Help Me Become a Better Conversationalist

Watch out: I use "I" 54 times in this post, so this will be boring if you, like me, aren't interested in hearing me talk about myself.

When I was in high school, I was so shy that I couldn't talk to almost anyone outside my family. Through a last-ditch effort when I went to college, I got better. I then got lucky and succeeded at a lot of things I tried after that, which rescued my general confidence, and I did some focused practice, rejection therapy, public speaking, and Beeminding to fix my social confidence.

But even though I'm no longer afraid to try, that doesn't mean that I can do it well. I still feel that I'm not usually a good conversationalist. I haven't had enough practice, especially since I have always spent most of my working time hacking in my lair instead of working socially. I started to practice things like this after the CFAR workshop in March, but put it on hold after getting married when I hurt my feet.

I'm finally recovered and can go outdoors again, so I spent this week practicing: three days of the hallway track at some conferences (plus moderating a discussion), two group classes, a social lunch, a party, hosting my cofounders for hacking, and a few video calls. I'm not completely socially exhausted--yeah, I threw the "introvert" label out of my identity a while ago--but I'm also not going to the second party tonight.

How did it go? I was trying to practice three things:

    
  1. Be into others' stuff.
  2. Smile.
  3. Be vulnerable instead of safe.

In practice, I usually forgot about #2 and #3. I did much better at trying to focus on other peoples' interests in conversation than I usually do. I'm normally terrible at that, blathering on about my own stuff even as I'm bored of what I'm saying.

One thing I was doing a few months ago was explicitly asking people, right after I talked to them, how I could improve my conversation skills. I would send it in an email so that they could ponder it more and not be as nervous about telling me how I suck. It worked well. People said things like:

    
  • I don't smile much, even when I'm engaged, and even when I'm talking about trying to remember to smile more.
  • I'm not funny enough, and not as funny in person as in writing. (I'm funny in writing?)
  • I use swearing and exaggerated enunciation as a crutch instead of finding better words.
  • I talk too much instead of inviting others to speak.

Before I started asking people, this was what I thought I was missing:

    
  • I mumble too much.
  • I'm not very good at telling stories.
  • I say "like" too much.

Notice: no overlap. Introspection failure again? Probably.

I didn't ask more than a handful of people, and it occurs to me that I should start doing this again when meeting new people. It also occurs to me to ask you, dear reader! If you have talked to me and have ideas for how I can become a better conversationalist, please tell me. Critical feedback is way better than me guessing. Then next time you talk to me, it'll be more fun for both of us.

Nick

Hacking on CodeCombat, a multiplayer programming game for learning to code. Mastermind behind Skritter, the most powerful Chinese character learning app.

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