Conversation Skills for Career Success

If you want to create the life and career success you want and deserve you have to become a great conversationalist.  There are no two ways about it.

Effective communication, especially conversation, is an up close and personal endeavor.  All of the great communicators I know are great conversationalists.  As with most things, I have one great piece of common sense advice on how to become a great conversationalist.  Listen more than you speak. When I am in a conversation, I try to spend about one third of my time speaking and two thirds listening.  I have found that this ratio works well for me.

Most people like to talk about themselves.  The best way to get people speaking about themselves is to ask a lot of questions.  When you meet people for the first time, ask “get to know you” questions.  You know the kind of questions I’m talking about here.  “What do you do?”  “Where do you live?”  “Are you married?”  “Do you have children?”

Listen to the answers and file away this information for future use.  The other day I called on an old client.  Prior to going to see him, I spent time thinking about what I knew about him from our previous conversations.  Here’s what I remembered.  We know several people in common.  His son is a music major at Ithaca College.  His company was recently acquired.

I prepared myself for our meeting by coming up with four questions.  1) How is your son doing at Ithaca?  2) Have you spoken to Jo (our mutual acquaintance) lately?  3) I saw Tom (another mutual acquaintance) the other day, have you spoken to him recently?  4) How are things going with your new company?

By asking these questions, listening, and adding follow up comments and/or questions, I was able to keep things moving for an hour.  At the end of that time, I was in a good position to ask the two questions that were my main reason for the conversation.  “How are things going with your team?  How can I help you?”  This was a sales call, after all.

My friend Debra Fine, author of the bestseller The Fine Art of Small Talk calls this “going deeper.”  A couple of years ago, I interviewed her on my internet talk radio show.   Here is what she had to say.

“Don’t be afraid to dig deeper.  When you say to someone ‘How’s work?’ they’re going to say ‘pretty good’ or ‘good’ or ‘great’ or whatever.  Dig in deeper, let them know you’re sincere with one more question, Say something like, ‘So, what’s been going on with work, Bud, since the last time we talked?’ Or if you say to somebody ‘how were your holidays,’ and they say ‘great,’ you can follow up by saying, ‘What did you do over the holidays that you enjoyed the most?’”  Let them know you are sincere.

“We say to our friends, ‘How are you Bud?’  If you give a one word answer like ‘great,’ I’ve got to follow up with something like ‘Bud, bring me up to date – what’s been going on in your life since the last time I saw you?’  Now you know that I really want to know how you are, otherwise ‘how are you’ will end up meaning ‘hello.’  That’s all it means.

“By the same token you don’t want to become what I can an ‘FBI agent.’ That’s why one follow up question is important, but no more after that.  “

Debra makes some great points about the power of questions in conversation.  The key here is to ask questions, listen to what people have to say and respond appropriately.  Then file away what you’ve learned.  I recommend writing it down so you won’t forget.  Review what you know about a person prior to visiting with him or her.  This will help you prepare for the conversation by choosing the questions you want to ask.

Listening is the way to take advantage of the questions you ask.  Dr. Joyce Brothers provides some great career advice when it comes to listening.

“Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery.”

She’s right!

When you really listen to someone, really listen, giving him or her your complete and undivided attention, you are showing that you care about him or her as a human being.  What could be more flattering?

The US Department of Labor suggests several reasons for developing your listening skills.  Developing your listening skills will help you:

  • Better understand assignments and what is expected of you.
  • Build rapport with co-workers, bosses and customers.
  • Show support for others.
  • Work better in a team based environment.
  • Resolve problem with co-workers, bosses and customers.
  • Answer questions completely.
  • Find the underlying meaning in what others say.

There are some generally accepted ideas about what it takes to be a good listener:

  • Maintain eye contact with the person with whom you are speaking.
  • Don’t interrupt – except to ask a clarification question.
  • Use non verbal cues – nod your heard, lean toward the other person, sit still – that indicate you are listening.
  • Repeat what the other person says – to be sure you understand, and to get clarification.

I have a worked out a listening to speaking ratio for effective conversations.  Listen two thirds of the time.  Speak one third of the time.  In this way, you are giving the other person more time to share his or her thoughts and ideas with you.  You will be flattering him or her by your willingness to listen.

Listening is more than just not talking.  To listen well, you need to mentally engage with the other person.  You need to focus on what he or she is saying, and you need to respond in a manner that indicates that you are paying attention.

You should listen the most diligently when you find yourself disagreeing with what the other person is saying.  It’s easy to tune out someone with whom you disagree.  When you really listen to what he or she has to say, you are not only demonstrating respect for his or her as a person, you put yourself in a position to learn something new.

The people who host many of the television political talk shows are terrible listeners.  They invite people who hold opposing views to be on their show.  They ask provocative questions.  And then begin to argue with their guest as soon as he or she begins speaking.  This may be good TV, but it is a poor example of how to truly listen and engage with another person.

The career success coach point here is simple common sense.  Successful people have well developed communication skills.  They are good conversationalists.  They write clearly and succinctly.  They present well.  If you want to become a good conversationalist, you need to learn to listen well.  Focus your attention on the other person, pay attention to what he or she says.  Respond appropriately.  Listen more than you speak.  Show people that you value them and what they have to say.

That’s my career advice on conversation and listening.  What do you think?  Please take a minute to share your thoughts with us in a comment.  As always, thanks for reading my daily musings on life and career success.  I value you and I appreciate you.


PS: If you haven’t already done so, please download a free copy of my popular career advice book Success Tweets and its companion piece Success Tweets Explained.  The first gives you 140 bits of career success advice tweet style — in 140 characters or less.  The second is a whopping 390 + pages of career advice explaining each of the common sense tweets in Success Tweets in detail.  Go to to claim your free copy.  You’ll also start receiving my daily life and career success quotes.

PPS: I opened a membership site last September.  It’s called My Corporate Climb and is devoted to helping people create career success inside large corporations.  You can find out about the membership site by going to http://www.mycorporateclimb

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