6 Ways to Improve Your Conversations

You don't have to be born with the gift of gab to become an expert communicator. Here are six tips for better speaking and listening.

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By Jacqueline Whitmore

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The solution to the age-old problem of understanding others may be as simple as taking the time to improve your active listening skills. Active listening is all about building rapport, understanding and trust.

Your "likability" factor is largely determined by your ability to effectively listen to client and customer suggestions and successfully respond to their needs, requests and concerns. But you don't have to be born with the gift of gab to become an expert communicator. Here are six tips to help you become a better listener and actually hear what others are saying, not just what you think they are saying or what you want to hear.

Related: 5 Ways to Be a Better Listener

1. Show a real interest. When you speak to someone, especially in a busy or loud environment, give him or her your full attention. If you find yourself distracted or can't hear them well, ask to move to a quieter area. Practice empathetic listening. Put yourself in his or her shoes and try to see the situation through his or her eyes. Ask questions and encourage the other person to elaborate. Even if you haven't experienced the same situation, try sharing a personal story about a time when you felt similarly.

2. Use the magic words: "Tell me." Most people will cherish the opportunity to share their stories and experiences. To start a conversation, use the two most powerful words in conversation: "Tell me." Successful conversationalists avoid questions that may be answered with a simple yes or no. Ask open-ended questions and then listen. For example, you may say, "Tell me, Joe, what prompted you to start your own business?" Or ask for their input, "I'd like to take my family on a vacation this summer. Tell me, do you have a favorite vacation spot?" When you choose a topic of conversation that demonstrates interest in the other person, the discussion will flow more smoothly.

Related: For Better Conversations, Replace 'How Are You?' With This One Phrase

3. Say the other person's name. Dale Carnegie once said, "A person's name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language." Any business acquaintance will be flattered and impressed if you remember his or her name. If you have difficulty remembering names, set out to practice as frequently as possible. When you meet someone for the first time, say the person's name immediately. Respond with something like, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Frank." Then use their name a couple of times throughout your conversation. When the conversation ends, say their name one last time: "I really enjoyed meeting you, Jim."

4. Agree heartily; disagree softly. When someone agrees with you, it establishes an instant bond. Suddenly, you both have something in common. However, the strongest professional relationships exhibit mutual respect and admiration, even in disagreements. Tolerance and respect for others, especially when they disagree with you, is vital to successful networking. If you strongly disagree with someone's opinion, softly communicate that you don't see it the same way. Ask questions and allow the person to fully express his or her reasoning.

Related: The 3 Qualities of Likable People

5. Talk less; listen more. When someone speaks to you, listen with your whole body. Nod, make eye contact, and be fully engaged in what they have to say. Attentive listening will build trust and help you establish a professional relationship. When given the opportunity, ask pertinent questions, which will help demonstrate your sincere interest. If you don't understand, ask for specifics. You could ask a clarifying question such as, "If I hear you correctly, you're saying…Is that right?" It's best to confirm your assumptions rather than risk a miscommunication.

6. Don't interrupt or change the subject. Many assertive professionals finish others' sentences out of habit. If you jump in and interrupt someone's sentence, you prevent him or her from fully expressing his or her thoughts. Though your intentions may be good, the other person may perceive you to be a know-it-all or in a rush. Or worse, the person may think you are trying to put words in his or her mouth. Always permit the other person enough time to finish their thought before you respond. Your patience and thoughtfulness will be appreciated.

Related: Break the Ice: 8 Networking Tips for Introverts

Jacqueline Whitmore

Author, Business Etiquette Expert and Founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach

Jacqueline Whitmore is an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach in Palm Beach, Fla. She is the author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Professionals (St. Martin's Press, 2011) and Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work (St. Martin's Press, 2005).

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