How Can I Improve at Making Conversation as a youth?
YOUNG Sharon is sensitive and shy by nature. She confessed in an interview! “When I’m introduced to someone, I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to say the wrong thing and perhaps upset the person.” For shy youths, like Sharon, it takes real effort to make conversation.
For others, ethnic differences may be a communication barrier. Consider the case of Lucas, a black South African youth, who became part of the interracial staff that publishes this magazine in the local languages of that land. “It is quite a cultural shock,” he explained, “for a black to come and sit at a table and eat a meal with whites. Coming here and living with white people made me nervous because we had different backgrounds. I wondered if what I said would be accepted. It takes time to overcome that feeling.”
Even within the same ethnic group there are at times obstacles in communicating. As a South African, named Pieter, recalls: “I grew up on a farm and then our family moved to town. I could talk about farm life but town life was very different. I found myself listening in awe to the conversation of my friends, and I just kept quiet.”
If you have a problem similar to one of the above, what can you do about it?
Do you feel overwhelmed in the company of others? Take heart, this is a common symptom of growing up. The teenage years are a time of self-awareness—when youths become acutely conscious of what others think of them. Often they avoid being the center of attention and say as little as possible.
“Shyness,” explains Dr. Tony Lake in his book Loneliness, “is a kind of protection. The shy person is saved from making mistakes because shyness stops such a person taking the risk of looking or sounding foolish.” Just the thought of joining in a conversation can make shy people perspire! They just cannot build up enough courage to speak. Or, if they do, the words come out in a jumble. Hearers may look puzzled or even laugh. If this happens to you, what should you do?
“The answer,” explains Dr. Lake, “is to give ourselves time, and not to make the mistake of thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. We should concentrate on listening until we feel ready to talk at any length.” This positive approach has helped many, like shy Irene. “I listen carefully to other people’s conversations,” she explains, “to learn from them. Then I do research and study to get more information. If the subject comes up again, I am able to talk about it.”
What If You Are Misunderstood?
Sometimes your sincere attempt to make conversation might bring a negative reaction; what you say is taken in the wrong way. Again, don’t take such incidents so seriously that they cause you to crawl back into your shell.
Maybe you have similarly been misunderstood by others. If so, do not let it crush you. So, just keep on trying.
The Need for Empathy
How, though, can you begin? “The most productive form of communication,” states Larry L. Barker in his book Communication, “is interaction with empathy. Empathy means deep understanding of other people, identifying with their thoughts, feeling their pain, sharing their joy. Listen to others and showed empathy.
Notice that the above conversation was started by a simple question. Questions are excellent conversation starters. Of course, it is easy to think of a question on a topic that is of intense interest to you, but this may not always lead to a lively conversation. So, what is needed is for you to think of a question that your associate will enjoy answering. That takes empathy. You may have to choose a subject that is of no interest to you, but you may well be rewarded with an enthusiastic response as well as some valuable information.
Author Les Donaldson lists “ten easy ways to start a conversation.” Seven of his suggestions involve questions, asking about a person’s background, asking for advice, for help, for an opinion, for an evaluation, asking about local customs or local restaurants. Whatever the question, it should be asked with sincerity. You should also pay attention to how you listen. If you allow your mind and eyes to wander, probably the one answering will doubt that you are really interested in what he has to say.
Donaldson’s other three suggestions for starting conversations are: commenting on a local event; remarking on something you find praiseworthy, such as the scenery; or paying a compliment. “If you look for things to compliment people on, you will find them in abundance,” the author says in his book Conversational Magic. But he adds this warning: “People see through insincere compliments and will not be likely to converse very long with an insincere person.”
Regardless of what conversational “hook” you choose, persistent effort usually brings results. Consider Sharon, mentioned at the outset. She is now 22 years old and has made remarkable progress in overcoming her shyness. So if for some reason you find it difficult to make conversation, don’t give up; give yourself time. Listen to others. Study and read to keep up-to-date with current topics. Developing the art of conversation will enrich your life and add to the happiness of others.