The Art of Conversation | Building Your Personality Podcast

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast. Today’s podcast is all about the art of conversation. If you are looking for new ways to spark philosophical conversations among your friends and acquaintances, check out our branded line of inspirational fashion, Book of Zen. Each t-shirt, sweatshirt, and tank-top is emblazoned with an original, thought-provoking saying within our signature zen enso circle. Visit today.

Now, on to today’s reading, which was edited and adapted from: Your Personality and Your Speaking Voice: How to Develop Them by CLARE TREE MAJOR, published in 1921.

You may impress people through your physical poise; your refined voice and charm; the jewels of wisdom you have culled from life; but the real test of your power of personality lies in your command of the art of conversation.

The first rule of good conversation is to have something worth saying, and to say it as briefly and interestingly as possible. Merely pouring out a constant stream of words isn’t conversation. No one can be more thoroughly and unforgivably boring  than  the  man  or  woman  whose  habit  it  is  to  deluge  every  long suffering acquaintance with an unending flow of speech.

Good conversation should give something to everyone participating in it. It’s as unfair to sit through a conversation (absorbing everything and giving nothing), as it is to use up all the time yourself in talk which is not vital to the others. Don’t be a sponge. Contribute your bit to the general conversation, and you as well as the others will gain.

Conversation is made interesting and useful in the exact ratio that different points of view are brought to bear on a subject, different experiences that help to disprove or uphold a point. From such talks, we go out with a broadened viewpoint, a wider knowledge, and a more crystallized opinion. But if you sit in your corner and refuse to catch the ball when it is tossed to you, or refrain from tossing it back with new vigor, you are a dead weight on the conversation. You are shirking your job.

All this means that you should talk with people, not at them. If you go through life with your eyes and mind open, it will be a very strange person with whom you will find no point of contact, no mutual ground on which to pitch your conversational tent.

If you know but one thing (and knowing that so well you unload your knowledge on a group of people), to your satisfaction and their profit it may be, yet that is not conversing; that is lecturing. And even then, if you give them a chance, you may find some point you have overlooked, some new phase of thought if you give them time to present it.

Talk of your specialty with people who are mutually interested, but retain for others an ability to be interested in their interests. You may know all about old furniture (including dates, makers, and histories), as well as how to detect the genuine from the imitation and a lot of other — to you — interesting phases of the art. But you won’t get far if that is all you can talk about.

Your mechanic friend, or your lawyer, or your doctor, or your grocer may all have been much too busy to have gained knowledge of your hobby, yet you are going to lose a great deal in life if you cannot interest yourself in the things they can talk about. Human nature is much the same everywhere, and its manifestations equally valuable everywhere.

Theodore Roosevelt was an interesting conversationalist, because he could talk as well of a view from the car window or a picnic with his boys, as he could of subjects of international importance. King Albert of the Belgians, during his visit to America, found a very real interest in the engine cab of the locomotive of the royal train. He didn’t go there to overwhelm the engineer with the intricate problems of a peace treaty. They talked of the engine and the engineer’s babies. Each could contribute something to such a conversation.

On such a genuine and unaffected interest in all life is real democracy founded. On such a foundation is the art of conversation built. Two pitfalls the tactful conversationalist should avoid are as follows: you should not inanely agree with everyone merely to be polite, and you should not run to the other extreme and allow yourself to be contradictory and antagonistic in argument.

To agree always simply suggests weakness, not necessarily amiability. Open and friendly discussion is one of the great joys of congenial souls. The intelligent person does not talk merely to hear themselves speak, but so that expressed thought may attract the thought and opinion of their partner in the conversation, and (by further exploitation of each) serve to crystallize and clarify and amplify their idea until it radiates new life and vitality. If your partner, under the mistaken intention to be polite, agrees with everything you say, the attempt at conversation will soon fall flat and unprofitable.

Keep away personal feeling in argument. This is the second pitfall. It is not a personal insult to you that your friend should differ in some opinion. It is not a proof of unfriendliness on their part that they refuse to change their opinion because it does not agree with yours. Some people assume the attitude toward a discussion as they would toward a prize fight, with a knock-out blow as the only possible termination. Give voice to your difference of opinion, but do so not only to convince the other person, but also to learn something from their refutation of your argument.

In this way, you will be careful not to contradict flatly any assertion they may make. To say “That isn’t so,” or “I don’t agree with you. You are wrong,” may sound quite innocent to you, but it serves to rouse a feeling of irritability in the mind of the one contradicted, which, to say the least, will cloud their judgment of the issue you are defending.

By prefacing your answer with the more tactful, “I had always thought the contrary to be true,” and going on to show why you thought so; or “That’s very interesting, but don’t you think?” etc., you allay any possible irritation and your friend is free to present their side of the case without personal complication. No word of condemnation is too strong to apply to the pig-headed, perverse, obstinate talker who refuses to allow the possibility of error in their own judgment, and insists on trying to force their opinion on others.

Avoid all argument with such persons. They will swear black is white against all your efforts to show them the contrary, and both your time and strength are wasted in any form of discussion with them. If you suspect yourself of any such tendency, take a firm grip on yourself immediately and treat yourself with a liberal dose of modesty.

Instead of thinking of yourself and your opinions and your knowledge, let your mind occupy itself with consideration of the many great minds (both past and present) to which yours is but a wavering candle. Remember that your knowledge of art and science and the philosophy of life is infinitesimal in comparison with all there is to learn.

Seeing yourself in your proper relation to others, you will not force your little opinions down other’s throats, or feel yourself above learning something from the humblest of your acquaintances. You will not leave a conversation heated and angry because others have dared to retain an adverse opinion in spite of your stubborn insistence to the contrary.

The very life of our great republic is founded on the right of every individual to their personal liberty in so far as it does not limit the liberty and happiness of others. The essence of liberty is liberty of thought and opinion, and life will remain an unsolved problem to you until you are willing to allow to everyone the degree of liberty of thought and opinion you reserve to yourself.

Take your conversation seriously. But that doesn’t mean always be serious. Heaven forbid! Rather, treat the art of conversation as an art really worth cultivating. Notice things which occur in your daily life and treasure them as incidents with which to enrich your talk. Read with the definite intention to remember, not simply to pass the time. Enrich your mind that you may have something on which to draw to interest others and to give as your share in conversation with kindred spirits.

Feel about your conversation as you would about a sport or game (tennis, golf, football, swimming); try to be at your best and pride yourself on your degree of accomplishment. It is out of the question that conceit should arise from such a course, for the conceited person is not a good conversationalist. Conceit sees only the talker themselves, while the very foundation of good conversation is consideration of others.

People are, of course, naturally intensely interested in their own affairs, their own experiences, their own problems. However, the big person is the one who can interest themselves in another’s experiences, drawing their inspiration (and proving their point) from the circumstances of another’s life — letting the other parties in the conversation relate their little personal stories, rather than forcing on them their own. This individual understands and plays upon human nature to the general satisfaction of the group, and to his or her own enduring popularity.

Remember that a good thinker is not necessarily a good talker. You certainly cannot talk well unless you think dearly, but many clear thinkers are hindered in the expression of their thoughts by timidity or embarrassment. There is just one cure for this: to become so interested in the subject under discussion that you forget yourself.

Only a boor is totally indifferent to the opinion of others, but an exaggerated sense of fear of criticism (or a desire to make a good impression on others) may also be inhibitive to clear and sincere expression. If you do not talk smoothly, try to find out what is at the root of your embarrassment. Perhaps you are conscious of the meagerness of your vocabulary, so that while you get along fairly well in your shop or office (where possibly only a fairly limited number of terms may serve), a friendly and social conversation finds you fishing for words to express yourself with. You begin to stumble and falter, which adds to your embarrassment, and eventually you sink into unhappy silence.

This lack of vocabulary may be easily remedied. Confine your reading to good authors, writers who have the knack of graceful wording. Notice the words they use, and if you are in the least unsure of their meaning, look them up in your dictionary, so that you may use them with intelligence and understanding. And when you have full mastery of them, don’t be afraid to use them.

Begin with your fellow workers. Introduce consciously words you have not been in the habit of using, if they express better what you wish to say. After a while such words will be added to your common stock, and your language will be enriched by so much. If you are very much in earnest, you may make a point of looking up a certain number of words each day in the dictionary or encyclopedia, seeing to it that you thoroughly understand the word, and practicing using the word in various sentence combinations.

A good vocabulary is not only in itself an evidence of intelligence and education, but lends a distinct charm to the personality. With some knowledge of the subject under discussion (or even only a desire for knowledge) and the firm foundation of a fluent and ready vocabulary, you need not fear the silence which comes from embarrassment.

Don’t think too carefully of how you want to say a thing while you are saying it. Have the thought clearly in your mind, then let your form of expression take care of itself. Let your entire attention remain concentrated on getting the thought across to the people you are talking to. Provided you have a reasonably varied vocabulary and a definite thought, you will not need to attend very strictly to words.

Cultivate adaptability. Learn to enter gracefully into the moods of others. You may be a forceful conversationalist, but you will miss a great deal if you stamp every conversation with your own particular form or style. By entering into the moods of others, you enlarge your own personality in just the ratio of the variety of your experiences.

Self-importance is one of the intolerable vices. But simplicity is a cardinal virtue. Only simplicity can know adaptability; only simplicity can be truly great. The whole secret of successful social conversation is the grace of adaptability.

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