[This post is part of a series on Communication Skills Exercises for Business and Life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Do you ever start a conversation you want to talk to, then run out of things to say? This exercise will help. I adapted it from my friend Sebastian.
When you do the exercise with someone who doesn’t know you are doing it, they rarely sense you’re doing anything other than conversing as usual. The exercise doesn’t mimic a whole genuine conversation, just part of one, but you can use it in any conversation to continue a meandering conversation or jump start one in a lull.
When you observe others doing the exercise, the conversation can sound contrived, but when you’re in it the person you’re talking to doesn’t, so it works.
People like to be heard and they like to talk, even to someone they don’t know, when they don’t have to work to maintain the conversation. This exercise forces you to listen to the other person and gives you an easy way to respond.
When you can perform the exercise second nature, you don’t work at it or rely on it as the central part of a conversation. You just use it periodically to get to the central parts.
The exercise works best between two people. The core of the exercise is
- One person says a declarative sentence or two.
- The other chooses a word or phrase and makes a sentence or two from it.
When doing the exercise with someone also doing the exercise with you, you can go on as long as you like, like a volley in tennis. When doing it with someone not in on it, you do it until you reach a topic you mutually enjoy.
Guidelines for how to choose your sentences after the other person speaks:
- Provide a transition between their sentences and yours.
- If the other person gets stuck, you lose.
- Avoid questions, talking too long, or staying on the same topic for too long.
The transition need not be complex. In fact, they shouldn’t detract from the main content of what you say. The sample conversation below gives examples.
By “you lose” I don’t mean you’re competing. The goal of the exercise is to keep a conversation going, so you always want to provide the other person with things to say. You “win” when the other person finds you charismatic and enjoyable to talk to.
Avoiding questions forces you to add value to the conversation in the exercise. Of course, in most conversations asking questions is great. This is just an exercise to force you to develop skills to maintain conversations — not to dissuade you from asking questions. You’d be surprised how often simple questions stall conversations with people you don’t know well.
Avoiding talking too long keeps you from boring the other person.
A typical c-hopping conversation goes as follows
Person A: “I just got back from a trip to Shanghai. I loved it there.”
Person B: “China? Sounds amazing. I visited Bangkok a few months ago and wish I could have made it there.”
A: “Bangkok is beautiful, I hear. I think they have the best cuisine in the world. I hope you got to enjoy the food.”
B: “Holy cow! The food was amazing. I can’t eat at Thai restaurants in New York anymore. They just aren’t as good.”
A: “New York restaurants can be pretty good. I bet you could find something comparably good here. It might not be authentic, but it might be as delicious.”
B: “Authentic is important to me. My family grew up sampling food from everywhere and we always liked different tastes.”
B: “Family reminds me that my mother’s birthday is coming up. I need ideas for what to get her.”
A: “For your mom? I just read a great book she might like…”
Notice how each response follows the pattern — a few words referring to the other person’s statements as transition, using of the other person’s words, and adding something new. No person talks so long as to bore the other.
This conversation may not be the most interesting in the world, but if you were one of the people and the other wasn’t aware you were doing it, they probably would find the conversation at least better than average, particularly because each response of yours showed you were paying attention.
Note that if any statements had been questions, they could have ended the conversation. For example, if B’s first statement had been “China? Wow, what was it like?”, if A didn’t feel like answering the question — “What was it like” is an obvious question A may have gotten a dozen times that day and may be bored of answering it — the conversation may have stalled.
You’ll be surprised how often you get stuck or unintentionally ask a stalling question.
Likewise, you’ll be surprised at how easily you can pick up the underlying skills to pay attention, show interest in what the other person has to say, and motivate them to stay in the conversation and contribute.
Finally, you’ll be surprised how easily you can maintain conversations that used to stall.
Some topics engage nearly everyone — travel, recent books or movies, current events, guys or girls, food, hobbies, etc. Sometimes you want to talk about something in particular or sense the other person does.
As your skills improve, you can start steering the conversation toward such topics. For example, if you met someone at a cocktail party who works at a company and you want to know if it is hiring, only a few hops can take you from initial greeting to your topic. If each hop acknowledges the other person and shows interest in what they are saying, they won’t feel you steered them there.
You, right here, right now
You could enlist someone to practice with. It’s not hang gliding, but it does develop skills. If you have no one to practice with on purpose, you can do the exercise with anyone you want. Once the conversation hits a topic you both like, you can leave the exercise and enjoy the conversation.
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