The art of conversation

There's a fellow standing next to you at a social occasion, a business meeting, an elevator stop, or the neighborhood post office. You nod, he nods, you smile, he smiles.

Now what do you say?

''You can start with the weather or politics,'' says Margo Silberstein, who teaches the fine art of communication to adult education classes in the Washington, D.C., area, ''but it helps the conversation more if you share something about your feelings. If you're at a new exhibit or a high-powered business meeting, tell him, 'This is really exciting for me,' '' she suggests.

Expressing such feelings usually ''resonates to something in the other person ,'' Dr. Silberstein says. ''Our whole society is aimed at covering up, not letting people see how you feel. It just makes you more isolated.''

But a little isolation can be a good thing in some situations, says Carol Baldwin, who teaches conversation-making as well. ''People start out on Level I, '' she theorizes, ''talking about something neutral - like the weather, or a sports report - and they're really sizing each other up, establishing trust. This is a case where context is much more important than content.''

But if someone comes up and asks you what you do for a living, ''they've jumped to Level II and started to pry. People don't like it,'' she adds.

And if they start out talking about - or, worse, asking about - feelings and reactions, ''they've jumped to Level III, and people get really offended. What if someone came up to you and asked, out of the blue, 'What do you really think about the boss?' How would you answer him?''

Lightly, replies Art Gliner, a radio disc jockey who teaches humor in communication in the Washington area. ''There are very few occasions where humor isn't appropriate,'' he says, ''as long as it's done without sarcasm or by putting the other person down.''

By learning to ''think funny,'' Mr. Gliner says, the average person can keep a conversation going (as well as get it started) simply by pointing to the ''thing about the situation you're in with the other person that's a little bit absurd or oddball.'' Playing on words keeps such funny conversations going, ''though you don't have to make a joke about everything.''

''Europeans and academicians are really good at playing around with language and conversation,'' says Ms. Baldwin, ''and can keep a conversation going on Level I forever.'' But the people who are best at this sort of banter, she thinks, are those ''who are interested in life. They can think of dozens of things to talk about - what would the city be like without cars, how the skyline has changed in the last 10 years, hobbies, entertainment, transportation, sports , the cost of living, fashion, food....''

This is not the same as giving a prepackaged speech to each new person you meet, she points out. ''Start with your common situation - the decor of the room you're in, the reason why you're both there - and start to mine it.'' Such mining takes good listening skills, since you're trying to discover a topic mutually interesting to both participants.

''There used to be a course in communication that made students restate what they'd heard before giving an answer,'' says Dr. Silberstein, ''and it was extremely difficult for most people, because they don't listen.'' Unfortunately, conversation often reveals this flaw, ''because it doesn't take into account the other person in the conversation - it's just a recitation of facts.''

Some people, of course, are extremely hard to ''mine'' - they give terse answers to every question, or try to hide anything about themselves that could be the topic of a conversation. Ms. Baldwin advises asking questions ''that can't be answered with a 'yes' or 'no' - how and why questions, like, 'How did you get here?' instead of 'Did you have an easy trip?' '' she says. Then, encourage the other person to expand on his answers by showing that you're really listening.

Another good way to keep a conversation going - and get it down to a meatier level - is through a process of ''self-disclosure,'' says Dr. Silberstein. ''You tell them a little about yourself, and they tell you a little about themselves, and you tell them a little bit more.''

The experts also suggest ways to end a conversation gracefully. ''You don't need permission to leave,'' says Ms. Baldwin, ''and you don't have to give an excuse. Tell them, 'It's been nice talking with you, and I wish you well' with something - preferably something you've discussed in the conversation.''

''You don't have to be a professional comedian and leave them laughing,'' says Mr. Gliner, the humorist. ''Most people would appreciate just a smile. It can really make a difference in your day.''

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