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Three little words that will make you a great conversationalist

It was an ordinary exchange–two women waiting in a long line, chatting to offset the boredom. I initiated the conversation, asking the woman behind me if she shopped there often. One simple question yielded a mother lode of information about her. She was, I learned, new to the neighborhood, Polish on both sides of her […]

It was an ordinary exchange–two women waiting in a long line, chatting to offset the boredom. I initiated the conversation, asking the woman behind me if she shopped there often. One simple question yielded a mother lode of information about her. She was, I learned, new to the neighborhood, Polish on both sides of her family, a teacher of computer skills at two local high schools, married to the dean of a local college, the mother of three boys, about to retire soon, a former researcher, recently returned from a trip to Aruba, a chocolate aficionada, and so on.

The line had been steadily inching forward and the cashier was now scanning my items. And so, my partner-in-line ended the chat with these words: “Well, it was nice talking to you.” Except, I reflected, she had done all the talking. I had learned enough about her for a Wikipedia entry and yet, she knew nothing about me.

A RULE FOR INTERPERSONAL EXCHANGES

A supermarket chat like this is inconsequential, of course. But other dialogues can have a serious impact on the way others regard you. There’s a simple rule that will help ensure you are favorably regarded: It’s the 50/50 rule. Whether the setting is business, social, in-person or on the telephone, the rule asks that you spend about half the time in the exchange listening and the other half speaking. You can easily assess how well you are doing by setting a timer and then tape-recording the conversation. (Let the other person know what you are doing and why.) Then go back and see if you dominated the conversation by taking more than your share of time. Or, count the number of sentences each of you has spoken during that time.

Another way to see if you are following the rule: Ask a trusted friend to assess you unobtrusively sometime within the next few weeks. He or she will set a timer and then see if you occupied more than half the time talking.

Having made yourself aware of the need to share the conversational stage, you will be able to self-monitor as well.

THOSE THREE LITTLE WORDS

Once you’ve expounded, opined, or shared information about yourself, turn to the other person as ask, “How about you?” That is your invitation for the person to do his or her own expounding, opining, or sharing of information.

Of course, there are variations on the phrase. You could show your interest in what they have to say by asking, “What about you? How do you feel about this?” Or, “Now, tell me about you.” Or, “Are your experiences similar to what I’ve just described?” There are untold ways to show you’d like to hear from the other person, to show that you are sincerely interested in his or her point of view.

IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU

The recognition that listening and speaking are conversational co-partners is perhaps best shown by a lady in England whose name history failed to record. She moved in London’s upper circle, though. And so, she had the good fortune to dine on two occasions with well-known leaders. First, she dined with Gladstone. Then, with his political arch rival Disraeli.

Asked to compare the two, she gave this response. “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the most clever man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the most clever woman in England.”

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