Every entrepreneur needs to have countless skills, from creative brainstorming to logical analysis and decision-making. And these skills range in complexity and specificity, with basic ones like time management permeating your day, and more complex ones that are exclusive to your industry and are acquired only through experience.
But there’s one skill that’s incredibly basic, yet underrepresented in the modern entrepreneurial community: the art of conversation.
Fortunately, there are some habit changes, exercises and general considerations that can help you become a better conversationalist, overall:
1. Pay attention
Tons of articles tell you to act like you’re paying attention by making eye contact, nodding and repeating back what the other person has told you. But as TED speaker Celeste Headlee humorously points out, why would you need to act like you’re paying attention if you are, in fact, paying attention? When you converse, then, don’t just wait for your next opportunity to speak; truly listen to what the other person is saying, absorb it and reflect on it. You’ll understand the speaker's meaning more clearly, and respond more appropriately.
2. Ask open-ended questions
The common advice to holding a better conversation is to ask more questions, but that only tells you half the story. You can’t just ask a series of rapid-fire questions and hope to get good answers. Instead, you have to ask open-ended questions, which force the responder to give you more meaningful information.
Don’t ask, “Do you like our new website?” This forces a “yes” or “no” answer, which closes the conversation and gives you little meaningful information to work with. Instead, consider something more open, like “What do you think of our new website?”
3. Let the conversation take its course
During the course of the conversation, many twists and turns will arise. Try to let them happen as naturally as possible. Many thoughts and talking points will enter your mind throughout, but don’t interrupt the flow of conversation to bring them up -- it’s fine to let them go. Your goal here is to keep the dialogue active, with a positive rhythm, so unless you deviate far off course from your intended direction, let these natural changes unfold.
4. Err on the side of caution
People will hold you at your word, so be careful what you commit to and what you imply you know. For example, if a client asks if you can customize your software with a new tool, don’t respond “yes” just to keep the conversation moving (unless you know the answer is “yes,” for sure). Instead, “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer, as long as you follow up to get the answers eventually. Doing this will allow your conversations to establish more reasonable expectations and set you up as a more powerful authority.
5. Skip the details unless necessary
Conciseness is a powerful tool that makes your words more meaningful, and helps keep the conversation on track at the same time.
That doesn’t mean you should respond in snippets of only a few words, but it does mean you should avoid dredging up any details that are unnecessary for your bottom-line points.
In sum, it takes time to become a better conversationalist, just as it takes time to be a better anything, but the more time and energy you invest in your skill, the more rewards you'll gain in your future engagements. Plus, being a better conversationalist is more than just a line on your resume -- it’s going to help you be a better friend, relative and maybe even better stranger.