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The Art of Asking Questions

How to Keep a Conversation Alive


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		  How to Keep a Conversation Alive   

 A client asks: “How can I keep a conversation alive (as a matter  of choice or necessity) in some situations where it is required,  but when the other party is not contributing to continue the  conversation?”   

Sometimes conversations can be kept alive, and sometimes  not. Then again, sometimes they are not worth keeping alive.   

Having reluctant conversational partners makes for a difficult  time, especially if they are unwilling to talk or to listen. Their  behavior could be caused by a severe shyness, or perhaps an  episode of self-consciousness, or even depression. Sometimes  persons simply want to withdraw from interaction and into their  own thoughts instead of engaging in conversation – even if  this appears rude.   

How to Keep People Engaged   

Several suggestions that may help you to engage people:   

1. Make adjustments to establish rapport on the nonverbal  level. If they are behaving quietly, mirror their behavior. If they  are speaking softly, lower your own volume of speech. (Sometimes  a lively, friendly, and exuberant manner feels overwhelming to a  quiet person.)   

2. Be interested in them and very patient. Because everyone  has a story to tell, if you ask safe, open questions you will often  get them to speak. “What brings you to this event?” and “What  do you like best about the program so far?” are examples of how  to start. Patience is required to give them time to think before  they answer.   

3. If they begin to respond to such general questions and you are  feeling connected with them, you can ask other questions about their  work or personal life. If they are non-responsive to your first questions,  even if you have been very attentive and tactful, they are probably  signalling that “I don't want to talk now.” Then it's time to politely  turn away and move on, maybe saying something like “Perhaps we  can talk another time.”   

Sometimes people are just in negative or very private  moods because something upsetting has happened. They may  think that because these concerns are so present in their own  minds, everyone else is aware of their inner state and should  therefore respect their wish to avoid interaction.   

Still others may be un-cooperative because it's a way to control  the situation. Some adolescents are legendary for their ability to  control others – especially parents – by withdrawing and being sullen.   

If you want to engage a reluctant person, apply the suggestions  above. As the saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” Conversation  is a collaborative event, and it certainly requires two willing  people to converse. If you see that they aren't willing to collaborate  after a few sincere attempts by you, politely disengage. It's not  about you. It's about them.   

To keep a conversation alive you need topics of mutual interest  and you need to express interest in the other person's talk..  Conversations sometimes die because a mundane topic has been  exhausted. (That is why routine small talk expires so quickly.  The responses are predictable, and there's not much more to be said.)   

Try Mini-interviews   

For such situations, I recommend preparing a few “mini-interviews”  such as “Where did you grow up?” and “What was the neighborhood like?”  or “How do you like to spend your vacations?” and “What are your next  vacation plans?” Having alternative topics to offer will help you get the  conversation unstuck. Dwelling on a topic that has become stale is the  main reason a conversation dies. 


Loren Ekroth ©2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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