Great tips for great conversations

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Developing good conversational skills is important for newcomers. These skills are essential to building connections, making new friends and becoming a part of the community. Those who are still learning English may be worried about what to say during conversations. This can prevent them from trying. It’s important to know that making good conversation is less about what we say and more about how we 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 these is “Listen to people, keep your mind open and be prepared to be amazed!”


10 lessons from the TED Talk:

  1. Don’t multitask – Be present in the conversation and pay attention. Don’t be distracted by your phone or other people around the room.
  2. Don’t pontificate – This means don’t lecture. “True listening requires the setting aside of oneself” (M.Scott Peck). This means setting aside your personal opinion and beliefs so that you’ll be free to listen and 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 too much 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. 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.” It would be a good policy to avoid doing this.
  10. Be brief – “A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.”

Connecting in Manitoba

Starting a conversation in friendly Manitoba is easy. People talk to newcomers and like to make them feel welcome. Here are additional points to help 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 the question “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. Nobody wants 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!). But don’t offend people by pointing out every little thing that you don’t like. Be tactful and say something like “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”. Then 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 also cultural elements involved in body language. Maintaining eye contact and nodding your head at certain points of the conversation are the most common ways to show that you are listening. It will also be good if you maintain a comfortable distance between you and the speaker (about an arm’s length) so you don’t invade personal space. Don’t yawn while in a conversation even if it’s not intentional. This will offend the person you’re having a conversation with.

Conversational skills do not come automatically. They have to be honed. Keep working on it by improving your English skills, talking to others often, staying open, and most of all, listening and being genuinely interested in the people around you.

Article updated July 23, 2021.

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