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The Secret to Being a Great Conversationalist

Quiet Revolutionary Gregory Peart’s Story

Eight years ago, I attended a small gathering at a neighbor’s house. Before long, I found myself standing in a group of four guys whom I just met at the party. One of the guys was talking about his occupation—automobile engineering. Another guy was very interested because he too was an auto engineer. The third guy knew a lot about car design so he was engaged as well.

My knowledge of auto engineering is about as great as my knowledge of the history of cheese—almost non-existent. All the guys went back and forth in rapid-fire succession. I found myself quietly listening, nodding my head, and feigning interest for at least 10 minutes. Then it hit me: I was subtly being nudged out of the circle. I could have just walked away, but I wanted to get to know them. I wanted to be social. However, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I also didn’t want to appear too naïve before they knew anything about me.

And then it happened. I saw an opening. One of the guys transitioned from engineering to the design of the house he just purchased. I know a lot about real estate, so that was my open window to jump through. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, I decided to take control of the conversation and asked when he bought the house. Then I transitioned to the local housing market. Another guy was interested in selling his house. Then I talked about mortgage rates and the best time to sell. I was contributing. I suddenly found myself in the driver’s seat. They were playing in my sandbox.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably wondered how it is that exceptional conversationalists always know what to say. You may have asked, “Why don’t they ever struggle? Why do I take longer to respond than they do?”

The answer is: They aren’t any smarter than you—they just put themselves in positions to succeed. No one can always have a good response ready for any topic. But the best socializers understand one very simple concept: if you’re in the position of responding to someone else’s question or topic, you’re at their mercy (at least during that moment in the conversation). Conversationalists who initiate the conversation topic always have the advantage over people on the receiving end.

If I called you on the phone right now—right this very minute—I can guarantee myself a major advantage from a conversational perspective. I would plan on telling you my plans to go sailing this weekend. How is that an advantage? you may wonder. By introducing sailing, I’m taking control and kicking off the conversation with one of my own topics, forcing you into a more passive position. You will have to respond and make a connection to my topic and to my statements. It’s not easy for your brain to sort through sailing-related memories in a matter of seconds, especially if you don’t have much to offer on the topic or are thinking about or doing something else, totally unrelated.

I, on the other hand, may have had minutes, hours, days, or even weeks to think about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to initiate that conversation with you. I may, in fact, be a professional sailor. Or I may have had many previous conversations about sailing that helped me develop a giant arsenal of sailing anecdotes, facts, and opinions ready to “float” into any conversation.

The comfort level I have with the topic will manifest itself as confidence. Because you have to react and exert energy, searching for related material on the spot, you will naturally be at a disadvantage and may project a lack of confidence.

Pay close attention next time an exceptional conversationalist converses with you; they are probably initiating most of the topics! The best conversationalists usually direct the show. They aren’t caught off guard or left without anything to say. In those rare cases where they are speechless, they can still ask poignant questions and eventually steer the conversation ship back to where they want it to go.

My life changed when I realized the power of this active mindset.

We all desire more confidence. A shortcut to immediate confidence is simple: go first. Be the first to ask, “Hi, how are you?” Acting first in any situation instantly boosts how confident you appear to others and, in turn, boosts your feeling of confidence. Poor conversationalists are normally reactive as opposed to proactive. They wait for something to happen to them. Exceptional conversationalists go after what they want.

Of course, action comes with risk. Staying passive is much safer and easier. Most people spend time deliberating over the negative possibilities of a potential action. But be careful: too much deliberation leads to overthinking and paralysis by analysis. Many more good things come from trying something as opposed to trying nothing. If you currently lead a passive lifestyle, you may feel that you lack control over your fate and that life happens to you instead of because of you.

It took me years to realize how often I instinctively waited for the other person to go first as if I were not allowed to dictate the conversation. After taking that initial step of acting first, you’ll feel not only an extra boost of confidence but also an infusion of happiness. Because when you act first to direct the conversation, you feel a sense of control. Shifting from a passive to an active mindset can truly change your world.

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