How to Improve Your Conversation Skills and Have Better Relationships

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We all want to impress people. Picture yourself at a party. Imagine you are introduced to someone and you really want to make a good impression. You do your best to impress them. You try to say all the right things. But you walk away, unsure of whether or not you came across well. Let’s imagine you see this person again at another party. She (or he) passes by you. Now the question is, does she make eye contact and exclaim with delight, ‘Hey there! How are you? How did that project go that you were telling me about?’ Or, does she avert her eyes and pretend she doesn’t recognise you? There are a number of reasons why people find others socially attractive. In this article I am going to look at one of the most important reasons. Then I will suggest 7 tricks to help ensure you make a positive impression when you meet people. What causes someone to want to see you again? One answer is ‘reward’. How rewarding was their experience?
Start Quote Imagine that during a conversation at a party, you offer someone £100. You casually say, ‘Oh I don’t really want this, it clutters up my wallet.’ I’ll bet you at the next party, that person will be keen to find you and chat to you again. End Quote
And that’s how I view conversation. We don’t give money. But the other person can walk away feeling rewarded. The question is, what did the other person get out of the conversation? Did you make their experience rewarding?

Why do humans talk?

But what reward do people look for during conversation? In order to answer this question, we need to understand why speech evolved in the first place. No other species has developed such a complicated means of communication as humans. But why is this? A clue to the answer to this question may lie in the evolution of what is known as "cooperative breeding". Cooperative breeding species exhibit a number of characteristics similar to those of humans. One of these characteristics relates to the manner in which they communicate.
  • Co-operative breeding mammals bring their offspring up as a group. Examples of co-operatively breeding mammals include elephants, wolves, lions and meerkats. If a co-operatively breeding mother does not have adequate help on hand, her offspring will die.
In fact if there is not enough help on hand, mothers of co-operatively breeding species will often leave their children to die after they are born. It is too costly to invest resources into raising a baby animal if she (the baby) is going to die early in life. In her book Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explains that humans are cooperative breeders.

Human babies use 'babble' to draw the attention of others

  • There are 5 types of ape: gorillas, orang-utans, gibbons, pan (that is chimpanzees & bonobos) and humans. However, humans are the only co-operatively breeding apes.
The 4 non-human ape mothers refuse to let go of their babies for the first six months the baby’s life. The baby clings to her mother’s fur and the mother will not let others hold her. Humans are very different in this regard. Tribal settings represent the kind of environment in which our ancestors would have evolved. Efe and Aka tribal women pass their baby around to the other tribal members after she is born. Other women in the tribe may also let the baby suck on their nipples in order to keep her calm. Shared suckling (even if only occasional) has been documented in around 85% of the world’s tribes.
Start Quote Within a tribal setting, baby’s survival depends on the support of numerous group members. Research conducted by attachment expert Marinus van Ijzendoorn has suggested that the most emotionally secure children typically have 3 people who are constantly available to meet their needs. End Quote
Non-human ape babies complain loudly if they are separated from their mother in an emergency. However, human babies have developed another kind of vocalisation. Babies are able to use this special vocal ‘call’ in order to keep in contact with their mother, when someone else is holding them. But equally, babies typically use it to make contact with others who are nearby when they are being held by their mother.
  • This ‘repetitive, rhythmical vocalisation’, used to make contact with others, is called ‘babble’. Of all the monkey and ape families, only one other group is known to have babies that pass through a ‘babbling’ phase. This is the callitrichidae family. And other than humans, the callitrichidae family is also the only known group amongst monkeys & apes that brings their children up through co-operative breeding.
Within the tribal context in which humans evolved, if a baby failed to secure support, she would die. A baby therefore attempts to make connect with anyone who appears to be responsive. Babies use babble in order to draw the attention of others. By the time a baby is seven months old, she is beginning to have ‘babbling’ conversations with others. As someone holds a baby she ‘babbles’. The person holding then typically talks back. The baby then babbles once again and so a ‘conversation’ begins. Click here to buy Hrdy's book from Amazon: Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

Conversation is ‘babble’

Humans use language to do numerous things. But speech begins in the form of a child ‘babbling’. I believe that it is useful to think about conversation within this context.
Start Quote Before a baby speaks, she babbles. Learning to say words and talk about specific events and objects comes later. End Quote
If you wish to understand conversation in its basic form, then watch a baby converse with an adult. The baby babbles. And she hopes to obtain a response. But why does she babble? Because, she wishes to gain someone’s attention. In a tribal setting, her life would depend on gaining ongoing attention and support from adults. If she did not get the support she needed, she would die. So, for a child, gaining attention is a matter of life or death! I would argue that gaining attention is one of the overarching concerns of children in general. But are we any different as adults? Many traits that we evolve as children do not disappear when we become adults. I believe that we do not lose our desire for attention. As adults, we still long for attention. This reflects the nature of social animals (that is, animals that have evolved to live within groups). Dogs are also social animals. Anyone with a dog will understand how much this social animal longs for attention. In fact if you leave a dog in the house on its own, it typically suffers from stress.
  • One of my central beliefs is that humans long for attention from others.

6 ways to reward people during conversation

This topic is central to everything I believe. Conversation will be a central theme at Live Life Satisfied. So expect much more on this topic. As we continue to unpack the subject of ‘how to get the best out of conversation’ over the coming weeks and months, the principles I present now will remain central. I’m going to leave you with 6 suggestions that I hope will help you to offer attentive, responsive interaction to others during conversation.
  1. Do not allow silence Silence is very awkward during conversation. One of your jobs is to fill the gaps. But do remember: often, conversation is just babble. It doesn’t really matter what you say. (However try to make your thoughts somewhat relevant to the situation). After filling the gap for a bit, ask the other person a question. People usually love being asked their opinion. So try talking about something and then asking the other person what they think.
  2. DO NOT INTERUPT!! This is my golden, holy conversational rule. If there is one rule that should not be broken, this is it.
    Start Quote If the other person is so self-absorbed that they don’t give you the opportunity to speak, then find someone else to talk to. Find someone who actually gives a shit about what you have to say. This is called Self-Respect. End Quote
    In fact this is actually a test of whether or not the other person is self-absorbed or actually interested in you. This article is about leaving others wanting to spend more time with you. However,
    • You should also be asking the following question: ‘Is this person worth spending more time with?’.
    If she doesn’t care about what you think or if she gives you no opportunity to speak, then the answer to this question is probably ‘No!’
  3. Give cues that show you are listening This is crucial in order for the other person to feel like you are really listening.
    • Ed Tronick conducted an experiment in which he asked mothers to remain expressionless as they interacted with babies. Initially, babies began to show signs of apprehension. Then eventually, the babies became distressed.
    A baby interacts in the hope of obtaining positive feedback. And I believe adults do the same. If a person is listening during conversation, then she usually gives ongoing cues to demonstrate she is paying attention. She might use phrases such as ‘Oh I see’, ‘That’s interesting’, ‘Oh really’, ‘No way’ or even just ‘ah huh’. Nodding and providing encouraging facial expressions are also crucial. Speech expert Jennifer Coates comments, ‘Minimal responses such as yeah or mhm …are a way of indicating the listener’s positive attention to the speaker, and thus a way of supporting the speaker in their choice of topic.' However, some people don’t appear to realise this. They give almost no response. Remember, as outlined in my aritcle, 2 early signs of a controlling relationship, offering no response is one of the ways in which people demonstrate disapproval. At best, non-responders (as I call them) end up leaving a person feeling like they are getting little reward back from the conversation. At worst, they leave the other person feeling as though the non-responder doesn’t like them.
  4. Reflect on what the person has said It’s very easy to wait for a person to finish, so that we can immediately express what we think. However, if we want a person to feel like we are really listening, then we need to demonstrate this fact. Here’s an example of how we might do this. Let’s imagine someone has told us about how their daughter spends a lot of time on the computer. She has also commented that children do very little now, compared to when she was a child. She attributes this to the fact that children of this generation spend too much of their time on computers. Speaking personally, at this point my inclination would probably be to launch into my thoughts concerning ‘screen time’. However, this would simply represent an attempt on my part to obtain attention for my ideas. It would not really demonstrate that I am reflecting on the other person's thoughts. A better way to respond might be as follows. I could begin by briefly sharing my thoughts concerning screen time. However, I could then follow with a question that demonstrates I am reflecting on the other person’s thoughts. For example, I could ask about the other person’s child, e.g. ‘Does your daughter play games on the computer or is she doing something more productive (for example writing or art work).’ Or perhaps, ‘What kinds of hobbies does your daughter have when she is not playing on the computer.’
    Start Quote These kinds of questions are inviting the other person to tell me more about her world. They show that I am interested in the other person, her life and her cares. If I had launched into my opinions about screen time, I would have missed an opportunity to show the other person that I am interested in her daughter and her world. End Quote
  5. Set a time limit on your speech Ok. So you have probably guessed by now, that I do like to talk. Hence you are currently reading one of my lengthy articles in which I am expressing some of my thoughts. When I speak, I REALLY struggle to say things briefly. As you already know, I use many metaphors and try to describe things from multiple angles. So this rule is really hard for me. But I have recently started to try to apply it rigidly. LIMIT YOUR SPEAKING TIME. If you are explaining something, then 30 seconds should be the aim. I often speak for 45 seconds I think. And I think I just about get away with that. But 45 seconds is bordering on ‘I’m far more interested in talking than listening.’ If you do speak for 45 seconds, then ensure you ask the other person what they think when you finish. And then shut up for a while. You really milked your time slot so now it’s time to let the other person talk. In fact if you managed to speak for 45 seconds straight, then you hopefully managed to say something meaningful. You’d do well to say very little for quite some time. Concentrate on encouraging your conversation partner to express her opinions and reflect back on these. However, this rule is more important in shorter conversations. If you are spending a couple of hours or more with someone, then the situation is different. Longer stories may be more appropriate. But in either event – don’t dominate the floor. How talkative are you? Try our Talkativeness quiz to see how talkative you are compared to others: CLICK HERE
  6. Observe facial cues Human faces are designed to convey emotions. There are 43 muscles in the human face. During conversation, much is communicated through facial expression and body language. Once again, the problem is that we are often too concerned about what we want to say. We are also often so focussed on how we come across that we forget to watch the other person’s facial and body cues. However, most of what a person is feeling is communicated by their facial cues and body language. If people are bored, then they usually communicate this through becoming silent or beginning to become unresponsive. As mentioned before – non-response usually suggests the person is no longer happy with what we are saying. The key here is to try to become an expert people watcher. Determine to make a conscious effort to check your conversation partner’s facial cues and body language every 5-10 seconds whilst you are speaking. If you are not observing facial cues this may also be a sign you are not making enough eye contact. Eye contact is important and is generally believed to convey trust. However too much eye contact can be awkward. Learn to use facial cues and body language as a gauge of how rewarded the other person is feeling. If the person looks bored or awkward, it is worth thinking about why this is. Did you just say something that has offended the other person? Are you boring them? If so, perhaps change topic to something more light-hearted.
  7. Smile and be humorous This last tip is not about offering attention. However, it's extremely important if you want to maximise the other person's feeling of 'reward' during conversation.
    Start Quote Laughter releases endorphins in the human brain. Endorphins are part of the brain’s reward system. People feel happy when endorphins are released. In order to maximise your conversation partner’s reward during your conversation, make them laugh. End Quote
    The subject of how to make people laugh deserves a whole article in its own right. I plan to do more research on this subject in the future. The one thing I will say here is that making a humorous comment involves taking some risk. What if the person doesn’t laugh at your joke? Personally, I probably try to tell too many jokes during conversation. But I am a risk taker. If I attempt to make a humorous comment I run the risk that the other person might not laugh, which would be awkward. But I always feel like I would rather take this risk than miss the opportunity to make someone laugh. More often than not, I find people are amused by the fact that I was bold enough to say something slightly risky.
    • Being funny takes practise. But I believe the reward of a well-timed joke is well worth the risk of making a few mistakes along the way. Try throwing a humorous comments into your conversation. Then take note of when comments result in laughter, and conversely, when they obtained no response.
    As with many skills, you can improve at telling jokes if you practise. But if you aren’t willing to be embarrassed sometimes, you will never learn to be funny.

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I publish around 2 articles per month in which I share lessons I have learned that have significantly improved my life outcomes. Why not have my e-mail updates sent directly to your inbox? SIGN UP FOR MY EMAIL UPDATES to have my articles sent directly to you! (Alternatively click the orange 'Subscribe to Email Updates' button below.) Please Give Feedback: Did you find this article helpful? I love to receive feedback from people: it's what makes writing these articles worthwhile. If you found this article useful, or if you have any questions or comments please let me know. Click here to e-mail me, or leave a COMMENT BELOW. Your feedback means a great deal to me. Photo: Garry Knight


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