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The Art of Conversation in Brief
1. Don’t talk too long without pausing for a reaction. More than a minute is usually too long. Forty seconds is ideal.
2. Never contradict or flatly disagree with the other person. It’s an implied insult.
3. Don’t be too forceful or emphatic in stating your opinions until you learn the other person’s attitude.
4. Give the other person intellectual freedom and cooperation, and claim them for yourself.
Notes from The Art of Conversation
by Milton Wright, 1936
The ability to talk well can be cultivated.
Interest you must have if your conversation is to be successful.
Interest can lie primarily in the subject or the person, the latter being by far the surer ingredient for success.
To chatter is easy. To talk resultfully with the hostile, suspicious, indifferent or even friendly is an art.
To really become a good conversationalist over the long term it is necessary to acquire the habit of conscientiously stocking your mind with facts and information and then forming opinions on the basis of that knowledge.
A monologue is not a conversation.
Silence plays an important part in effective conversation just as it does in music.
Masters of the art of conversation rarely give advice, and then, usually, only when requested. It is given tentatively and without seeming to impose their wishes.
The secret of giving advice successfully is to mix it up with something that implies a real consciousness of the adviser’s own defects, and as much as possible of an acknowledgment of the other party’s merits.
To plant a suggestion is a real test of conversational skill.
Types of Conversation &
The Role of Instinct
Conversation is of two basic types:
Conversation for its own sake
Conversation for some other purpose
Politicians, preachers, salesmen, lobbyists, etc. practise the latter.
Conversation for its own sake has two distinct aims:
The exchange of ideas
Four instincts may always be appealed to in conversation:
Three instincts may sometimes be appealed to:
The sex, artistic and acquisitive instincts may be appealed to with some people, but not with others. Moreover, more discretion is required in tapping these instincts if they are to produce good conversation.
A mutual dislike stimulates conversation. It is easy to stimulate most people to talk if you can find their pet peeve. Beware of doing this unless you share their viewpoint.
Perhaps the strongest instinct is parental affection. Talk to someone (especially a woman) about their children and they are deeply interested.
The instincts which must always be avoided are:
Contrary to popular impression, flattery is not something to be generally condemned. It provides a very proper stimulus to the self-assertive instinct and thus promotes the interchange of information and ideas.
Flattery must be sincere. Usually it should be implied rather than expressed. When it is insincere or overdone, however, it may cause more harm than good.
People like to acquire information, but they prefer to impart it. Best of all they like to be asked their opinion because you pay them a higher compliment by asking what they think than by asking what they know. It is far better to ask a racing enthusiast who will win the Kentucky Derby this year than who won it last.
When asking for someone for information or their opinion be careful not to arouse self-abasement by exposing their ignorance or strutting your own knowledge.
The instinct of pugnacity may be appealed to by challenging someone with a statement with which they cannot wholly agree.
Curiosity may be appealed to by provoking someone to question, wonder, or speculate. Perhaps this is conversation at its highest and most rewarding.
One-on-one conversation is easier than group conversation, but provides greater latitude for making mistakes.
In one-on-one conversation there are two subconscious aims:
To get to know the other person
To reveal yourself
Generally these aims should not be aimed at directly.
Attitudes to cultivate in dialogue are:
Interest in the person
Interest in the subject
People who are uncomfortable in themselves are disagreeable to others.
People like those who:
Like the same things as they do
Are the same kind of people they are (usually)
If you do not fit into one or more of these categories, DO NOT attempt to be friends.
According to a study the average American male is interested in job, home, politics, recreation, health, current events in that order. Note that four of the six topics, including the first two, are personal.
Complete self-confidence often engenders antagonism in conversation. According to Nietzsche, ‘If you wish to prepossess one in your favour, you must be embarrassed before him.’
In dialogue conversation should usually not be brilliant or scintillating.
In dialogue about half your time should be spent listening unless it is clear that the other person wishes you to talk more. The advantages of listening are:
You conceal your own weakness.
You learn the other person’s attitude.
You give the other person enjoyment.
You store up emphasis for the statement you eventually make.
In times of trouble a sympathetic ear is more valuable to most people than anything that can be said to them.
While conversation should generally attempt to remove barriers there are some barriers that cannot be removed and no attempt should be made to do so. Such barriers are:
It is easier to talk with an inferior than with a superior, but it is not easier to talk well.
Conversation Between the Sexes
Sex is always in the background of any conversation between a man and a woman, and if there is no attraction there is often antagonism.
The object of a conversation between the sexes is to increase the other’s pleasant emotions.
A line or opening gambit may be adopted in conversation if you are slow in thinking of something appropriate to say. Benvenuto Cellini’s line for the young women of Florence was, ‘I would swim through rivers of blood to come to you, even though it were but to die at your feet.’ The dangers of using a line are:
Repeating it in the presence of the same persons
Relying on it to the detriment of spontaneity
Many men enjoy conversation if the woman is an appreciative audience. Some women like this role, others pretend to like it, a few are openly bored.
Women like to be courted. According to Hazlitt:
Gallantry to women—the sure road to their favour—is nothing but the appearance of extreme devotion to all their wants and wishes, a delight in their satisfaction, and a confidence in yourself, as being able to contribute towards it. The slightest indifference with regard to them, or distrust of yourself, are equally fatal.
Generally speaking women are better at conversation than men. They think faster but not necessarily so thoroughly. Women are inclined to flit, men to plod.
Women are intuitive rather than analytical. It takes a man to be brilliant at chess, math, legal briefs, unless a woman has a man’s mind. But intuition is a higher form of reasoning, albeit unconscious, and is likely to be freer of error.
Women are more personal in their thinking. If women start talking about things they will soon be talking about people. Men can talk about people in general, women must talk about people in particular, especially people in relation to themselves.
Other differences, by no means universal, are: Men are more whimsical and have a better sense of humour but women are quicker witted. Men are more sentimental but women’s emotions run deeper. Women are more reckless, but men are better losers. Women are more observant and can detect the least trace of dishonesty in men. Women are more sensitive to subtle stimuli and are better actors than men.
There are no noticeable differences between men and women as regards:
Love of gossip
Because men are reluctant to allow women to compete with them on an equal footing, women have had to work with people instead of things to accomplish their ends. Hence their alertness and skill in conversation.
The main purpose of general conversation is to entertain.
General conversation should conform to the following principles:
The topic must be of general interest.
Each person must do his share AND NO MORE.
There should be no periods of silence.
No topic should be dragged out.
The tone should be kept good-natured.
No one should be offended by anything said.
The famous seventeenth century Literary Club of Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick et al. met at a tavern at 7:00 P.M. every evening (later every week and then every two weeks) and talked into the small hours. They recognized that all members (limited to nine) must be congenial and a unanimous vote was necessary for the election of a new member.
In general conversation alcoholic refreshment has historically been considered important.
To make a practice of advancing propositions and then proving them conclusively is fatal to conversation. To insist on always being right subjects listeners to the emotion of self-abasement. Conversation is neither a lecture, a sermon, nor a debate.
If you have nothing to say on the topic under discussion, say nothing. According to Voltaire, ‘One always sounds foolish when one has nothing to say.’
Attempting to steer the conversation round to your pet subjects will engender resentment in your listeners.
Sometimes when you find yourself with nothing to contribute to a general conversation you may feel uncomfortable and inadequate. The impulse to get rid of the feeling by saying something is best resisted.
To stay on topic is not enough. One must stay in tune with the conversation. Otherwise one’s remarks will grate on the rest of the company.
To talk shop in the presence of someone to whom such talk is foreign is extreme discourtesy.
Many cannot keep their emotions from rising when discussing certain subjects. If that emotion comes out in a negative way then the subject must be changed.
The only safe course in unfamiliar company is neither to be severely critical of anyone, nor to suggest circumstances about which people are likely to be touchy.
In general conversation, especially, there is no place for mockery, belittlement, or flat contradiction. Sarcasm is worst of all because sarcasm implies contempt. It is an insult, and insults are things to be resented.
Rarely insist on logic because:
The best topics of conversation don’t readily lend themselves to logical treatment.
Few people master logic or listen attentively to logical argument.
Many people like their beliefs, opinions and prejudices more than they like logic.
Only a few people would sooner listen than speak. Hence Sydney Smith’s motto, ‘Take as many half-minutes as you can get, but never more than a half- minute without pausing to give others an opportunity to strike in.’
Discussion of abstractions becomes wearisome unless relieved by stories or anecdotes. They must be interesting, relevant, pointed and, in general conversation, usually short.
A story must not only be on the subject under discussion but in tune with the discussion. No one should be justified in saying ‘So what?’
A story must proceed by a series of hops, skips and jumps. The speaker should enjoy the emotions of the story (dead pan humour is overrated) without letting his story get the better of him.
The Uses of Argument
Argument can be a tonic to conversation, but it must be in good humour.
Success in argument or debate and success in conversation are often mutually incompatible goals.
For example, clarity and persistence often win arguments though they have nothing to do with logic or fairness of mind.
Again, honesty in thinking is often less effective in argument than sincerity which is blind to any merit in an opposing viewpoint. Taking advantage of this fact will certainly cause conversation to suffer.
Again, it’s easier to prove someone wrong than to prove yourself right and therefore it is good debating tactics to attempt the former. If congenial conversation is your aim forget about debating tactics.
Using statistics to prove or strengthen one’s case should be avoided whenever possible. Most people distrust statistics. The phrase, ‘There are lies, there are damn lies and there are statistics,’ has come into common usage with good reason.
To argue in conversation one must have complete control of one’s emotions. Moreover one should always leave an opponent a means of retreat and sometimes even intentionally lose an argument.
If you concede a point to the other person he will be inclined to concede a point to you. A conciliatory attitude in admitting the truth of a statement will place him under an obligation to be conciliatory too.
The purpose of argument in conversation is agreement because agreement promotes harmony. By contrast, disagreement breeds disharmony and often antagonism. These are facts that are lost on many people.
Even if agreement on the point at issue is impossible one should at least try to agree with the person.
No quality is so conducive to pleasure in conversation as tact. The elements that make up tact are alertness, sympathy, and resourcefulness. Without tact a person, however witty, learned or sincere, is a menace to themselves and others whenever they engage in conversation.
While one fault will make a person a bad conversationalist, one virtue will not make him a good one. He must possess many qualities, some of them having to do with character, some with intellect, and some with temperament.
The ideal conversationalist is:
Interested in life
Has a sense of the dramatic
Can draw out the other person
Always in good humour
Has a sense of proportion
Doesn’t take himself too seriously
A trifle whimsical
If you find the world dull, the chances are that your companions will find you dull.
Everyone’s emotion of elation is waiting for a chance to assert itself. Give it every opportunity.
The good conversationalist should seldom preach or give advice. He should not dwell on moral issues or take the attitude of teaching his listeners. However instructive, eloquent and even interesting he may be the result is not conversation.
Even if you have a wholly unselfish desire to reform your listeners, it is well to realize that they won’t like it.
Desire only to please the people with whom you are talking and you will infallibly do so.