The Art of Good Conversation Skills

Content Written/Updated on May 12, 2007

Anyone can learn to improve their conversation skills.

While growing up, I always admired anyone who could carry on a conversation, especially an interesting conversation, and I often worried that I would never have such an ability. In college, I finally began to develop that ability, but it wasn’t something that I learned naturally. It took time to learn, and then I needed to practice at every chance I had.

The Rule of Good Conversation: Make the Other Person Comfortable

  • Don’t complain.
  • Give lots of compliments.
  • Make eye contact and smile.
  • Don’t interrupt, verbally or with inappropriate body language.
  • When in a group, don’t have conversations that exclude anyone else in the group.
  • Don’t be judgmental (even if just temporarily).
  • Don’t correct the other person.
  • Mirror the other person’s mood
  • Be yourself

Conversation Starters

The quickest way to start a conversation is to talk about something you and the other person already have in common. If you’re talking to a group, try to pick a topic you all have in common. Chances are, you are in the same place, so you can talk about your mutual location by commenting on something nice about it. If you are both at an event, make a nice comment bout the event. If you have a mutual friend or organization, talk about this as well by casually asking, “How long have you been friends with…?” or saying a positive comment, such as “It’s amazing how much this company has grown. When I started working here, we held the Christmas party at Judy’s house, and now we’ve grown up so much that we’re renting out hotel ballrooms. It’s really nice to see this business grow.”

Building Conversation with Follow-up Questions

The best way to encourage somebody else to speak is to ask that person questions. If you’ve already started talking about a topic, follow-up questions can build the conversation.

Let’s say that you are at a company event. After making a positive comment about the company as an opener, you can begin the follow-up questions. You can easily ask questions like, “So, what position do you have here at XYZ Company?” and “How long have you worked with XYZ Company?” After the other person answers the question, smile make a pleasant comment about their answer: “Twenty years? Well, that’s fifteen years longer than I’ve been here. I’ll need to be sure to pay attention to your expertise.” Then continue with another follow-up question: “What was the company like when you started?”

  • Let the conversation progress naturally. If you reach an uncomfortable silence, go back to the initial topic (or a previously discussed topic) that both of you have in common.
  • If you have a specific matter that you wish to discuss, try to lead the conversation toward that topic initially rather than being too direct at the beginning. You can directly address the specific matter once the conversation has developed. Avoid abruptly ending the conversation after you have discussed the specific matter, and always try to follow the specific matter with another topic, so you don’t seem as though you only bothered to speak to the individual to ask a question or make a comment.

Conversation Topics

Unless you feel very comfortable with the other person, avoid topics that are controversial. If you aren’t very good friends with the other person, don’t talk about personal subjects, like marriage or health. If you’ve just met this person or if it’s business situation, also avoid talking about politics, religion, money, or controversial topics in the news.

You can typically talk to most people about the arts (e.g. theater, movies, music, dance, paintings, sculptures, books, museums, etc.), sports, travel, hobbies, favorite places to visit, charity activities, weather, science, technology, consumer products, professional products (if you are in the same profession), history, and news. Make sure you read up on several of these topics since no single topic will work in every conversation.

You can also encourage the other person to carry more of the conversation by taking time to let them teach you something new. Let’s say your conversation partner is scientist who works with lasers, and you know nothing about lasers. Ask, “So how do lasers work?” Then add follow-up questions, such as “If it’s just one beam of light, how do they split them up in laser shows?” Your conversation partner will typically enjoy the ego boost of being an expert, knowing something that others don’t know, and being interesting by having an interesting topic to discuss.

Where to Practice Your New Skills

Conversation skills are best developed before an important event. The sooner you start practicing, the better your skills will be at the event.

A great place to practice new skills on random strangers while waiting for trains or buses. If you make a complete fool of yourself, it doesn’t matter because you’ll likely never see that random stranger again, and if you do see them again, there’s a very good chance they won’t remember you (unless you have some physical feature or style that makes you stand out of the crowd).

Start looking for any opportunity to talk to others. If you have kids, practice your skills by talking to other parents at play dates, parties, classes, and sports. If you have pets, talk to other pet owners at the park, vet, etc. If you sit at home working on your computer all day, sign up for a club or class to practice your skills.