Career SkillsCogent Communicator

Cogent Communicator: How to Have a Conversation

By Susan de la Vergne

Meet a stranger, say hello. Some people find that easy to do. Others not so much.

In professional life, there’s no shortage of opportunities to talk with people you hardly know. In a meeting you find yourself sitting next to someone you’ve met once or twice, and you think, I should I say something. But conversation starting has never been your strong suit. So you don’t and then wonder if you missed a chance to make a good impression.

Or you arrive at a meeting with your standoffish boss and realize she seems distracted and unhappy-not a promising beginning. If she speaks first, things won’t start on a positive note. If you speak first, maybe you could help set a better tone. But what to say? You’d rather say nothing than leave her with the impression that you’re an inept communicator.

Why is it often so hard to get a conversation off the ground? And, once it’s airborne, how do we keep it aloft?

Reasons and Root Cause

Self-help articles point to typical reasons that people struggle with conversation:  they’re shy, reserved, nervous, or self-conscious. While those characteristics may describe poor conversationalists, they don’t go far enough. They don’t tell us what’s really wrong. If we want to fix the problem, we have to get at the root cause, and all those reasons have the same root cause: they’re self-focused.


What are nervous people nervous about? They’re nervous they’ll say something awkward, make an error, spill the coffee, trip, or forget what they were saying. In short, they’re nervous that they, themselves, will come off badly. Self-focused. People who are uneasy about starting a conversation are worried about how they will come across. Will I seem smart, clever, informed and entertaining? Or awkward, hollow and dull?  That, too, is self-focused.

Some people say they really don’t care what others think, but the truth is they usually do care, at least at some level. They’d rather be thought of as right, not wrong, for instance, or as a winner, not a loser.

So this underlying thought-how am I being perceived?-is the source of shyness, reservation, social nervousness, and self-consciousness, and it’s the root cause of problems in conversation. Fix that, and conversation becomes much easier.

Conversations, even quickie exchanges with strangers, go better when we’re other-focused, when we open ourselves to the person we’re speaking to and are genuinely concerned about what they think, how they feel, what they’re doing. When we take the mental focus off ourselves and shift it onto them, we’re no longer concerned about whether we’re clever, right or charming. We’re not preoccupied with what they think of us.

Case in Point

An engineer and entrepreneur (we’ll call him Jack) heads a small software company that’s developed a new product. Jack insists on doing the in-person marketing himself because he feels doing so makes a statement about his commitment to the product and the company.


But family and trusted colleagues have been telling Jack that his conversation skills need work. His hasty greetings, awkward exchanges, and fondness for interrupting are turning off prospective customers, and sluggish sales are making Jack think that his family and colleagues might be right.

He engages a consultant to help him. For starters, the consultant asks him to deliver his marketing pitch. Pretending to be a prospect, the consultant asks questions a customer might ask, and one thing becomes obvious right away: Jack is way more interested in what his product does than what the prospective customer wants to know. Jack explains features the prospective customer isn’t interested in and, when the customer tries to redirect the conversation, Jack interrupts.

There is problem #1: Jack isn’t listening, which leaves him unable to engage the customer in a conversation about product features he can relate to. Jack is self-focused, reveling in the features he thinks are especially cool, rather than other-focused, listening to what the customer needs.

Then there’s problem #2, which is worse.

Jack describes for the consultant a recent opportunity to present the product to a professional association. He had hoped some in the audience would be interested in his offering while others, he figured, would just sit through it to earn meeting points for being there-important to keep up the certification.

When the consultant asks Jack how it went, he says “There weren’t very many good questions. People who ask good questions are prospects” and then admits that, after he identifies the good question-askers, he ignores everyone else.

“They’re of no use to me if they don’t want to buy my product,” he explains.

Just because people aren’t asking astute questions doesn’t mean they aren’t interested, the consultant explains. Maybe they don’t have any questions. Maybe they like to think about things a bit. Maybe they don’t think as fast as the question-askers. Overlooking them because they aren’t firing impressive questions could mean overlooking an actual customer.

“You have no idea what they’re thinking!” the consultant said in conclusion, and Jack admitted he was right.

Assuming they weren’t prospects, Jack wasn’t interested in them. He was interested in himself and his product. Self-focused, not other-focused.

One sure way to destroy any chance of conversation with someone is to ignore them because they are of no use to you. If you decide someone is not worth your time, conversation is hopeless.

Tips and Techniques

Perhaps you’ve read some “listicles” (“articles” that are really nothing more than lists) of the top five, seven or 10 things guaranteed to help you start a conversation. Here are three of the most popular listicle suggestions and a quick look at fixing them at the source.

  1. Don’t interrupt. Yes, of course it’s impolite, but more importantly interrupting is self-focused. We interrupt because we don’t have time, we’re in a hurry, we don’t want to hear what the other person is thinking, we want to say what we mean-all of which is self-focused. Interrupters won’t stop interrupting just because it’s impolite. They’ll stop when they make the other person important-that is, when interrupters become other-focused-and not before.
  2. Ask a question. Our automatic question-“How are you?”-often goes unanswered, usually because we didn’t want to know. Either don’t ask that question or, if you do, wait for an answer (other-focused) and comment on it. And if the response is, “I’m still battling this cold,” don’t follow up with details about the terrible cold you had last month (self-focused) but just say you’re sorry to hear that and keep listening.
  3. Listen. That’s not the same thing as “hear.” Listening means suppressing your own inner voice, the one that is prepping what you should say next-even before the other person is done talking. Listening means giving your full attention to the speaker. When we listen, we’re other-focused, not self-focused. It’s such a gift! Think about the last time someone did that for you? Great, wasn’t it?

Listen and ask: the essence of good conversation.

When you ask questions, try open-ended questions (“What’s the best meeting you went to today?), rather than yes/no (“Did you go to any good meetings today?”). Also try questions that require someone to think a bit, rather than just toss off an answer.

“Normal” Ways of Thinking

It’s ingrained in us to think about ourselves-my reputation, my income, my situation, my agenda. In fact, just about everything we read (except maybe this article) encourages us to look out for #1, put ourselves first, because if we don’t, no one will!

And to that I say this:  challenge the status quo. Don’t accept conventional ways of thinking and behaving just because they’re the norm. Just because culture and convention encourage us to constantly look out for #1, guard our reputation, and obsess about how we’re perceived doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. If everyone is looking out for #1, who’s looking out for everyone else?

So the next time you have the opportunity to strike up a conversation, or join one already in progress, make this simple shift: from self to other, despite what listicles and pundits and career coaches advise. Listen, ask and make the other person important, even just for a few minutes, and see if you don’t experience conversation in a different way, one that’s easier than ever.

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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  1. Your article makes some very good points. One issue that is problematic for me – interruption. I hate interrupting, but it often seems to be the only way to participate. Women working in heavily-male-dominated fields often must interrupt or they will never be heard at all. What is your recommendation for us to remain polite but also to be able to participate before the conversation has terminated and people have dispersed?

  2. Interruption is not always bad. Sometimes the other side of a conversation does not pause to allow the listener an opportunity to ask a question or to make a comment. Conversations must be two-way — an engaging and thought provoking experience.

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