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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What does it involve to become a great conversationalist?

Answer: Mastery has to do with expert skill, knowledge, or artistry. We think of Tiger Woods as a master of golf, Pablo Casals as a master of the cello. Some cultures such as Japan acknowledge Zen masters, Tea Ceremony masters, Aikido masters. However, it is harder to identify masters of conversation and agree who they are. Historical examples are Socrates, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Clemens, and Oscar Wilde, plus thousands of lesser known masters. Masters exhibit a consistently high level of skill.

2. How do people become master conversationalists?

Answer: Actually, in my opinion, not many do. At most, 5-10% of the population. Those people have high social intelligence and language ability to start with. They hone their skills in the presence of other excellent conversationalists, not unlike the way a martial arts student might practice with highly skilled others. For example, if you play tennis and want to get better at your game, you must play with more and more skillful players. Otherwise, you can't improve. Also, many sports and nearly all performing arts employ coaches and master teachers. At this time, the art of conversation has only a few expert coaches.

3. What's the difference between "small talk" and "conversation"?

Answer: Actually, small talk is a specific and important type of conversation. It is less complex and has as its main purpose building and maintaining relationships by talking about common topics such as family, business, sports, entertainment, and so forth.

4. Does successful conversation depend on all talkers?

Answer: Yes. However, a conversationalist of low or average skill may not be able to create a good conversation with a stranger. However, a skilled conversationalist would probably be able to do so. Think of a Fred Astaire dancing with a partner who has minimal dancing skills. He would make that partner better despite her low level of skill.

5. What is the function of listening in conversation?

Answer: The important function of accurately receiving the messages. Many good talkers are not very good receivers, and some good listeners are not very good talkers. You need both skill-sets. Some excellent conversationalists do less than 50% of the talking, sometimes only 20-25% of the talking, occasionally as little as 10%.

6. What are the rewards for becoming skillful at conversation?

Answer: They are many, including improved human relations with family and friends and greater effectiveness in the workplace. Highly skillful conversationalists tend to rise in their jobs and professions, often achieving positions of leadership. The evidence is clear that just as advanced education is related to higher income, so is greater conversational skill related to higher income.

7. How can I develop my conversational skills?

Answer: Identify places where people engage in intelligent talk, such as book clubs, discussion groups, and salons. In the U.S. and Canada, some cities have "Conversation Cafes" that meet weekly. It's helpful to spend time with persons you know to be excellent conversationalists, those who have many of the mastery proficiencies . You can even create your own "conversation circle" and invite a few qualified people for open discussions on topics of mutual interest.

8. How can I improve my speaking vocabulary?

Answer: Mainly through reading good writing, including fiction, poetry, essays, as well as non-fiction material. You can learn useful new words from the context of the material. You can also listen to audio tapes and to people who use rich vocabularies such as hosts and quests on public radio. Then you must soon use the new words when talking to develop the ability to use it appropriately.

9. How can I overcome my nervousness or shyness when talking to people?

Answer: Often your nervousness results from self-consciousness and not knowing what to say. As we acquire greater social learning and conversational skills, that nervousness tends to fade away. Confidence comes when we know we can do it because we have repeatedly done it. To gain this confidence, you must practice regularly talking to others. Too often shy or anxious people avoid social contact and therefore do not gain the fluency needed for confidence. It is also possible to reduce anxiety by changes in how you think about conversing, such as the change from "I'll probably say something stupid" to "I am able to talk effectively with others."