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Do You Make These 10 Mistakes in a Conversation?

Can you improve your conversation skills? Certainly.

It might take a while to change the conversation habits that’s been ingrained throughout your life, but it is very possible.

To not make this article longer than necessary let’s just skip right to some common mistakes many of us have made in conversations and a couple of solutions. 

And if you want more in-depth training then join us in my 12-week, step-by-step Smart Social Skills Course where I share the very best things I have learned in the past 8 years about improving social skills and relationship habits.

Not listening
Ernest Hemingway once said:

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”

Don’t be like most people. Don’t just wait eagerly for your turn to talk. Put your own ego on hold. Learn to really listen to what people actually are saying.

When you start to really listen, you’ll pick up on loads of potential paths in the conversation. But avoid yes or no type of questions as they will not give you much information. If someone mentions that they went fishing with a couple of friends last weekend you can for instance ask:

  • Where did you go fishing?
  • What do you like most about fishing?
  • What did you do there besides fishing?

The person will delve deeper into the subject giving you more information to work with and more paths for you choose from.

If they say something like: “Oh, I don’t know” at first, don’t give up. Prod a little further. Ask again. They do know, they just have to think about a bit more. And as they start to open up the conversation becomes more interesting because it’s not on auto-pilot anymore.

Asking too many questions
If you ask too many questions the conversation can feel like a bit of an interrogation. Or like you don’t have that much too contribute. One alternative is to mix questions with statements. Continuing the conversation above you could skip the question and say:

  • Yeah, it’s great to just get out with your friends and relax over the weekend. We like to take a six-pack out to the park and play some Frisbee golf.
  • Nice. We went out in my friend’s boat last month and I tried these new lures from Sakamura. The blue ones were really great.

And then the conversation can flow on from there. And you can discuss Frisbee golf, the advantages/disadvantages of different lures or your favourite beer.

Tightening up
When in conversation with someone you just meet or when the usual few topics are exhausted an awkward silence or mood might appear. Or you might just become nervous not knowing exactly why.

  • Leil Lowndes once said: “Never leave home without reading the newspaper.” If you’re running out of things to say, you can always start talking about the current news. It’s also good to stay updated on current water cooler-topics. Like what happened on the latest episode of Lost.
  • Comment on the aquarium at the party, or that one girl’s cool Halloween-costume or the host’s mp3-playlist. You can always start new conversations about something in your surroundings.
  • Assume rapport. If you feel nervous or weird when meeting someone for the first time assume rapport. What that means is that you imagine how you feel when you meet one of your best friends. And pretend that this new acquaintance is one of your best friends. Don’t overdo it though, you might not want to hug and kiss right away. But if you imagine this you’ll go into a positive emotional state. And you’ll greet and start talking to this new person with a smile and a friendly and relaxed attitude. Because that’s how you talk to your friends. It might sound a bit loopy or too simple. But it really works.

Poor delivery
One of the most important things in a conversation is not what you say, but how you say it. A change in these habits can make a big difference since your voice and body language is a vital part of communication. Some things to think about:

  • Slowing down. When you get excited about something it’s easy to start talking faster and faster. Try and slow down. It will make it much easier for people to listen and for you actually get what you are saying across to them.
  • Speaking up. Don’t be afraid to talk as loud as you need to for people to hear you.
  • Speaking clearly. Don’t mumble.
  • Speak with emotion. No one listens for that long if you speak with a monotone voice. Let your feelings be reflected in your voice.
  • Using pauses. Slowing down your talking plus adding a small pause between thoughts or sentences creates a bit of tension and anticipation. People will start to listen more attentively to what you’re saying. Listen to one of Brian Tracys cds or Steve Pavlina’s podcasts. Listen to how using small pauses makes what they are saying seem even more interesting.
  • Learn a bit about improving your body language as it can make your delivery a lot more effective. Read about laughter, posture and how to hold your drink in 18 ways to improve your body language.

Hogging the spot-light
I’ve been guilty of this one on more occasions than I wish to remember. :) Everyone involved in a conversation should get their time in the spotlight. Don’t interrupt someone when they are telling some anecdote or their view on what you are discussing to divert the attention back to yourself. Don’t hijack their story about skiing before it’s finished to share your best skiing-anecdote. Find a balance between listening and talking.

Having to be right
Avoid arguing and having to being right about every topic. Often a conversation is not really a discussion. It’s a more of a way to keep a good mood going. No one will be that impressed if you “win” every conversation. Instead just sit back, relax and help keep the good feelings going.

Talking about a weird or negative topic
If you’re at a party or somewhere were you are just getting to know some people you might want to avoid some topics. Talking about your bad health or relationships, your crappy job or boss, serial killers, technical lingo that only you and some other guy understands or anything that sucks the positive energy out of the conversation are topics to steer clear from. You might also want to save religion and politics for conversations with your friends.

Being boring
Don’t prattle on about your new car for 10 minutes oblivious to your surroundings. Always be prepared to drop a subject when you start to bore people. Or when everyone is getting bored and the topic is starting to run out of steam.

One good way to have something interesting to say is simply to lead an interesting life. And to focus on the positive stuff. Don’t start to whine about your boss or your job, people don’t want to hear that. Instead, talk about your last trip somewhere, some funny anecdote that happened while you where buying clothes, your plans for New Years Eve or something funny or exciting.

Another way is just to be genuinely interested. As Dale Carnegie said:

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you. Which is just another way of saying that the way to make a friend is to be one.”

Knowing a little about many things or at least being open to talk about them instead of trying to steer the conversation back to your favourite subject is a nice quality.

Meaning: talking for what seems like hours about one topic. Topics may include work, favourite rock-band, TV-show and more work.

Opening up a bit and not clinging desperately to one topic will make the conversation feel more relaxed and open. You will come across like a person who can talk about many things with ease. As you’ve probably experienced with other people; this quality is something you appreciate in a conversation and makes you feel like you can connect to that person easily.

Not reciprocating
Open up and say what you think, share how you feel. If someone shares an experience, open up too and share one of your experiences. Don’t just stand there nodding and answer with short sentences. If someone is investing in the conversation they’d like you to invest too.

Like in so many areas in life, you can’t always wait for the other party to make the first move. When needed, be proactive and be the first one to open up and invest in the conversation. One way is by replacing some questions with statements. It makes you less passive and makes take a sort of stand.

Not contributing much
You might feel that you don’t have much to contribute to a conversation. But try anyway. Really listen and be interested in what the others are saying. Ask questions. Make relating statements.

Open your eyes too. Develop your observational skills to pick up interesting stuff in your surroundings to talk about. Develop your personal knowledge-bank by expanding your view of interesting things in the world. Read the newspapers and keep an eye on new water cooler-topics.

Work on your body language, how you talk and try assuming rapport to improve your communication skills.

But take it easy. Don’t do it all at once. You’ll just feel confused and overwhelmed. Instead, pick out the three most important things that you feel needs improving. Work on them every day for 3-4 weeks. Notice the difference and keep at it. Soon your new habits will start to pop up spontaneously when you are in a conversation.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Philerfar November 13, 2006, 12:33 am

    Hey another tip, if you have problems maintaining eye contact with people just look at their nose instead…! It works for me :)

  • Manny November 13, 2006, 9:26 pm

    I think if I could remember even ONE of these excellent pointers, I would feel more comfortable atgatherings. Thank you for a great article. I am also fond of one of the Dale Carnegie programs on people skills… I review it here:


  • Matthew Cornell November 14, 2006, 2:11 pm

    Fantastic post!

  • Mr. Forex News November 15, 2006, 2:32 pm

    This is a very unassuming approach. Few would have the gumption to put something as simple and unadorned as Not Listening in the number one spot of a list like this, and expect it to get hundreds of Diggs. Great approach.

  • ryan November 30, 2006, 12:04 am

    OK what about these situations.

    1. Looking people in the eye when you are talking to them, I have the hardest time doing this, I can only look at one of the person’s eyes at a time. So i switch back and forth between eyes until I think i’m freaking them out with darty eyes and then look off somewhere else for a second and repeat. I once read that you should spend only 80% of any conversation with direct eye contact.

    2. I am an introvert, I don’t like social situation with more than 3 or four people. If I follow the majority of the rules up above, like the fishing situation exampled, I always feel like I am being a condescending jerk to the person, mainly in conversations that are just inane time passers, is this normal?

  • lollerkeet November 30, 2006, 2:55 pm

    For Ryan:

    1. Read Philerfar’s comment above. It does work (my mother taught it to me years ago as a way to win staring contests). I have trouble when I’m talking to groups – I never know how long to keep EC with any one person.

    2. I’m also bad at just chatting. So I don’t – learn to enjoy comfortable silence. This works well as you look adaptable; there is no reason not to just like being around people.

    As to the fear of being a jerk, don’t worry. Listening will make people like you. I have long believed that the best compliment you can give some-one is valuing their opinion.

  • Sleepy After Lunch December 4, 2006, 9:23 am

    Fun list!

    Overall, I think you should try to provide value to whoever you’re talking to instead of trying to gain value from them.

    So, give them the spotlight, listen to them and answer what they’re asking not turn them into your personal microphone.

  • Greg December 4, 2006, 9:43 am

    Good stuff.

    One of my personal conversation issues is that I am always “waiting my turn to talk.” I work hard not to do this because I think it sends the wrong message to the other person.

    Improving this skill requires a lot of work. Thanks for the post!


  • Anonymous December 10, 2006, 8:10 am


  • MANNY January 13, 2007, 4:35 am

    on shy people: Reeally it’s hard for them to open up because they need to feel that it’s a safe environment. That people won’t be judging them, often thats the big barrier for them to improve upon in public speaking is the realization that: with some of the tips above put into practice are great starting areas, to just saying to themselves “hey, guys I’m as interesting and funny as the next person. and I really don’t sound dumb”.
    Remember, Shy people, I’m still working on it too, so we gotta keep working on it, And seek out the help of friends too.

  • GordOn January 25, 2007, 11:07 am

    Making derogatory reference to a stranger that might just be a relative or friend due charge of defence in absence on what’s supposed to be a non-trivial criticism.

    Worst still is trumping up injury to parties absent for fun and then having to choose between the idea of “It’s duly pursued as more than a slight OR just a trifle off the cuff nothing, duly ignored as possibly ignorant.”

    Or worse still fabricating further in that direction after having made example already…falls under subsequent lying that undercuts reliable preaching.

  • Charnay February 9, 2007, 12:11 am

    I think being a shy person myself i have learned that it is easy for me to walk in a conferstaion an wait for a few min to hear what people are talking about and then when i have a oppertunity i will say something like i feel comfortable.

  • The Information Bank February 14, 2007, 6:06 pm

    Man! I make most of those mistakes! That sucks!

  • Anonymous March 2, 2007, 8:02 pm

    A lot of the time, I find myself in the middle of conversations, and because I am a perfectionist I feel like I not only have to talk, but entertain everyone around me. However, being an introvert, I don’t even enjoy talking to people very often. So I get by, but there is always that little voice in my ear whipsering: You’re a fake, you’re faking it, you’re living off borrowed time,” And I just feel lousy about how I have no integrity and can’t even be myself. So..girl, interrupted anyone?

  • Raven March 14, 2007, 1:22 am

    Excellent list of communication barriers. The entire post is worth the read – a comprehensive and well written article with sensible, practical advice! Thanks for sharing!

  • Eric Roth April 1, 2007, 7:51 am

    You’ve created a strong list of practical tips. I would add three more tips:
    1. Build on their insights, share similar experiences and try to find a classical allusion. The cultural reference allows you to take the conversation to a deeper level and builds rapport based on common touchstones.
    2. Appreciate the preciousness of each meeting. I sometimes ask people where they were born, and how many miles that is from where we talking. Some new age types like to talk about relating soul to soul, and not role to role, but I prefer to see each conversation as an active choice.
    3. Life is too short to be bored so I push myself to learn something from someone in a conversation. Therefore, I try to ask questions that actually interest me – and I often recycle information that I learned from one expert in conversations with other professionals in that same field.
    4. Expect the unexpected and give people room to be reveal themselves at their own pace in their own way. The third time I meet someone I feel far more comfortable than the first time we shake hands and exchange names. The awkwardness has gone, and we can discuss our short shared history of common experiences.

    Thank you for posting your article and allowing me to share some of my tips. Shalom.

  • Dr. Howtolife April 8, 2007, 4:54 pm

    I would like to add something to your list: Observing and analysing people..before I start a conversation I try to get some information on the person whom I talkng to. If you know what the interests of the person, you are able to adress them in a conversation.

  • asiaa April 16, 2007, 8:09 am

    very nice its very helpful to me.Especially i been in another country.More power.

  • Mike May 3, 2007, 10:10 am

    Great tips!

    Does anyone have advice on how to deal with people who just don’t talk? I know someone who gives one-word answers to just about any question I ask, or just smiles and laughs without even giving an answer. I wish I could get her to talk more so we could actually have a conversation, but I’m not sure she’s capable :)

  • Will May 4, 2007, 3:38 pm

    Another tip:

    Don’t comment or make fun of the obvious. For example, if someone has an unusual name, be assured they are tired of hearing comments on it after the 10 billionth time. Just act like their name is a normal part of your world, like it is a normal part of their world. This immediately establishes that you are comfortable with new and different things and gives them a break from what everyone else does upon meeting them.

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