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 [http://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