How to Start Your Conversations Skillfully

man smiling while woman speaksThe art of telling jokes effectively and using precise comic timing is an unusual gift. You have probably told a joke at a party and experienced listeners responding to the proper setup of the story. When you tell a joke in the right sequence, the tale holds the audience’s attention and they laugh in unison at the punch line. Stand-up comedians invest thousands of hours in crafting their careers to deliver their messages masterfully, accurately gauging the audience’s mood and receptivity.

When you begin an argument, your setup similarly predicts the way the argument will end. However, you can develop this skill relatively quickly. It takes a bit of practice, but cultivating this set of habits is a worthwhile investment in the health of your relationship. (These tools will also serve you well in the workplace. The ability to tactfully tell other people about concerns or dissatisfactions is a valuable skill wherever you go.)

When you talk about a problem, you are setting up a conversation, just like a comedian sets up a joke. Done well, this conversation goes in a productive direction and both of you feel satisfied by the exchange. If you start harshly, with criticism and irritation, this greatly diminishes the chances of improving the situation and finding a mutual solution.

Prepare yourself with an attitude check: Recognize that you may not be fully aware of the other person’s point of view. He or she may not realize there’s an issue. Perhaps he or she is not in opposition to you at all. The person could be quite willing to help address your concern, or already be feeling defensive about it. Considering your partner’s possible perspective helps you set the right tone.

When you start talking, keep your comments focused and simple. Stick to one issue that you’d like to see changed: “It’s bothering me that we haven’t worked on the budget we talked about yet. I’d like to look at this on Saturday morning. Is that a good time for you?” If you start ranting, even though you may feel righteous and experience some relief in unloading, it’s harder for your partner to listen.

Use good manners, just as you would with friends or strangers.

Complain by simply describing your experience. Tell your partner what’s bothering you. Start with at least one positive comment: “You’ve been putting in long hours at work the past few weeks. I definitely appreciate all the effort you’re making so we can catch up financially. It’s hard for me to stay on top of all the household stuff when you’re away this much, though. I miss you, and it can get feeling lonely to do this by myself.” Avoid the word “but.” When you deliver kind words followed by “but,” this causes defensiveness by creating a “sucker punch” feeling.

Include appreciation, even about small, everyday activities: “It was great to have you take care of the babysitting so we can get to the party this weekend”; “I noticed you picked up that thing to fix the garden hose—thanks for remembering.”

Avoid storing things up. Handle issues as they arise. Dumping a laundry list on your partner only leads to blow-ups and drama.

Offer “soft” emotions like feeling insecure, afraid, and sad. Making yourself vulnerable is often irresistible to your partner.

Refrain from blaming the other person. Talk about your own feelings and experience. Sentences that start with “You” have a greater probability of leading to “fighting words”: accusations, blame, and put-downs. Avoid the phrase “You’re the one who …” unless it is followed by praise: “You’re the one who saved us all that money by handling the refinancing!”

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kate McNulty, LCSW, Gottman Method Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ross

    September 24th, 2013 at 10:45 AM

    The art of a lovely conversation just isn’t a skill set that many people possess these days.
    Too many times it is all about the speaker and rarely are there times when anyone sits back and takes notice of the one having to endure and listen.
    Perhaps the best tip would be to actually put yourself into the shoes of the listener and try to discern if you would have any interest in hearing about this if this wasn’t about you.
    I think that for the most part we will realize pretty quickly just how self interested most of us are and would try to do a much better job integrating a better conversational flow if we really paid attention to what it was doing to those who had to sit and listen to us yammer on.

  • Candi L

    September 25th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    One thing that I think that most of us do is that we enter into an argumentative situation already with a chip on our shoulder. We are automatically so defensive and this is an attitude that is going to get the other person pretty defensive as well. Going into this with a much better frame of mind and really being aware of speaking to the other person in a manner that you yourself would like to be spoken to? Now those are the arguments that actually can end a little more productively.

  • beth

    September 26th, 2013 at 3:59 AM

    @ Candi I agree. We go into it defensive and it makes the other person immediately feel the same.
    That’s the thing that I need to UNLEARN!

  • Gregory

    September 28th, 2013 at 4:56 AM

    Most of us really feel this need to prove a point when we go into any conversation like this but the bad thing is that most of us have no idea how to do this without getting loud and obnoxious. Most of the time we want to be heard and the way that we feel like this is best is achieved is to, well, be loud and forceful. I know that I usually don’t respond too well to conversation starters like this so why I ever think that anyone else will is beyond me, and yet there I go all in just like anyone else does trying to prove the same kind of pint. I am not conversational master and I think that for most of us we atrying to learn as we go, but I do try to keep in mind what I would respond best to and use that same method when I am trying to explain something to someone else. Typically this is going to work much better than just beating a dead horse.

  • HR

    September 30th, 2013 at 3:49 AM

    This is not something that is only going to work for you in your job- this could work for you in any relationship that you have. It could be friendships, marriages, and yes even employment relationships, but being able to effectively and calmly manage conversations, even ones that could potentially be a little confrontational, is a skill that is going to serve you well in numerous situations throughout your life. The bad thing is that most people? They have no desire at all to learn this because instead of being artful they would rather just “win” at all costs, and naturally this kind of attitude won’t set you up for the best outcome most of the time. This isn’t about power and being in control, or it shouldn’t be anyway. This is about being rational and calm and making your point in a way that is effective for both sides.

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