I recently had a conversation about conversations with a friend. She was bemoaning the fact that conversation appears to be becoming a lost art. After doing some reading on the topic. I  found that Cicero had a few pretty sensible things to say on it. Now, I do realise that he was around a VERY long time ago – he was a Roman philosopher, after all, and died in (approx.) 43BC, but the points he makes seem to me to be as valid now as (I assume) they were then.

He suggested that conversationalists bear the following in mind:

  • Speak clearly and with ease – but don’t overdo it and ramble on interminably.
  • Try to ensure that you don’t prevent others from having a turn to speak.
  • Adopt a tone that’s appropriate to the topic of conversation.
  • It’s a good idea to avoid criticising people in their absence – it’s demeaning to all concerned.
  • Try to keep your topics of conversation to those of general interest.
  • A thing to remember is that talking about yourself has pretty limited audience appeal – you’re just not that interesting to everyone.
  • Conversations usually draw to a natural conclusion, so allow them to rather than dragging them out endlessly.

Most importantly, bear in mind that polite and respectful interaction is a key to good conversation: don’t interrupt – and keep your temper in check at all times

I imagine that all of those points sound perfectly reasonable to most people. After all, I’m pretty sure we all want to speak with assurance, not be boring or rude and avoid offending others if possible. In which case, why do so many people seem to ‘grab the speaking baton’ and just not let go, resulting in one-sided, rude or thoughtless conversations?

Perhaps Cicero could have added that we would all be well served if we tuned in to the body language of the person/people we’re talking to. Doing so provides a host of clues as to whether they’re engaged in the conversation or simply either startled rabbits or captives to our monologue. (Admittedly tricky in online conversations, in which case refer back to Cicero’s key points re conversation.)

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In short, conversations are about two or more people making connections, finding a common language, taking turns to speak, being courteous and, in no small part, non-verbal communication. So how does it all go wrong – when it does?

There seem to be a number of common pitfalls, and I’m pretty sure we’ve all fallen into one or more of them; I certainly have:

  • Reacting to the content of the conversation in an aggressive way – this generally ends up getting a bit personal and turns a conversation into a win/lose scenario, rather than a sharing of information. An alternative I’ve had some success with is to take a deep breath and to try for a neutral response – this usually gives me a space in which to regroup so that I can redirect the point and keep my temper reigned in. The outcome is that I feel in control and don’t end up looking silly.
  • Not listening – this is when you zone out a bit or start thinking about a related point or are simply waiting to take your turn and say your piece. The thing is, though, that that’s not conversation and, as I’ve discovered, can end up with you being caught out when a question is directed your way. Active participation requires that you pay attention to the speaker and notice their verbal and non-verbal cues. Try to imagine and action the sorts of responses you’d like to get if you were the speaker.
  • Not interested – this is the trickiest one for me. My attention always tends to slide when I’m not interested in a topic. I’ve had some success in simply moving the conversation along by slipping in a transition sentence – this is a sentence that’s sort of relevant, but that works to shift the focus of the conversation. Something like ‘Oh, before I forget, I wanted to tell you…’ or ‘I was wondering if…’ They’re polite redirects and usually work. Well, often work. Might work 🙂
  • Dominating the conversation – the answer to this one is body language. If the other people in the group are pulling away, avoiding eye contact, fiddling with things in their pockets – that sort of thing – you’re losing them or have already lost them. One way around this is to try to avoid your favourite topic, at least sometimes, since that’s probably an area where you’re likely to take over and dominate the conversation. But if you’re already in it – well, just take a breath and move on. Really, just let go – you don’t need (or own) the conversational baton. Give others a chance and you’ll find that everyone enjoys the conversation more – because then it is a conversation.
  • Conversational narcissism – closely related to the last point, actually, but more along the lines of always steering a conversation back to oneself. We all do it to some extent, but if a conversation is what you’re interested in, then try to ensure that you don’t shift the focus onto to yourself too often.

It’s probably impossible to follow all of Cicero’s conversational guidelines in every conversation – people are people, after all. We will inevitably find ourselves not only the target of conversational pitfalls at times, we’ll also be the perpetrators. The key is to try to be alert to both and aim to be good at conversation – work on the art of it; I’m pretty sure it makes it more fun for everyone.

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