Wednesday 21 May 2014 8:18 pm

How to perfect the art of conversation

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Ask anyone who’s been successful in business and they’ll tell you that informal conversations are essential. Why? It’s where they find out what’s going on, pick up ideas, create important connections and form rewarding business relationships.

So what makes a good conversation? You might think you need the gift of the gab, smart wit and a store of useful facts at your fingertips. But that on its own doesn’t do it. So what does?

Conversation isn’t just talking. It’s more like a game of tennis with both players involved. You might be a fount of great stories and statistics, but if the other person can’t get a word in, they’re going to get frustrated. The secret is to keep the ball in play. Start very simply with a light comment or casual question – no pressure – just to get the ball in the air. When someone asks you something, give your reply, then bat the ball back with a question of your own. For example, “Yes, our business has been heavily hit by exchange rates. What about you? Are you more active in the domestic market?”

Conversation is a subtle process, in which you are constantly picking up clues from each other. As in sport, you meet as equals – whatever your relative status in your organisation. Greg Dyke, while director-general of the BBC, was well known for chatting easily with staff and, as a result, he kept his ear to the ground. In return, his staff built an enormous respect and affection for him.

Don’t jump to instant conclusions about people. Instead, get curious. You never know when a vital insight or connection might come from an unlikely source. And it’s much more likely to happen when you are genuinely interested, without judgement or criticism.

Tune in to what’s happening beyond the actual words. Tone of voice, breathing and body language tell you far more than what the person actually says. When you’re able to suss out what’s really going on beneath the words, you can respond flexibly and on the button, and make the most of the exchange.

Tune in to the person’s energy. If they are calm, speak calmly. If they are enthusiastic, put more energy into it. They will feel acknowledged, and you’ll get on their wavelength. Such connection is absolutely basic to achieving a good result, but it’s not necessarily about agreeing. You’ll never create a good relationship if you agree with everything for fear of causing offence. Maintain connection through easy eye contact and matching energy, and be willing to say when you disagree. It makes for a more lively and enjoyable conversation, and ultimately leads to better business outcomes.

Take a risk and stay real. You may be tempted to “blag” to appear more professional, but people tend to spot what’s going on. Know this: you are far more interesting when you are genuine, even though you may feel more vulnerable. If you keep your feelings tightly buttoned up, you may protect yourself but nothing interesting is going to happen.

Let your colleagues see your enjoyment, frustration or determination. Tell them what matters to you. Successful networkers will tell you that strong bonds are formed when people share values. If you care about something, take the risk of letting the other person know. When you’re open and at ease, you build people’s trust. Then exciting opportunities happen.

Judy Apps is a communication specialist, coach and author of The Art of Conversation: Change your Life with Confident Communication, published by Capstone and available now.