How many of us have friends who simply will not stop talking? Chatting with these folks is easy, easier than easy — we just stand there while he or she moves from one subject to another.
You can almost see their minds winding down on one subject only to have the next topic pop up and off they go. Their idea of a conversation is to tell us everything that is on their minds. They ask no questions. They only make statements.
Granted, we do not have to work hard to be with Constant Talkers, and often they are interesting people. They tell good stories; it must be all that practice. We can stand at a reception or sit in a living room and just listen and sip on a beverage. It is not all bad; a bit lazy perhaps, but sometimes it is nice to have no responsibility to carry a conversation.
Some folks will fight back and grab an opening — even Constant Talkers have to breathe — and dive in with a story or change the subject. That actually is the way a lot of conversations go, the back and forth, the grab and release, the fight for equal air time. Both parties tend to enjoy these conversations, and both leave satisfied.
But some Constant Talkers become Dominant Talkers when you try to talk too. You have a comment, or you would like to add a story of your own, and the Dominant Talker will ride over you and get real loud until you give up trying. Ultimately, you will get your chance, but once Dominant Talkers hear you say anything that reminds them of a story, they will interrupt, and you are toast.
How about the person who gives up, who cannot stand to be ridden over, and who prefers to listen than to compete? We will call this person Sulker. This person just refuses to fight for time. If you interrupt his story, he will not start back unless you ask him to. Struggling with Sulker may not be all your fault. Sulker can come across as a dullard and may, in fact, be a dullard. Skilled conversationalists will recognize a Sulker and will say, “I’m sorry I interrupted you; you were telling me about your hedgehog.”
So, how do we know the type of person with whom we are dealing when we get in a car or are introduced at an event or are meeting for business?
You can start with nonverbal cues. Some people pick up cues easier than others; they tend to be more sensitive, more empathetic, or more aware. Part of understanding nonverbal cues involves looking at people and making eye contact. You can tell a lot looking at eyes while you can tell nothing looking at the floor, the person’s shoulder, or the lamp in the corner.
Has anyone ever asked you, “What’s wrong?” How did she know to ask? What aura were you giving off, what were you doing differently? Was it the way you were standing, holding your head, biting your lip? All that and more? Have you walked into a room and known something was off? Was it the way people were grouped, the hanging of the heads, the position of the bodies? Did the group just get bad news? Nonverbal cues do not have to be negative. You can see someone across the room and know she is excited or pleased.
Much of nonverbal communication is learned over time. Walk into a room and see two men talking quietly. You know, you just know, they are not talking about the big game this weekend, and you do not need to know anything about them to know they do not want to be interrupted, so most people will back out and leave them alone. Only a true Clueless will walk into the room anyway and start chatting.
Clueless is the person who does not get it, who misses the hints, who has no people skills, and who probably has no sense of humor. This person keeps on talking. It is comical to watch a person give as many obvious clues as possible without coming out and saying, “Stop talking. I have to leave!” She will glance at her watch, she will look to the door, she will put her elbow on a knee, she will look furtive, all without result. I have seen people stand up and say, “Walk with me, I have to go, but I want to hear the rest of your story.” Those folks are saintly people.
Can you listen to a story without telling a similar, even better story? Can you let another person’s story stand on its own, or do you have to win? Do you find yourself saying, “I can top that, my son hit two triples!” or, “That’s nothing, a tree landed on our car!” Can you listen to a story of joy and not find the negative, “Well, you know you will have to pay taxes on that car you won.” What is wrong with people like that?
Are you the person who goes to an event and has no idea what to say to anyone you meet? Let’s call you Shy. You dread parties. It suits you to bury yourself in the artichoke dip and to keep your head down. If you must talk to someone, your topic of choice is the weather. Don’t worry, you are giving a hundred cues that you do not want company. You look like the spouse who has been dragged to a place you do not want to be. What a joy you are! The chances are excellent you will get your wish, you will be left alone, you will go home miserable, and your miserable experience will be well earned.
How about when Constant Talker meets up with Shy? That’s fun to watch. Constant Talker talks nonstop at the food table about anything at all while Shy makes roast beef sandwiches and shoves them down. Both people are reasonably happy; one gets to talk, and one gets to be left alone. Constant Talker asks no questions and Shy does not intend to.
Most people want to interact with other humans, to learn, to be entertained, and to express opinions and stories. Destinations such as wedding receptions, dinner parties, club meetings, business meetings, and church give us contact with others, which is why the recent pandemic has been so hard. Human isolation is unnatural.
Some folks are better at interactive conversation than others. The better conversationalists ask more questions than make statements. They have a wide range of interests. They listen. They are intuitive.
To start a conversation, ask a question. “How are you?” is okay, but most people will say “Fine,” even if they had to put their dog down that day. “What have you been up to?” is a terrible opening; it puts the pressure on the other person to come up with something to talk about; still, that is better than a blank stare at the floor. A roaring fire of conversation has to start with a lit twig, so if you have to give the weather forecast or tell a person about the traffic ticket you got on the way over, fine, you are building the fire. Don’t worry; unless you are talking to Shy, he or she will pick up the thread and you will be fine.
Next, reach for common ground. To find a subject of joint interest, you may have to swing and miss a couple of times, but that is okay. It helps to have lots of interests, and the more curious you are, the sooner you will be engaged in a rewarding conversation.
I am not a fan of “What do you do?” but if that is how you like to start conversations, just do not drop it once they tell you. “I am an IRS agent.” Crickets. Always follow up with another question, “Interesting! Are you on the audit side?” “What territory do you cover?” “How can you sleep at night?” No, I made that one up. Try to avoid making fun of a person’s career. “Don’t call me! I paid my taxes!”
I prefer finding out about a person’s non-career interests. Find out about her hobbies, like hunting, playing golf, reading books about Mongolia, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or volunteering for The Cooperative Ministry. Some people do not have hobbies; that in itself can become a topic of conversation. “I work all the time, I have no hobbies, and I have not had a vacation in 10 years.” “Gosh, that’s great, umm, do you own a dog?”
A friend of mine recently sat with a woman at a dinner party out of state, and he had no idea what to ask her. She was more skilled than he, turned to him and asked him where he lived. He told her Columbia, South Carolina. She said, “If I go to Columbia, what do you think I should see?” What a great question! What a wonderful opening for an evening of conversation.
It is unlikely that the woman at the dinner party just thought of that question. She probably had it and a list of other open-ended questions in her mind to start a conversation. She also had a sense of place. She was at a dinner party where no one was going anywhere and a conversation could be developed. At receptions, conversations have to be quicker, more concise, because other people will walk up and interrupt.
The point of all this is, Be Prepared. Know where you are going, why you are going, who will be there, and why they will be there. Have general questions in mind that can be used for any situation. You are not trying to win a conversation, you just want to connect with people, to learn about them, and to learn what they know. Curious people are the best conversationalists; they ask questions.