The Art of Conversation

by Jeffrey R. Ambrose

Fellowship and conversation go hand-in-hand. How can members of God’s Church become more effective communicators?

One of life’s most awkward experiences is walking into a social event—for example, a wedding reception—and realizing that you know almost no one in the room. Looking around at a sea of unfamiliar faces, you have a choice: “Should I retreat to a table in the corner of the room? Or should I mix and mingle, introduce myself, and learn some names?”

Most choose the first option, simply because it is easier. Trying to find things in common with strangers can be very difficult.

But what happens when you walk into a room full of people with whom you have the most important thing in common—the truth? Do you still hesitate to engage others and begin a conversation?

Required to Fellowship

Remember that God expects and requires His people to fellowship regularly, in all cases where a reasonable distance allows it: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Further, He considers it a sacrifice to communicate with others: “But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13:16). This is more than a suggestion!

Paul gave specific instructions to Timothy regarding the more successful, wealthier brethren who were more naturally inclined to insulate themselves and become cliquish: “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (I Tim. 6:17-19).

Breaking the Ice

Often, the hardest part of a conversation is starting one. It takes some courage to approach another human being for the first time. But those who are determined to live the “give” way of life must push themselves to do this.

After “hello” and “how are you,” what comes next? This involves the art of “small talk.” When we first meet someone, we may not be quite ready to jump straight into a discussion of doctrine or the details of prophecy. Quite often, the journey to your present location, or even that old standby—the weather—is a natural place to start. Remember to be on the lookout for common interests. You both have traveled to where you are, and you both have experienced the weather. These can become a springboard to more meaningful conversation. Think of them as appetizers before the main course.

On the other hand, if you happen to meet a fellow member after Sabbath services, the subjects of the messages that day, or inspiring news of the Work, can be the best topic.

A “Two-way Street”

A real conversation involves both talking and listening. If one person does all the talking and the other can get only as far as nodding his or her head, this is not true conversation—this is a monologue being delivered to an audience.

Those who are more naturally verbal, or who have a richer history of life experiences, must be careful not to dominate the dialogue so completely that others “can barely fit a word in edgewise.”

On the other hand, those who are more naturally quiet or reserved should challenge themselves to contribute to the conversation.

As with all other areas of life, exercise balance. Strive to walk the line between talking too much and too little. Be careful that you speak with the other person, not just talk at him.

Asking Questions Is Key

Taking an interest in another person is the foundation of any relationship. One very important way this is expressed is when we speak with someone. Curiosity about the other parties involved is the spark that ignites a scintillating conversation.

A wide variety of areas exist in another person’s life to ask about: their interests, hobbies, background, places they have lived or visited, careers, likes and dislikes. For an engaged, inquisitive mind, the list is virtually endless.

Once in a while, we encounter a person who is more reluctant to “come out of his shell.” In approaching this situation, we must be careful to ask the right kinds of questions—ones that require more than a “yes” or “no” response. Probe, plumb and bring more details to light! You may be surprised—a man or woman who may on the surface appear reserved and quiet can be a gold mine of interesting stories, experiences and knowledge: “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Prov. 20:5).

The Lost Art of…Listening!

The best conversationalists are good listeners. Carefully listening to another person, and understanding what he or she is saying, takes effort and concern.

In this modern age, when the average man and woman are “lovers of their own selves” (II Tim. 3:2), those engaged in a conversation often nod and smile, and occasionally grunt, “Uh-huh…right…”—but are in effect just waiting for the other person to stop talking so they can take the spotlight.

Let this never be any of us!

After you have asked a question, listen intently to the response. Work hard to keep your mind from wandering to other subjects. Ask follow-up questions to clarify anything that is not readily understandable.

Some keys to being a good listener follow the acronym “E.A.R.”:

Eye contact: Maintaining a visual connection helps focus one’s attention and improves memory of what is heard. It enables you to catch the facial expressions and gestures that add so much to words. (However, remember to look away periodically, or else you will become known for staring people down!)

Apply to your life: As you listen, try to relate what you hear (briefly, without losing your train of thought) to experiences that you have had.

Review/restate: After the other person has explained something, it is sometimes a good idea to attempt to restate or summarize the main point(s) in your own words. This will also help you remember them, and give the speaker an idea of how well you grasp the information.

The old maxim still applies: We were given one mouth and two ears! It makes sense that we should be prepared to listen more than talk, especially in a group conversation in which three or more participate.

A final tip in the area of listening: Strive to expand your vocabulary. The more word meanings you have within your command, the more fully you will be able to comprehend what another person says. There are many books devoted to this goal (most featuring the phrase Word Power in the title), as well as “Word of the Day” emails that you can subscribe to at sites such as Dictionary.com and Wordsmith.org.

Building a Reservoir

Do you sometimes find yourself thinking, “I just don’t know what to talk about”? There is a remedy. We can increase the depth of our conversation by taking every opportunity to learn and experience new things.

Determine to keep track of current events. Of course, we are instructed to do this from more than one perspective in Scripture:

• “Watch you therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man” (Luke 21:36).

• “And the Lord said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof” (Ezek. 9:4).

We can more readily “watch” world events and “sigh and cry,” more quickly and broadly than ever before, by using the Internet.

Awareness of history and a grasp on the general fund of knowledge taught through middle school and high school (secondary school) will go a long way in enabling you to relate to people from all walks of life. Read biographies and nonfiction. View television documentaries. None of us is ever too old to learn—we should be disciples (students) as long as we live!

Do not be afraid to read and research outside your comfort zone. With the exception of things that are contrary to God’s Law, no topic should be considered “off limits.”

Strive to be known for your ability to discuss a wide range of topics. It is difficult to speak with someone who is constantly fixated on one topic or area of conversation—determine to be versatile!

Finally, there are a few areas of conversation in which we should be careful. Things that are very personal—painful past experiences, problem relationships, etc.—are best left for the other person to bring up first, if he or she wants to discuss them. Otherwise, these are better left unsaid. Also, be careful not to give constructive criticism to a person while in the presence of others—this is almost always best done one-on-one.

Expand Your Horizons!

The final way to expand your conversational skills is simply to practice. The more you do this, the better you will become at it. In the process, you will also expand your store of knowledge and conversational topics by absorbing what others have learned.

The Feast is an excellent time to practice, and the best opportunity to be around other members of God’s Church that you do not see on a regular basis, or may have never met. Avoid the “broad path” of speaking only with those from your local congregation, or those you have already met—get outside your comfort zone! Move around the room, engage others, ask people to join you for meals, and enjoy new personalities and perspectives.

Apply the points above—both you and others will benefit!