There is a tension, an excitement, a spark of possibility in all great conversation.
--Julia Cameron, The Right to Write, p. 173


Conversation Is Neglected

Who has time for conversation these days? Yet, I remember some of the happiest moments in college were spent listening to folks in dorms and on campus. You learn not to interrupt. People have something to say. They want to be listened to.

Several weekends ago I had the pleasure of having two remotely related relatives talking for four hours. I didn't know what to say to these nice people. For a while, we just stared at each other. Suddenly, I realized we could start a conversation. Therefore, don't worry if you have lulls in your conversation. Both of you are probably thinking. One of the relatives asked me some questions about my work. That started the ball rolling. In this case, I then returned a question. What are your hobbies and interests? People love to talk about their work and their life outside of work. The relative opened up in a way I have never seen. He told me about his time at college, the people he visited while working on advanced degrees, and the joy he experienced in writing poetry. I pleaded ignorant to knowing anything about poetry, although my high school English teacher inspired me to learn a few lines from American poems. The relative taught me about modern poetry and some of the outstanding people in that field. Even though poetry was not my particular interest, I asked many questions and appeared more than interested.

What has this story taught us so far? Certain principles about good conversation can evolve:

A Room of Strangers Provides Real Challenge

Now, let's take you to another part of the world. We are in Montreal and entering a beautifully appointed convention center in the heart of the city. We leave our coat at the check-in room and descend a staircase to be greeted by a room of 600 strangers. What do you do as an artful conversationalist? First, you don't panic and seek the next airplane home. You calmly descend the staircase and start studying the groups of people. Naturally, you head for the food and the hors d'oeuvres being carried by various food servers. Your face now lights on some possibly familiar faces. What to do? You wander over to this group of strangers while you are listening to strolling musicians and small chamber groups entertaining the guests. You realize immediately you are not part of the group. The group does not necessarily seem happy to see you; you hold your distance and don't intrude too much. You listen carefully to each of the members of the clique. Remember that you are there to learn. Learning is the first stage in appreciating the importance of conversation.

Now you are ensconced in the group and listening intently to the conversation. Someone gives you a nod, and you introduce yourself. You are in a group of people from the United States. Already, you have something in common with the group. Suddenly, you see a chance to introduce yourself. Remember to provide a firm handshake or as the experts say, "web to web." You find out two of the people in the group are from Southern California. It is such a small world. You inquire about where they work and what they do for a living. The conversation picks up.

Working a Room Does Not Always Work

Suppose the conversation does not pick up. You need to know how to "work a room." You often notice people at parties who seem to "buzz" from one group to another. That is evidence of working a room. Susan RoAne (source: Tamar Schreibman, "How to Work a Room," Working Woman, July-August, 1999), through her books on working a room, offers advice called OAR:

With this O-A-R analysis, let's apply the principles immediately. You first OBSERVE which groups of cliques seem to be most active. Can you fit with any of them? Then, you ASK by listening and eventually asking questions of group members. You can soon detect whether you are wanted. Most people like to talk about themselves, and that is your cue to listen and carry on conversation. Then, you can REVEAL your personal characteristics and interests. People find you are a conversationalist and can meet people. You become more accepted as you work the room. Nothing is more frustrating than standing at a party and not knowing anyone. You must put yourself out to meet people and practice that famous "networking."

Susan RoAne provides advice about the homework and the verbal cues you should employ. She suggests a simple "Hi" or "Hello" to start the conversation. You should be well-prepared on at least three-five topics of current interest. She asks this provocative question: Can you give a seven-nine second introduction of yourself? Finally, she cautions conversationalists to avoid correctly other people's grammar. A party or some business/social event is not the place for a grammar lesson.

A Round Table Creates Its Own Problems

A few months ago I experienced a situation too common to conversational barriers. What if you are assigned a table at a big affair where you know no one at the table? What should you do after being seated? What are your options? Should you asked to be assigned to another table where a few, friendly faces lurk?

This situation demands our best thinking. Here are some guidelines that may help you the next time you know no one at a round table: