to adapting them based on what comes of the discussion.
1. Study up beforehand.
Avoid wasting anyone’s time by getting to know your audience, advises Stacey Hanke, speaking coach and author of Influence Redefined.
If there’s lead time before your conversation, whether or not you already know the person you’ll be speaking with, try to get a better understanding of where they stand. What is their level of knowledge, not to mention their opinion, about the topic you’re preparing to discuss?
Always be mindful of the value the other person can gain from the conversation, in addition to the value you can gain.
Also, if you have an idea of how much time you’ll have with the person, plan accordingly. If your time is limited, prepare to deliver the points you need to get across quickly and succinctly.
2. Don’t be afraid to pivot.
Just because you planned what points you wanted to cover ahead of time doesn’t mean you should be rigid about getting through all of them. You might find, once the conversation is underway, that it’s going in a different direction.
In that moment, you can evaluate whether it’s beneficial for it to flow naturally. This change in course might be a great opportunity to accomplish something even greater than planned with the conversation. If you think you’re getting off topic to an unproductive degree, then you should feel empowered to steer the chat back to the matter that prompted it.
Speak extemporaneously. Even if you cover everything you meant to cover, you might do so in a roundabout, organic way vs. by checking points off a list.
3. Don’t talk over someone who interrupts you.
If you’re both talking, neither of you will be able to hear the other. Let that person finish, but don’t become discouraged or let them dominate the discussion, Hanke says.
Listen to what they have to say and think about what prompted them to say it. Doing so could give you insight into what additional information they might be seeking that you may not have considered. Once you know more about what their interests are, you might adapt your remarks so that they’re more relevant.
4. Pause often, at natural intervals.
Some people think pausing is awkward or makes them seem less confident. In reality, Hanke says, it separates the points you’re making, so that they are easier for your listener to digest.
Pausing is especially important when you are explaining something complicated or technical, to give your audience a chance to keep up.
On that note, taking time to pause now and then gives you a chance to keep up with yourself. You can be more deliberate with your words if you take a second or two to think about what you’re saying. You can also scan the body language of those you’re speaking with, see whether they’re engaged, confused or distracted and change the content or tone of your remarks accordingly — or ask your audience if they need clarification.
5. Be direct and assertive.
Culturally, women are more likely than men to qualify their remarks, ask for permission to speak, defer to more dominant voices and apologize for contributing their thoughts. But anyone can act in this manner, and it’s not the most effective way to get a point across.
If you’re tempted to couch or equivocate, recognize that aggressiveness and assertiveness are two different things, and that being direct is an affront far less often than you might think. In many cases, your listener will respect you more for it.
On a similar note, avoid telling someone, “I don’t care” or “It’s up to you.” Show that you’re engaged with the conversation and that you acknowledge the person you’re speaking with values your opinion by saying something such as, “I don’t feel strongly about either course of action, but here are some factors to take into account.”
6. Don’t be afraid to say no.
This goes along with being assertive. Especially in a professional context, you may fear that disagreement could prompt conflict. In reality, if you don’t stand your ground, the consequences could be harmful to your business.
Don’t say yes or agree just because it’s the polite thing to do. You can politely say no, especially if you offer an alternative option or idea.
7. Help the other person help the conversation.
If someone is rambling, or if someone is interrupting often, call them out — but politely and calmly. They might not even realize they’re speaking in a way that is hindering the dialogue, Hanke says.
Say things such as, “Did you just hear that? You just packed a lot of ideas into one paragraph,” or, “I’d like to finish this thought quickly, but I’d love to hear what you have to say in just a moment.”
You can also ask your listener questions to make sure they’re understanding what you’re saying, Hanke suggests. “What are your thoughts on the last couple of points we covered?” or “You’ve got some expertise in this area. What are your thoughts?”
Consulting another person will make them feel valued, which in turn will help you build their trust and lend more credibility to what you’re saying.
8. Make eye contact.
Everyone knows this one, but they don’t always do it, because it can be uncomfortable. Locking eyes with someone is intimate, but that’s exactly why it’s so powerful. It builds trust to look someone in the eye while completing an entire thought, and it makes you seem more sincere.
Plus, if you’re looking directly at your listener, you’ll be able to gauge how they’re perceiving what you’re saying and you can adjust or clarify.
9. Summarize and reiterate key points.
People tend to overestimate how well people understand what they are saying. The “tappers and listeners” study out of Stanford University illustrated this well. Participants tapped a melody of a well-known song, and listeners had to guess the tune. While tappers thought listeners would have a 50 percent accuracy rate, they only guessed 2.5 percent of the songs correctly.
The same goes with speaking: Only you know exactly what you mean, so be as clear as possible. One way to do accomplish this might be to summarize your main points at the begin and the end of a discussion.
10. Establish expectations in a negotiation.
In a conversation that’s centered around a negotiation, such as for a salary or a flexible work schedule, enter into the conversation with clear parameters.
In the case of a salary negotiation, employers should start by establishing a range that they’re willing to work within. Meanwhile, employees or prospective hires should go in having done their research to predict what the employer typically offers at that level, if such information is available, explains Sally Klingel, the director of labor management relations at the Cornell University Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution.
The benefit of having a conversation in this setting, however, is that even if everyone has their mind made up from the get-go, the discussion can lead to better understanding. One party might ask the other what their criteria are for making a certain type of decision. If you don’t get what you’re looking for this time around, you can cater your future performance to those criteria and make a stronger case in the future.