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What are some ways I can practice increasing my conversational skills?

I don't consider myself a shy person, but I am definitely more on the introverted side. My written communication skills are excellent, but I tend to get tongue tied when speaking, often because I'm not the best at "thinking on my feet". I can write a stellar cover letter, but kill an interview because I can't speak as fluidly (for example)

I am not afraid to step out of my comfort zone for the sake of networking or (attempting) leadership, but feel that I am very awkward at making small talk, or initiating general conversation. I'm a much better listener and advice giver than I am a conversationalist.

What are some methods to overcome this?

  • possible duplicate of How can I overcome my fear of public speaking? – gnat Jul 5 '15 at 23:44
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    I disagree. I can speak in front of crowds, I often participate in staff meetings, group discussions, etc. I do not have any type of fear of speaking – IndigoJane Jul 5 '15 at 23:47
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    I see, thanks. Consider editing the question to let readers see that this is not the issue (people often miss clarifications given in comments) – gnat Jul 5 '15 at 23:53
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    I'm a much better listener and advice giver than I am a conversationalist Don't forget conversations are 2-way interactions (or more with a group). If you're better at listening, be the one to ask questions and show interest. People generally like talking when you show interest, unless they're busy or something. – Brandin Jul 6 '15 at 5:48
  • related: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/25768/… (my advice there is "ask questions" and it applies here too.) – Kate Gregory Jul 6 '15 at 12:56
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  1. LISTEN - listen to what they're saying not to what you think they're saying or especially, not to what you want to hear them say or what you wish they had said.

  2. Ask for clarifications if needed. You don't want to be talking past each other and blaming each other when that happens.

  3. Go with the flow. Relax, don't fight it. People who don't know how to swim drown like rats because they are smashing at the water with all four limbs in an effort to keep their heads above water. The instability they create in the hydrodynamics around their body does nothing for their body's buoyancy and guess what - it's the buoyancy that keeps their bodies floating and them alive. Float with the conversation. Don't flail around.

  4. Don't try to control the conversation - if you are talking to an interviewer, you might cut them off from asking questions that they HAVE to ask you to make an evaluation of you, and that will cost you.

  5. Don't speak more than four five sentences at a time. You'll lose the other party's attention with any kind of monologue that lasts longer than 30 to 45 seconds.

  6. I don't do small talk. I am not comfortable with saying "Hello, how are you?" because that greeting, unfortunately for me, acts as a signal to my brain to shut down. So I throw the greeting out the window and get straight to the point. I have had plenty of fascinating off-line and sideline conversations at computer meetups and conferences - not sure if these conversations qualify as small talk but we end up walking away from each other happy that we have learned something from each other and usually without bothering to sy "good bye" :)

  • Thanks for your answer. I guess I should have clarified that I meant conversing in general, not specifically in an interview. Maybe I will edit my question – IndigoJane Jul 5 '15 at 23:22
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    The answer I gave you applies to every type of conversation, especially interviews. In fact, if you interview in the same way you speak, you get practice. Plenty of it. And of course, you are more comfortable speaking at interviews. We train the way we fight, so that we fight the way we train - and win :) – Vietnhi Phuvan Jul 5 '15 at 23:27
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Normally a fear like yours is simply because you are not confident in what you are saying. It's not that you don't know what you are talking about, and you can write about it easily. However when you are conversing with someone, or in an interview situation, that lack of belief in your own knowledge can be somewhat paralysing.

How do I know this? I'm exactly the same :)

So how do I overcome it? Well, it comes down to reinforcing in your mind that you do know what you are talking about. The knowledge is there. What I do is I pause for a moment to formulate the sentence rather than blurt it all out. Just nod, pause, then you may find that you can articulate quite well when you take the pressure off yourself to respond instantly.

Some of the most interesting and insightful conversationalists are often thoughtful, because they take their time to think before they respond :)

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There is already some good advice on how to be a good conversationalist and getting comfortable with public speaking, but I think they miss the "how do I practice my skills?" part of the question.

How do you learn to play a new game well? First, you go over the rules and strategies, which I think Vietnhi has covered pretty well. Then, you start easy to practice the skills and get the feel for different strategies. Once you master the basics, you ramp up the difficulty and try more complex strategies.

When you're learning a new game, you probably realize that you're going to "lose" a lot in the beginning; it's not that different when learning a social skill. There will be failed or awkward conversation attempts as part of the learning. When I was doing my practicing and I messed up, sometimes I'd just say that I was working on my conversation skills and make a joke about how much more room I had left to improve. Most people are very kind about it. For me, my practice worked best when I focused on being sincere and honest. When it comes to small-talk, if you can't say something nice and true, say something non-committal and true.

Starting easy for me was attempting to strike up a conversation with a stranger while waiting in line or something similar. I think it's easier because you will likely never see that person again, so you don't have to relive flub-ups every day at work. Make a comment on something neutral - the weather, how long the line is, or whatever. The conversation might last for only a few remarks, but you're just practicing and not trying to win the trophy for world's best conversationalist just yet. You get to practice starting a conversation and exiting it gracefully.

The next stage is to strike up a conversation with someone you might actually see again, but that you don't know well. I like to use a sincere compliment or a question to start a conversation. I'm a woman, so I can notice what people are wearing without being creepy - those are great shoes, that dress is a great color on you, etc. I've also asked about some cool looking headphones, an interesting cell phone case, eyeglass frames, unusual lapel pin, et. al. Almost everyone has something about them that asks to be noticed if you're paying attention. These conversations can also be short, and if they end at "Thanks!" you've still brightened someone's day by paying them a compliment. Sometimes if you noticed the right thing, they can be a bit longer and you'll mostly be listening. You get to practice starting a conversation, active listening, keeping the conversation going by asking questions, and exiting a conversation.

The next stage I think is just to make up challenges for yourself to work on where you think you need to improve. For me the pinnacle of challenges was going to a gathering where I only knew the host and challenging myself to have a few words with everyone there. The more conversations you strike up, the more comfortable you will be having conversations, and the easier the small-talk will come. A lot of small-talk is pretty formulaic, and when done poorly is boring and pointless. The art of small talk is taking the opening formulas and transforming them into something that engages the person you're talking with and turns the small-talk into a real conversation. To do that, I think you have to really see and hear the person you're talking to, which is difficult if you're nervous about having a conversation.

After practicing a new game, you will start to see the patterns and you won't have to look in the rule book after every move. Practicing conversations is very similar. The basic rules and strategies will become second nature, and you can focus on enjoying conversations instead of worrying about how to have a good one.

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