Put The Art of Conversation In Your Business Toolbox

By Juanita Ecker

We were relaxing at a bed and breakfast when my husband attempted to start a conversation with the person sitting next to him. He asked, “Where are you from?”

“New York City,” the man replied.

“I notice you have an accent,” my husband said. “Where did you grow up?”


My husband tried one more time. “What do you do in New York City?”

“Teach math.”

After that, my husband gave up the conversation and turned his attention to others at the table.

You may have, at one time or another, participated in a conversation that was similar to the one above. Engaging another person in conversation is not always easy. Fortunately, good conversation is a learned skill. Overcoming the awkward moments can be simple if you know what to do. Here are some tips that will help you start conversations, engage in small talk and leave a positive lasting impression on those you meet.

Use open-ended questions or statements. When you ask a closed-ended question (for instance, a “yes or no” question), the response is often a one-word answer. Open-ended questions require more thought. The individual must respond with a full sentence. Here are some examples of open-ended questions and statements from the book The Fine Art of Smalltalk by Debra Fine:

  • “Describe a typical day in your job.”
  • “What got you interested in…?”
  • “What do you enjoy most about your profession?”
  • “Tell me about your favorite way to relax on the weekends.”

Assume your responsibility in the conversation. When someone asks you a question, don’t respond with a one-word answer. Instead, expand on the topic and be prepared to talk about yourself. Give your conversation partner enough information to ask another question on that topic. For example, when someone says, “Those are interesting earrings you are wearing,” you might respond with “Yes, I bought them in Greece a few years ago.” Now you have given that person enough information to keep the conversation going.  Remember to ask questions in return.

Be an ardent listener. When I ask others to describe the traits of a good conversationalist, they always mention “good listening.” To be an ardent listener, you must pay attention to both the verbal and nonverbal signals that you send to the other person. Turn your body toward the speaker, maintain eye contact, give the person your undivided attention (don’t assume you can listen while doing another task) and provide listening clues, such as nodding your head or interjecting a comment like “That’s interesting,” “Really?” or “Um-hum.”

Use keywords to keep the conversation going. Some people find it difficult to contribute to the conversation if they are not familiar with the topic.  Instead they will quickly switch topics.  If you encounter a topic with which you are not familiar, encourage the speaker to keep talking by repeating a word or two from the conversation and making supportive statements.  For example, if a person mentions a weekend fishing trip, you might reply with “You went fishing!”  A supportive statement could be “That’s interesting,” “Tell me more,” “Really” or “That’s amazing.” As an alternative, be willing to admit ignorance-and interest. “You know, I know almost nothing about fishing, but it always seemed fascinating to me. Do tell more.” By using keywords your conversation partner has used, you can keep the focus on him or her for a long time and learn a lot about that individual.

Mastering the art of conversation allows you to feel at ease, interact effortlessly and leave a lasting impression on those around you. There are few better ways to start and build the relationships you need for business success.

©2006 – 2009 Professional Image Management

If you would like to use this article in your newsletter or blog, you may do so. Please include our credit information: Written by Juanita Ecker, Professional Image Management www.professionalimagemanagement.com. © Copyright 2006. I would also appreciate it if you would send us a copy for our files.

Juanita Ecker, president of Professional Image Management, is a corporate image and business etiquette consultant. She can be reached by phone at (518) 279-9388 or online at www.professionalimagemanagement.com.

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