Great tips for great conversations

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Developing good conversational skills is important for newcomers. Knowing how to properly speak to people will help us learn more about our new environment, make it easier to find our way around, and, most importantly, help build connections – make new friends and become part of a community. I’m talking about real conversations here, not just small talk. However, for many of us, knowing enough English is a major stumbling block. We worry that we might not be able to carry out a good conversation and run out of words to say. But did you know that carrying out a good conversation is less about what you say and more about learning how to listen?

10 ways to have better conversations

In this TED Talk, award-winning journalist and radio program host Celeste Headlee shares 10 practical tips for better conversations. Foremost among the great tips she shares is “Listen to people, keep your mind open and prepare to be amazed!”

10 lessons from the TED Talk:

  1. Don’t multitask – Be present in the conversation. Be in that moment. Don’t be half in the conversation and half looking around or checking your phone.
  2. Don’t pontificate – True listening requires the setting aside of oneself. Don’t lecture. Assume that you have something to learn. According to Bill Nye, “Everybody that you will ever meet knows something that you don’t.”
  3. Use open-ended questions – Ask questions like “What was it like?” “How did you feel?”
  4. Go with the flow – Let ideas come and go when you’re talking to someone. Don’t focus on your next question and forget to listen to what the other person is saying in the very moment.
  5. Be honest – If you don’t know something, say that you don’t know.
  6. It’s not about you – Don’t equate your experience with theirs. It’s never the same. People need you to listen to their unique experience.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself – Don’t repeat what you’ve already said because it is tedious to listen to something you’ve heard before.
  8. Stay out of the weeds – This means leave out unnecessary details. Don’t put in too many details when speaking. It will make you boring.
  9. Listen – Buddha said, ”If your mouth is open, you’re not learning.” You don’t have to believe everything you hear but it is a good practice to listen first without judgment and avoid butting in with your own point. Stephen Covey said, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply.”
  10. Be brief – “A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.”

Additional notes

In friendly Manitoba, starting a conversation can be easy. Many people talk to newcomers and are interested in making them feel welcome. The following are additional points that can help you have great conversations with the great Manitobans around you:

  1. Be polite and gracious – Always greet people with a good morning/hello/hi and follow it up with “how are you?” This is the normal way to start a conversation. Always answer back with “good, thanks” (or a variation) when you are asked, “how are you?”. Do your best to talk about positive things. Don’t start a conversation by complaining about the weather, the traffic, or another person. This is not polite. Also, nobody likes to talk to a grumpy person.
  2. Have a good answer to usual questions – People like to ask newcomers questions like “How do you like Manitoba/Canada so far?” You don’t have to say “I love it here!” when you don’t (but do say it if you do!). Do not offend people by pointing out every little thing that you don’t like. Be gracious and diplomatic. You can perhaps say “I’m still getting used to the cold climate but I admire how warm the people are. I can’t wait for spring to see the beautiful and fresh scenery” (or a variation). Then maybe you can ask them in turn what they love about Manitoba or Canada. You’ll learn more that way.
  3. Body language – In the video, Celeste says that you don’t have to act interested when you ARE interested. However, there are cultural elements involved in body language. So just to reiterate, some good gestures to show that you are interested are keeping eye contact and nodding your head at certain points of the conversation. Don’t let your eye wander around, or tinker with other things while you’re in a conversation. It will also be good if you maintain a comfortable distance between you and the speaker (about an arm’s length) and most of all, don’t yawn.

Great conversational skills do not come automatically. Just like any skill, it has to be honed. And for us still learning the language, it will take continuous learning to become a master conversationalist. So just continue improving your English skills, keep talking to people, stay open, and most of all, be genuinely interested in the people around you.

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