Better Conversation Skills
• One useful conversational skill is chunking, where you vary the level of information you get coming back to you. This way, you can reach an agreement, acquire more and correct detail, or even persuade people to move from one plane of thought to another. Chunk up to gain a broader view everyone can agree on, and chunk down to find detail. Move from general to specific, keeping the other person’s reactions in mind.
• Use clean language to discover, explore and work with people’s metaphors without “contaminating” them. Listen for metaphors used, ask questions about them and continue the conversation using the same language and imagery to show your understanding.
• Use the HPM technique to always have something to say in conversations. Talk about history (a past experience) philosophy (your feelings on it) and a metaphor (describe both with a vivid metaphor). Keep is short, sweet and natural.
• Use signposting and transitional words to tell your listeners where your story is going. Signal what is coming and link your ideas logically using words that guide your listener’s understanding.
• Use conversational threading. Listen out for emotional hooks and pursue the conversation in that direction. Follow the most exciting or interesting leads and return to old, unexplored ones when conversation flags or ideas run out.
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The term "chunking" refers to the process of arranging or breaking down information into either bigger or smaller chunks. When we apply the idea to asking questions during a conversation, it’s a strategy that may be used to vary the level of information you get coming back to you. This way, you can reach an agreement, acquire more and correct detail, or even persuade people to move from one plane of thought to another. Ultimately, it makes you a better—and more masterful—conversationalist.leshed out this theory in the:
Let’s begin with “chunking down” where we use questions to bring the other person down to a less abstract, more detailed level. For example, you might be chatting to someone who is excitedly telling you their big visions and dreams, but you ask them something like, “So what do you think the next step is?” or, “What do you think is fundamentally causing this problem in the first place?”
Chunking down questions is about finding out more and filling in the gaps of your understanding. It’s about detail, as though you were zooming in with a microscope. But if you zoom in too closely, you lose the bigger picture, so to speak! Enter “chunking down” or asking questions that seek to understand the bigger picture that all the details come together to form. So, someone might tell you twenty little details about problems they’re having with a project, and you could say, “What do you think all these problems indicate?” or, “What are you actually trying to achieve with this project?” This is like zooming out again and reminding yourself of the bigger picture.
Chunking up and down, then, are just like varying the degree of specificity versus generality. Your questions are a way to turn the dial on the microscope to zoom in or out. So, if we got really good at zooming in and out at will, how would this help our conversation skills?
Well, try using chunking up to start with so you can get a broad view of what’s going on. At work, for example, you can get a general outline of an issue at hand, or with a friend, you can ask very generally, “So, how’s life at the moment?” When you want to identify specific goals or develop your understanding, you chunk down. For example, you pause and ask someone, “Can you tell me more?” or, “What happened next?” to gather more details.
You might need to chunk up, however, if you’re looking for overall agreement. For example, after a protracted argument or negotiation, you might sit back at some point and say, “Okay, well, we disagree on a few unimportant details, sure, but we seem to have the same goal here, right?” You can also chunk up any time the problem you’re trying to understand is systematic. So, you might have a discussion about a certain point of miscommunication with a family member, but after this happens a few times, you might like to chunk up and ask, “Why does this keep happening? What are we doing that’s making us repeatedly misunderstand each other?”
Basically, we chunk up when we want to gain more general understanding or encourage it in someone else, and we chunk down when we want more detail. Chunking up allows us to explore a broader purpose or intention, or see how the smaller instance fits into the bigger whole.
Chunking down allows us to elaborate on examples, details, and explanations for a certain instance. Imagine two people disagree about what should be on the school curriculum, and things are getting heated because they’re butting heads over whether religious education should have a place. One person notices they’re getting bogged down in a detailed argument about the different norms and expectations around different religious orders and what they mean. To soothe this conflict, they chunk up and zoom out instead, thinking about generalized patterns, purpose, intentions, and the bigger picture.
They say, “Well, we can agree that school should be a place where children learn a wide range of social, practical, and moral lessons.” The other person will almost certainly agree. You’ve found a source of agreement, and the argument diffuses somewhat. On the other hand, maybe you’ve been having a weekly counseling session where you chat pleasantly with the therapist but without really going anywhere. After thinking about it, you realize you need to chunk down, and you ask in the next session, “Do you think there is any specific, concrete thing I can be doing to help myself right now?” You zoom up and start to operate on a more generalized level where you consider bigger pictures and overall purpose.
So you can see two primary functions of chunking: chunking up can help you reach agreement, shift an argument, persuade people, or find common ground. Chunking down can help a wishy-washy process become clearer and more focused, or help you narrow in on actions rather than just getting lost in theory.
We can chunk up and down in conversations. Imagine we are using a funnel. We could start at the wide end and move to the narrow end of the funnel, or vice versa. At the wide end, we ask open-ended questions (those that can have any answer; for example, “What do you think of XYZ?”), and at the narrow end, we ask more closed questions (those that have only a specific or yes/no answer; for example, “What’s your name?” or, “Have you seen this movie?”).
If you’re getting to know someone more deeply, you can move from general to more specific (i.e., a “probing” style). They say they love films; you ask about their favorite film. They tell you Casablanca, and you ask about what they loved most about it, and so on. Depending on the context, this could be an inquisition-style interview or a fascinating getting-to-know-you conversation! This kind of funnel also allows you to zoom in on a specific problem or solution and, in the process, help calm people down and defuse tension. “Can you tell me what specifically has upset you?”
General-to-specific funnels are great for putting people at ease and gradually working your way to asking more personal questions. You watch closely and ramp up the specificity of your questions as time goes on:
Step 1: Ask a general, open-ended question (“So what are you planning for the Christmas holidays?”).
Step 2: Ask for a general explanation that builds on their answer (“Oh, that sounds fun. Do you have a big family?”).
Step 3: Go in for detail (“I have a brother too! He drives me nuts. What about yours? Do you guys get on well?”).. Did he graduate XYZ High in:
From the narrowest point of the funnel, you can open up questions again. In conversation, try to follow the basic rules:
• Move from the general to specific, and always start with a general question.
• Vary your questions to gain more insight, and don’t stay too long at any one level.
• Pay close attention to your conversation partner’s response. If they are finding detailed questions uncomfortable, irrelevant, or difficult to answer, try to zoom out and come in again more gradually; likewise, notice if someone is frustrated with a too-general level of questioning and try to be more focused.
If you’re ever in a conversation that feels either like it’s heading toward conflict or is fizzling out in boredom or misunderstanding, quickly check in and ask 1) what level of detail is the conversation at and 2) are we both on the same level? Then adjust accordingly.
Use Clean Language
In your daily conversations, you may encounter someone who expresses themselves better using metaphors. To better understand and connect with that person, try to use what’s called “clean language.” This is a questioning technique used for discovering, exploring, and working with people’s metaphors without contaminating them.otherapist David Grove in the:
According to Grove, when you speak in clean language, you’re holding up a mirror to others, reflecting their own words, gestures, and voice. This makes you connect better with them, cut down on misunderstandings, and create feelings of empathy and understanding.
Here are a few possible clean language questions:
And is there anything else about . . .?
And what kind of . . . is that . . .?
And where is . . .?
And what happens next?
And then what happens?
And what happens just before . . .?
And where does/could . . . come from?
And that's . . . like what?
To apply clean language in your conversations, first, you must listen to metaphors. When speaking with someone, pay close attention to what he or she says. Your objective is to figure out what metaphors he or she uses to describe their experiences.
Second, speak slowly and mimic the person you’re talking to. When the person has finished speaking, you can clarify what they said by asking one of the nine clean language questions above. With each clean language question you ask, your conversation partner is likely to gain new insights, as are you. Continue asking questions until they've fully explored their emotions and potentially found a solution to their problem.
Some examples will make this idea clearer. Person A may say, “I’m feeling stuck in the mud with this whole thing,” and Person B responds by saying, “We’ll get you over the hurdle, don’t worry.” It may seem like a small thing, but the metaphors here are not consistent—the original metaphor has been “contaminated.” If Person B had instead said, “Tell me more about what you think is keeping you stuck right now,” then they would have been using clean language.
Using clean language, you can ask questions that ask the other person to develop their metaphor (“What kind of thing is X?”), understand the cause and effect, (“What happened just before?”) or epxlore intention and purpose (“Why did X happen?”).
Step 1: Just listen
Have your ears pricked (there’s a metaphor!) for any metaphors they’re using. For example, “I’m battling this guy at work,” or, “We’re speaking different languages”).
Step 2: Ask questions
Staying within the same metaphor, ask questions (here, your questions can chunk up or chunk down, to combine techniques). For example, “So what’s the big fight really about?” or, “What language is he speaking, and what language are you speaking?” A good tip is to speak much more slowly and carefully as you respond.
Step 3: Continue the conversation
The metaphor may be set aside as the conversation continues, and if so, simply listen out for any new ones that are introduced. Continue to keep in mind how the person is conceptualizing the issue; for example, remember that they frame the problem as a war/battle rather than a competition or game—this alters how you speak as the conversation unfolds.
Clean language is really an exercise is empathy, and if you try it, you’ll instantly notice that it’s easier to get on the same wavelength as other people. This will make them feel more heard by you, and it will also help you better understand what they’re experiencing, and the issue in general. Just remember to keep your ego out of things and try not to assume what people mean. Really believe what they’re telling you and talk to them where they are, rather than from your interpretation. The interesting thing about this technique is that the other person may never actually be aware that you’re using it—but they will feel that you are more attentive, more empathetic, and that you “get” them!
Being good at conversations and developing social skills is about being creative and flexible with the way you communicate. You need to be neutral, non-directed, and unbiased—which essentially means not influencing or twisting the information you’re being given by the other person. If you’ve ever been accused of “not listening” to people, then it’s likely you were listening, but you were just hearing what you wanted to hear! It’s human to make assumptions, to predict, to guess, or just to fill in the blanks with what people tell us, but this can also mean that we’re susceptible to missing the nuance and meaning of what people really want to share with us. In other words, we are inside our own metaphors and not really grasping other peoples’.
If we use clean language, though, we gain clarity and insight, break down barriers, and better understand one another, while cutting down on misunderstanding. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
• Don’t interrupt. Pause a little after they speak to show you’re digesting what they’ve said and want them to fully express everything they want to say.
• Try to forget about your “world” and immerse instead in theirs. How does the situation look from their point of view regardless of your own?
• Literally mimic them. For example, if they keep saying “hostage” or keep returning to a metaphor of being lost in the woods, then imagine yourself copying and pasting those exact terms and phrases and using them yourself.
• Also paraphrase them. If they elaborate on a metaphor of being lost in the woods, you can echo this by talking about wandering aimless, or not being able to see the way out.
Clean language is always useful, whether you’re trying to show empathy or gently persuade someone to your point of view. The irony is that you can usually best persuade someone when you first understand their point of view! When you are willing and unable to completely understand and step into someone else’s worldview, then you are both much more likely to find a harmonious connection together.
Use the Improv Technique “HPM” to Get Through Awkward Conversations
Chunking and clean language are not the only clever ways to navigate conversations. One very simple technique actually comes from the world of improv comedy, where thinking on your feet is essential. One of the most effective improv comedy techniques is called HPM, which stands for History, Philosophy, and Metaphor. Use this technique and you will never run out of things to say in a conversation again.
First, to explore the history angle, you can mention a personal past experience relating to the topic. Next, for the philosophical angle, you can demonstrate what you feel or think regarding something, or your general “philosophy” on a particular topic. And lastly, close it with the metaphor angle by adding metaphors or figures of speech (remembering the power of metaphors from the last section, you can see that this also in effect invites other people to take a peek into your worldview and perspective).
The HPM framework is like having a "mental template" that you may use in both good and terrible times. It's a concept that can be applied to any topic at any time, and best of all, it makes no difference how smart or creative you or the people you're talking to are! When you run out of things to say, you can always rely on HPM to add some flavor to your conversation. If you notice a conversation is feeling awkward, stalled, or a little weird, just remember this simple acronym and it will come to your rescue.
For example, when you’re talking to someone about bands or music, you can apply HPM this way:n a past experience): “Late:
Philosophy (demonstrate what you feel): “I was so amazed with her performance! It was a great experience for me and my friends!”
Metaphor (describe it in metaphor): “Grimes is like a musical space fairy. Her sound makes me feel like I’m floating on the galaxy!”
Here’s another example:
You’re casually chatting to someone new in your exercise class and things are a little stilted because you don’t really know them and on the surface don’t appear to have much in common. They mention it’s their first class, and you spot a chance to squeeze in an HPM: “Oh, I remember my first class. It was excruciating! I started out thinking it would be too easy, but after about twenty minutes in, I was seeing my life flash before my eyes . . . at the end of the class, they basically had to scrape me off the floor.”
Use this technique and you will never run out of things to say in a conversation again. Though asking questions to get over a lull in the conversation can work wonders, sometimes you can ask too many questions, and the other person will feel a little like they’re being interviewed. Instead, make an HPM statement and watch how the conversation starts flowing again.
A great way to start an HPM observation is with: “This reminds me of . . .” and then you can connect it with literally anything that is happening around you. It’s also a great save when you’re talking to a reserved or unresponsive person who isn’t really running with the questions you’re asking. As you can imagine, you can mix things up a bit with this technique, adding a little more H here or a lot more M there. Or you could combine them all together for something that’s a more casual and spontaneous blend. The more you practice, the more you’ll get the hang of it!
The HPM technique works because it subtly reframes the goals of the conversation. Too many people get trapped in awkward conversations because they’re too worried about appearing smart or interesting or proving something. Bur borrowing from the world of improv reframes the goal to something else: fun. By using HPM, you are revealing a little about yourself and keeping the flow of the conversation going. You touch on universally appealing subjects that people will be able to connect with—and you do it all without needing to be witty or super intelligent!
A few tips:
• Be relaxed and confident about it. Don’t try too hard to be funny or interesting.
• Keep it short and sweet.
• Don’t try to rehearse an HPM. The technique works best when it’s spontaneous and in response to something you’ve been told or seen as the conversation unfolds.
• Don’t be afraid to show a little of yourself. Relate histories, opinions, and metaphors that speak to your values and how you want other people to see you.
Just recall an event from your past, state how it made you feel, and then add in a metaphor for a little color. This can be done easily, even in one sentence! Or you could draw it out and take longer to deliver your HPM, allowing the other person to step in and make observations or ask you questions:
“It’s my first class.”
“Oh God, I remember my first class!”
“Yeah? What was that like?”
“Well . . . I started out thinking it would be too easy, but after about twenty minutes in, I was seeing my life flash before my eyes.”
“Haha! Sounds like me. Well, now you’ve gone and made me feel a lot more nervous.”
“Well, what can I say, at the end of the class, they basically had to scrape me off the floor.”
“Yup. But that was like three months ago. I’m much stronger now.”
“I see. So you started out at this gym just three months ago?”
“Well, no, actually, I’ve been signed up here for a few years, but blah blah blah . . .”
Use Markers to Tell Your Listener Where the Conversation is Going
When talking to someone, it’s important that you both know where your conversation is headed. There are two such conversational markers we can learn to use to improve our social skills:
2) transitional words/sentences
Both techniques simply make conversations smoother and cohesive. They give the listener an indication of where communication is actually going. If people know why they’re having a conversation and what direction it’s going, they process faster and have a better idea of what to expect. This means a lot more ease and harmony for all involved! If you’ve ever felt trapped in a rambly, pointless conversation where you started wondering, “When is this ever going to end?” or, “What’s the point of this conversation, anyway?” then you’ve been the victim of a conversation that lacks signposting and transition words!
Small words and phrases like “well, actually, as a matter of fact, etc.” placed at the beginning of a sentence give the listener a good indication of what they are about to hear. These indicators serve as "warnings," allowing the listener to anticipate what is to come. They give the listener an idea if you’re going to shift to another point of view, so they can cognitively prepare. The conversation feels more fluent and easier than if you had just blurted out something that was in direct contradiction without any warning.
Signposts that say “I’m about to disagree or change direction” are:
As a matter of fact
I’m sorry, but
Even though they’re tiny, these little words help calm and smooth the interaction. Without them, conversations can feel chopped up, abrupt, or even rude. For example, if you say, “It’s probably going to rain tomorrow,” and I immediately say, “The forecast predicted sun,” it sounds rude, disjointed, and even a little hostile. Far better for me to say, “Actually, I believe the weather report I read said there was sun!” I’m still disagreeing and taking the conversation somewhere else, but I’m not allowing that disagreement to derail the conversation or make things feel awkward.
Instead, signposts allow you to build smooth connections between ideas and clearly signal to the listener when you are about to take a turn. We keep our listener’s attention and present information to them rather than just dumping data in their laps and expecting them to make sense of it!
Another example of a signpost is when people say something like, “There were three main issues here; first . . .” This signals to the listener that there will be three things listed in order. It’s a courtesy and prevents the listener from feeling like they’re left hanging as you go through your list, which could be any length as far as they know. Another example is when you say, “Okay, I have good news and bad news. The good news is . . .” You are giving the listener a few moments to prepare for the fact they are about to hear something that might be unpleasant.
Here are a few more types of signposts that can help you navigate tricky conversations:
“Emotions ahead” – You’re about to share feelings, some of which may be difficult. “I want to be really honest with you here . . .” or, “I’m feeling (pause) XYZ.”
“Awkward alert” – You’re aware something is uncomfortable. “I don’t know how to say this,” or, “This is a little embarrassing, but . . .”
“Bad news coming” – Warning your listener to prepare for disappointment. “I wish I didn’t have to say this, but . . .” or, “I’m really sorry it’s come to this. However . . .”
These sorts of signposts can seem almost too obvious and simple, but they do make a difference. They hold up a metaphorical sign for your listener, easing conversation, but they also communicate a little bit of tact, respect, and self-awareness that will help you create more harmony and understanding.
Smoothly moving from one idea to the next using transitions is not just for written language but spoken, too. Transitions are there to help you structure your speech in a logical, flowing way as a courtesy for the person listening. It makes you come across as more likeable, trustworthy, in control, and empathetic.
Example transitions are:
And, even more, further, moreover, too, in the second place (all about addition)
And then, afterward, meanwhile, at the same time, subsequently, whenever, this time round (all about time and sequence of events)
To demonstrate, for instance, as an example (to exemplify or show examples)
But, however, likewise, in the same way, similarly, in contrast, to put it another way, nonetheless, after all (to compare and contrast)
That’s why, so, since, because, and for that reason, therefore, as a result (cause and effect explanation)
You have to understand, to clarify, to rephrase, that is to say (to help clarify your point)
Of course, without doubt, surely, in fact, to repeat (intensification of your point)
Granted, I can see that, to be sure (concession to their point)
In sum, to conclude, in the end, that’s a long way of saying, ultimately, in brief, to finish up (summarizing)
While signposts help signal to your listener that you’re about to take a subtle change in the conversational direction, transitions are there to link and smooth things over (in fact, did you spot the transition in the previous sentence, and the transition in this one? Read these two sentences again without the transitions and see what gets lost).
Transitions and signposts can be used incorrectly, though. Be careful about putting them in just for the sake of it, or else it will come across as unnatural. They should make things flow more and be clearer and more logical—if they don’t, they should be abandoned. Be careful to use signposts and transitions as they are intended. For example, if you’re a person who consistently premises their opinions with “in fact,” you are going to annoy and confuse your listeners! If you keep saying “actually” and then proceed not to correct the person but basically repeat what they’ve just said, you’re misusing transitions. Finally, watch out for overuse. Too many can make your speech seem more awkward not less, especially if you’re overusing the more formal expressions like “therefore” and “furthermore.”
One extra tip is to watch your nonverbal expression as you use transitions and signposts to let your listener know where the conversation is going. You can also signal a shift in tone or a change in topic by sitting back in your seat, leaning forward, lowering the pitch of your voice, taking a big obvious breath, or using hand gestures that literally signal you’re making a new point. Some of us do all this naturally, but if we want to become better conversationalists overall, it’s worth paying attention to how we present information to others, and making efforts to deliver it as smoothly and logically as possible.
Hold Conversations with Conversation Threading
Let’s look at one more practical and effective conversation skill to help improve your competency with people in social settings. Conversation threading is a method that will improve the overall quality of your engagements with others without ever feeling as if you are running out of things to say.
It only involves four simple steps. First, to begin the conversation, ask a basic question. This gives the momentum time to grow. Second, wait for the individual to respond, then listen for conversation cues. For example, "I am a fan of rock music." Third, ask an open-ended inquiry on the conversation cue you just heard. This broadens the discussion. "Tell me about the last rock band you've seen live." Lastly, wait for the individual to respond, and then listen for cues that will allow you to ask further questions. "I enjoy this rock band called Charly Bliss. They aren't super famous yet, but they have some good tunes!" Then remark, followed by your open-ended inquiry, "That's incredible. Can you recommend their best rock song? I've been looking for new headbanger songs lately!”
Conversation threads are essentially points of interest, hooks, or leads. A thread can be an idea, a word, a phrase, anything. Usually, when we feel a conversation is boring or stuck, it’s because we have tunnel vision and are no longer picking up threads and hooks to continue the conversation—but they are always there!
Using a thread, you can elaborate on certain topics and open up new avenues to other interesting conversations—a bit like the way a hyperlink on a web page takes you to another web page when clicked. Good conversations need to flow. If you stay on the same topic, it will eventually dry up and you’ll be left with nothing to say. You need to consistently identify, follow, and nurture threads, offshoots, and tangents to keep the conversation alive. You can drop some threads to pick up others, returning later to old threads when you need to pep things up again.
This is an art to master, but there are also a few general rules that, if you practice, will make you a better conversationalist in time. Imagine that all the threads are literally the fabric of the conversation, holding it all together. But how do you consciously create and use these threads?
Person A, for example, says, “How was your holiday?” and Person B says, “It was great! It rained on the last day, but we went on some awesome hikes. We flew back yesterday.”
Pausing for a second, we can see that there are actually several conversational threads we could potentially pick up here: rain, hiking, air travel. When you grab ahold of any of these, you are creating a thread; for example, you can latch on to “hiking” and run with it.
“Oh wow, were these really long and grueling hikes?”
“Where did you go hiking?”
“Did your whole family hike with you?”
Depending on how the person responds to each of these above questions, they generate yet more threads. You can follow the hiking thread for a few minutes and see where it takes you. As you go, you are generating more and more topics of potential interest to pursue. You listen carefully and grab hold of what interests you, or what seems to inspire the most passion in the other person. The more threads, the more you’re able to actually ignore the threads that aren’t interesting to you or which you don’t want to pursue. This is more useful than you realize since it gives you an out of a potentially boring tangent!
Perhaps the word you home in on is in fact “awesome” and you decide to follow this thread by asking for more details about the awesomeness of the hikes. “So, what was the best part of the hike?” or “Let me ask you, if I wanted to go on the single best hike in that area, which one should I choose?” The great thing about listening out for emotional threads is that you quickly build rapport and energy by amplifying what the other person is putting out emotionally. Obviously, you don’t want to amplify unhappy or angry feelings, but reflecting on the speaker’s excitement or interest is a guaranteed way to get a conversation going.
One more point: to be a better conversationalist, it’s worth paying attention to what you say and whether you’re giving your conversation partner enough hooks or threads to work with. If you routinely reply in single syllables or answer open-ended questions with “yup,” then you’re making it hard for the other person, who might not be willing to do the work for too long.
Here are a few more tricks to keep in mind as you master the art of threading together fascinating and worthwhile conversations:
• As before, drop your ego and don’t try to force the conversation anywhere, but be loose and let it emerge in the moment. Preconceived ideas create force, and this stops the flow and the connection.
• Always pay attention to the other person and be mindful of their interest levels. You can choose which threads to follow, but also notice which threads seem most interesting to your conversation partner and pursue those. If a thread seems to be running out of steam (one-word answers, dropping interest), then let it go and pick up something else.
• If someone has taken the risk of revealing something quite outlandish, emotional, or unexpected, pick that as your thread! Assume that if someone mentions it, it’s up for conversation.
• If you’re really struggling, ask an open-ended question. In the answer you get, you may find another hook or thread to grab hold of.
• Prioritize emotional content and look for shared experience to create rapport and a feeling of bonding. “Oh, so you hike? Me too! Not when the weather’s like this, though . . .”
To recap, the process is simple: ask a question, listen for an interesting hook, and then ask a further question about that. This technique can be nicely combined with the techniques described above—start with a general question and funnel down to a specific one as you follow a thread, and play with chunking up or down as you go. Blend in some of your own stories with an HPM—which is also a great way to abandon a thread that’s gone bad! Overall, good conversationalists use a combination of clean language, conversational markers and transitions, and flowing threads to connect with others. In time, with practice, you too can learn to blend these approaches and become someone who is well-liked, approachable, and super fun to talk to.