We all learn conversation through active oral practice beginning in early childhood. During those years we are learning through an apprenticeship of observation with our ears and eyes and our practice through mimicry of the speakers around us. Virtually no one fails to learn to speak their native language and develop a basic vocabulary and manner of speaking unless they are impaired in hearing.
However, although we learn to speak a language and interact, we may not learn to converse effectively. For example, if we do our learning apprenticeship in a hostile or competitive environment, most likely we will understand conversation as a competition and behave accordingly.
CONVERSATION IS COLLABORATIVE
Therefore, our first secret of learning masterful conversation is to see it as a collaborative activity rather than a competition of winning and losing or one-upmanship. When we have installed this mental frame of collaboration around conversation, our attitudes and behaviors during conversation can and do change.
Conversation is like a dance, taking turns, following and leading.
SPEND TIME WITH SKILLED CONVERSERS
A second secret for mastering conversation is this: To become better, you must spend time around masterful conversers. Just as to become more skilled at tennis you need to play against better players, the same is true of conversational practice.
However, if you don’t work or live with excellent conversers, where do you find them?
WHERE TO FIND SKILLED CONVERSERS?
Increasing numbers of conversation cafes are springing up around North America. These are groups for learning and practicing excellent skills at no cost. To learn if there is a café in your area, check www.conversationcafes.org. If such a café does not yet exist in your area, you can easily start one.
Generally, these drop-in groups meet weekly for about 90 minutes of friendly and satisfying conversation. Also, check for a “cousin" group, a Socrates Café for deep discussion. Check also public workshops on interpersonal communication offered by colleges and training companies.
CONVERSATION IS PROCESS KNOWLEDGE
The third secret is that conversation skills are a `process knowledge`, not a `cognitive knowledge. ` Like riding a bike or hand-writing a note, the knowledge is in the behavior. There is a certain `feel` to it. It’s not knowing `that. ` It’s knowing HOW. That is why the many books written about conversation are only marginally helpful. Learning more effective ways of conversing – certain moves and phrases – is a bit like learning a foreign language. If we do not rehearse the oral behaviors and only think about them, they will not be available to use when we want to use them spontaneously.
Example: Many Japanese study English as “book-learning" for many years, yet are unable to converse in English at even a basic level. Why? Lack of oral practice with fluent native speakers.
CONFIDENCE FOLLOWS LEARNING NEW SKILLS
The fourth secret is that one’s emotional confidence usually follows but rarely precedes being skillful. This Is true of almost any activity: juggling 3 balls, writing a sales letter, roasting the holiday turkey. We have to DO the behavior first before true confidence arrives.
A feeling of awkwardness and self-consciousness often accompanies our attempts to learn a new process knowledge, and this is especially ture of we are being observed by others. The real confidence is usually a consequence of our repeated practice at learning a skill by pressing through any awkwardness to the point that “I know I can do it because I’ve done it. "
Many people interpret their awkward feelings to mean they should avoid an activity because it’s uncomfortable and might even be risky or dangerous. This is a common mistake and has the effect of preventing people from gaining skill. As with the tennis player who competes only against weaker players, these conversers never advance in their level of skill.
Some discomfort comes with the territory of learning new or different social skills. If we don’t accept that reality, we’ll stay cloistered within our zone of comfort and will not stretch into new behaviors.
In summary, good conversation is a collaborative dance, not a competition; for best learning, we must talk with accomplished conversers; then we must practice and not merely think about how to converse; and finally we must push through the awkward feelings that accompany learning new social skills.
Loren Ekroth ©2004
Loren Ekroth, Ph. D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people. Contact at Loren@conversation-matters.com . Check resources and archived articles at http://www.conversation-matters.com.