Improving Your Conversational Skills

When you think about it, there’s only two methods through which we can move the needle forwards; through which we can build a better world. One method is violence. A brief lesson in history should suffice to dissuade those who think this is a good method. The other method is conversation. Of course, words don’t always mean action — in fact, if only people did what they said and said what they did, the world may be a lot simpler. But it isn’t. We can moan about the unfairness of life, or we can do what we can about it.

So, whilst action-orientated conversation may not always lead to, well, action, on important topics, it’s much better than the alternative, not talking. Of course, conversation need not always be about action; whiskey fuelled storytelling, water-fountain gossip and other friendly tête-à-tête are part of what make life interesting.1 This isn’t the type of talk we’re talking about. The talk that concerns us talk intended to solve problems, to improve knowledge, to develop understanding — all of which are precursors to progress.

An important distinction: a conversation without listening from both parties is not a conversation but an argument; and most arguments are fruitless. Better to move on. As wrong as you think it may be, a proper, functional conversation abides by the golden ratio of 3:1 of speaking to listening. That is, when a person is speaking, the listener interjects with ums and ahs and clarifying questions at a ratio of 1, compared to the speakers ratio of 3. This is not always the case — there are times when one needs to simply shut up and listen in silence, in order to get the point — but it is most of all of the time.

Anyway, my intent with this piece is to give you a few phrases that will ripen the fruits of your conversations. You can use them as interjections if on the listening end, to ameliorate a point, or in attempts to correct ignoramus blockheads (better to not even try, especially when sober).

Now, whilst these may make the conversations you are currently having more fruitful, there are some other things to consider. First: fools (try to) change their thinking and change other people; wise people manipulate their environment. In other words, if you REALLY want better exchanges, get around people capable of better conversation — people uninterested in complaining about the weather and Donald Trump and the economy and their neighbour and their (pathetic) attempts at the latest paliatkincrumbcarb diet; people with at least a sense of history, randomness, philosophy; people with a track record of being better than you (at wine tasting, cooking Italian, speaking Arabic, trampolining, writing, piano playing, understanding the stupidity of ~all politics, at not watching the news, at deadlifting — at getting things done). Simple really, as are all things in retrospect.

Second, there needs to be substance. It’s funny to listen to intellectuals converse sometimes; their inflexible facial expressions, flamboyant vocabulary, perfect coherency and orgasmic tone is enough to convince even God that what they’re talking about is important. But don’t be fooled; low-fat yoghurt provides no nutrition but does spike your blood sugar (not good)2. The point is, avoid being convinced that he who talks like Obama is actually doing any good; often he is saying nothing. Counter-intuitively, it’s often those who are most incomprehensible and erratic who are saying the most. I suspect it’s something to the nature of truth: obvious, messy, counter-narrative, not as appealing or sticky as untruth. Facts don’t need elaboration.

Third, you can expect to offend people — friends, family, strangers, teachers, people with qualifications (especially these people), and even yourself — by using these phrases. Why? Simply, like a hot knife through organic Irish grass-fed butter, they’ll put a spotlight on any bullshit3 present. Unfortunately, too many people have a taste for bullshit, which means though you may offend someone by calling it out, they may dial down on it. The only hope for such people is that they choke on it. For you, develop a distaste for it.

Phrases are one means to improve the quality of your conversation. Further means include setting rules such as: understanding precisely what the other is saying before countering them, and making sure they know you understand before you do; not arguing; learning the classic fallacies, cognitive malfunctions and biases, such as the strawman vs the steelman, negativity bias, sunk cost fallacy and cognitive dissonance; and so on.

With that, here’s the ever-growing list of phrases that you try your next conversation, sorted by how I use them and have heard them used. I’ll add to it as I can be bothered.

Putting a point up for discussion, debate, clarification:
I just want to table that.
Plant a flag there.
Reel back a moment.
Let’s put a pin in that.

Acknowledging that you can address a different point (in contrast to the one you’re now talking about) later on:
And we can get into that…
We can get into the details…

Emphasising a point / persuading:
It strikes me as fairly obvious…
I should just say…

Understanding the other person:
Is that a fair point; is that clearly stating your argument?…
I’ll grant you that.

Citing Examples:
So for instance…
Take person A and person B
For 1)… … and 2)… … and 3)… …

Moving forwards:
We agree on that.
I agree.
So we’re on the same page there.

  1. And at times, tolerable.
  2. Of course, we’ve been taught for many years that low-fat yoghurt (or yoghurt in general) is good for you. Bullshit. The incredible array of nutrients are extracted out of dairy products along with the fat. Full-fat: now you’re talking (also actually tastes of food).
  3. Also holey arguments, incoherency, ulterior motive, irrational preaching.

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