Four Secrets of Learning Masterful Conversation

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.


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.


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?


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 []. 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.


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.


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

Source by Loren Ekroth

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