Good Conversation Is An Art. Here's How To Get Better At It

There are many ways to have a conversation. There are some you have because you've been tossed into a situation and now you have no choice but to talk to the other person. There are also scenarios where you meet someone and you want to have a good, if not great, conversation that's going to leave you both fulfilled and even a bit smarter. There are also conversations that stem from family disagreements, discussions between coworkers, and just catching up with a friend. No matter the purpose, you don't want your conversations to be a waste of time. After all, the goal of a good talk is forging a connection and creating a lasting impact.

But, to put it simply, mastering the art of a good conversation can be difficult. It involves more than just showing up and nodding a few times. It requires effort and skills that need to be exercised regularly if you're going to nail such an art — and you will. Although there are many ways to take your conversations to a whole new level, here are five tips to start the process of getting better at it.

Make eye contact — but not too much

Whether you're having an intense conversation with someone or ordering extra guac at Chipotle, eye contact is important. Looking someone in the eye creates a connection, proves you're honest in your intentions, and even makes you memorable. These are three key components to mastering the art of good conversation.

But as much as locking eyes shows you're interested and present, looking away occasionally creates a much-needed balance between the people in the conversation. Because, for some, too much eye contact, can feel overwhelming and even domineering. The 50/70 rule is a good guideline when it comes to finding comfortable levels of eye contact during a conversation. Following this rule, you make eye contact about 50% of the time you're talking and around 70% of the time you're listening. That way you never come off too strong by appearing as though you're trying to win a staring contest.

Learn active listening

Conversation is a two-way street. Thoughts, feelings, and ideas are shared with a person who receives them and processes what was said. Then, they respond in kind with their own thoughts, feelings, and ideas. This exchange can't become a good conversation without active listening from both sides. 

"Most of the time, we are listening to a speaker with one side of our brain, while the other side is constantly formulating a response," physician assistant and board-certified life coach Susan Whitman tells Good Housekeeping. "[Active listening] involves stepping into someone else's story, taking out your own judgments and opinions, and really listening to what is being said. A great active listener hears not only the words that are being said but the underlying story behind the words," Whitman explains.

So, consciously focus on the speaker's words and listen without distraction. Then, make an effort to provide feedback on what they've said by repeating some of the words they used. This is a more engaging tactic than simply offering responses that don't connect strongly to the other person's verbiage.

Genuinely be interested and inquisitive

The best way to show someone you're interested in what they have to say, in addition to active listening, is by asking meaningful questions. Too many people who partake in conversations only listen just enough to know when it's their turn to talk and that's not artful at all. In fact, it can come across as rude and, in many cases, is obvious to the person who's talking. When we ask questions, we not only show we're intrigued by the person we're talking to, but we convey a desire to want to get to know them better.

People who ask questions have better perspectives, greater insight, and a deeper understanding of the people and world around them. You never know where the answer to a question might lead you. When having a conversation, you want to turn to open-ended questions starting with why, how, what, and who. Let these words be your guide, so there's no doubt in your interest. Plus, these questions can encourage dialog and keep the conversation going smoothly.

Avoid meaningless small talk

If you want to have a real conversation, the type that actually has some depth and meaning, then you need to bring more to the table. A simple "Nice weather we're having," likely won't cut it. In other words, nix the small talk completely.

Although there will always be a time and place for small talk, like when you're in line at the store and you notice the person in front of you is buying the same cookies. But when it comes to the art of good conversation, there's no room for it. Not only does it force you to lower the volume on your personality, making the whole conversation feel inauthentic. But that awkwardness that you're feeling is likely being shared by the others in the conversation too.

Small talk also wastes the time of everybody involved. Those who have meaningful conversations that cover subjects of substance report higher rates of well-being. This proves that perfecting good conversation means digging deeper than just shallow, surface topics. Reject the notion that any topic, like politics or religion, is off-limits. Instead, navigate these with honesty and respect as you learn about each other's ideas.

Embrace the silence

Every conversation you will ever have will include brief moments of silence. It doesn't matter if it's your best friend since preschool or someone you're sitting next to on a plane. So if you want to be a great conversationalist, you need to be comfortable with the occasional silences — especially since there's power in them.

Discussing this power, Donal Carbaugh, a professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, tells BBC. "No one is saying anything but everybody's thinking. They are engaged. The frame around silence at that point can be very positive."  He adds, "Silence can be a very powerful focal point for understanding ourselves, understanding others, for developing better mutual understanding and more productive outcomes and that applies to business, politics, education, law, medicine, every realm of human life."

Silences in conversations among English speakers typically last less than four seconds, whereas with Japanese speakers it's more often double that. But while Americans can be squeamish about this, the Japanese use those eight seconds to their advantage. There's even a name for it: haragei, meaning the best communication can be found in silence. So, embrace the silence. Use the pause to process the other person's ideas and formulate a response that will move the conversation forward in a meaningful way.