You likely exhaust a lot of time on what you say in conversation, but place little attention in how to say it.
After nearly a decade in teaching conversation and social skills to people in over 100 countries, I’ve noticed common conversation mistakes made by those who think they’re good at talking with others. I make each of 6 mistakes at times. Take a bite of humble pie then learn – you will find yourself making more friends and improving your relationships.
1. Filler Words
Like, the other day I had this. Umm, you know when you talk and you’re talking trying to say something? You can’t quite say what you’re after because, err I don’t know, things just don’t come to mind and all.
Compare that to:
The other day I couldn’t talk because things didn’t come to mind.
Compare that to:
Last week in conversation with a potential client I couldn’t say a word because my mind went blank.
Which example of speech conveys power and commands attention? The last example.
You cannot cut it in the business world talking like the first example. It is a rambled speech of filler words that bore whoever listens. The second example cuts out filler words such as “like”, “umm”, “you know”, and other unnecessary phrases. The third example goes one step further with concrete information to convey a thought in a powerful manner. Specific, visual dialog is remembered.
If Ronald Reagan in a speech about the Berlin Wall said, “The wall is something that does not need to be there and all, so it should get taken down soon”, his message would get lost. Instead the President issued a challenge to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev saying, “Tear down this wall.”
I have three good methods to remove filler words. The first is to record yourself in conversation. Download an app onto your smartphone, record, then analyze. How could you succinctly say what you did? Should you use silence instead of “umm”? Maybe you have a word you overuse like “totally”.
My second method to remove filler words uses a friend. If you have a keen friend willing to help you in conversation, get your friend to hold a device that makes any sound so when you use a filler word, your friend triggers the sound. You will get annoyed and change!
The third method is to write. Yes, writing then edit your work by asking yourself, “How could I make this sentence shorter? Could one or two words substitute for these lot of words?” You can teach yourself how to talk differently by altering your written language. I have surprised myself at times with vocabulary use and other times with ideas communicated in a short and strong manner. You talk differently to how you write, but each influence the other.
2. A Staggered Speech
This conversation mistake is best understood by listening to the text-to-speech programs. Here are examples of staggered speech. Staggered speech in human conversation is not as exaggerated as the video, but it helps you understand this conversational mistake. People with such speech patterns are not as nice to listen to than those with a rhythmic voice.
To correct the mistake, use a method called “linking”. A link is the verbal form of cursive handwriting – except it also joins words together. It makes for fluent, rhythmic speech.
Say the following sentence with a hard enunciation of each syllable and a short space between each word. Listen to the rhythm of your speech.
The other day I drove to the gym. I had a good workout.
Listen to my recording. What we did is the opposite to linking. This can happen by placing too much emphasis on the enunciation of syllables, hence why it’s a conversation mistake made by experts.
The form of speech can be great at times. Good speakers use spacing and pacing to emphasis a core message. As a default way of speaking though, you need to link if you want a fluid-sounding voice.
Now say the same sentence “blending” each word as if it was one long word. Try it in this form:
Here is a recording of mine. The main argument against this method is the belief it is sloppy. Linking is not sloppy; it is fluent, easy-to-listen-to speech. Listen to your favorite speakers and I bet you they link.
3. A Fast Rate of Speech
“I’m not a fast talker” you say? You may not be, but there are times when your speech unnecessarily hastens. Fast speech slips in when you’re excited or angry (which can be fine). You may just have the habit of talking at an electric pace. High intelligence is often associated with a brisk speech-rate so it is tempting to talk fast.
Quick talkers are vulnerable at being misunderstood from listeners not clearly hearing what is said. You risk stumbling over your words from the rush. Running your smartphone with a recording app lets you spot such a habit.
A deep breathe before each sentence and reminding yourself to slow down trains you to pace your speech. It also helps to think others who listen are interested in you and what you have to say that you don’t need to rush your words to get it over with.
4. Closed Body Language
A lot of people know the difference between open and closed body language yet regularly use closed when they should use open.
Open body language involves gestures, looks, and movements that are friendly and often open someone to conversation with you. Such open language includes arms by your side, open palms, and a stance facing the person with your toes pointing at them or outwards. The universal surrender of “arms in the air with palms forward” is open body language.Example of closed body language in conversation
Closed body language involves the same characteristics, but to the other extreme, which closes someone from conversation with you. Such nonverbal communication is easily seen in aggressive behavior and includes crossed arms, closed fists, shoulders angled away, and crossed legs.
Ideas people share and our stereotypes can cause unnecessary closure. If you disagree with someone, you have an innate tendency to “close off” by shutting your eyes, turning your head, or crossing your arms. When you want to be understood, listened to, and befriended, use open body language.
Most major body parts can be either open or closed. The next time you stand there in conversation, run an analysis on yourself from toe-to-head questioning if each major body part is closed or open. Try it now on yourself for practice. Pay the most attention to your arms and facial features.
This is a controversial mistake. I say disagreement is a conversational mistake in the context of everyday social conversation with people you don’t know well when nothing can come from them agreeing with you.
Not all disagreement is bad. Two professors from the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University in a research paper titled the “The Dynamic Nature of Conflict” found good performing groups had process and task conflict rather than relationship conflict. Disagreement fuels creativity, learning, and improvement. All this is unnecessary in social conversation, even unwanted by many people.
The more you know, the more you know when someone is wrong. You come across as unfriendly when you correct others who are wrong using phrases like “I disagree” or “I see what you’re saying, but”. Anything with “but” sends an alarm signal that you disagree.
There’s a deeper dynamic going on in disagreements than verbal combat. It takes a certain mindset to want to correct someone over something that has no impact you or the World. By disagreeing with someone you engage in a status battle that puts you on a pedestal. I have found most strangers when faced with correction in conversation retain their original viewpoint to grasp whatever self-worth is left.
If you told Oprah, “I think women will be able to give birth one day”, she would not argue with you about how women around the World give birth every second. Her likely response would be, “That’s interesting” and move on or “Why do you say that?”
The next time you disagree with someone, explore more of why they believe what they do or move the conversation onwards. If you really can’t stand what they say, why are you even talking with them? Laugh inside yourself then find someone who knows the Earth isn’t flat.
6. Short on Conversation Topics
What you say does matter so I will touch on it here. It is easy to run out of things to say even for experts when talking with someone you don’t know. You’re not human if you haven’t stood there clawing for words to fill an awkward silence.
Good conversation topics include talking about the other person, the news, and seeking advice. Think of a situation you regularly find yourself in wanting to talk with people. It could be around the watercooler at work, on the phone with leads, or at a cafe. Now brainstorm 10 topics for conversation suitable for the situation. It’s that simple.
For extra topics to chat over, I have a list of 52 conversation topics you can use that are suitable for many situations. They are even good to use in established relationships so you talk about something more than everyday events.
I hope you found these six conversation mistakes enlightening and my suggestions for improvement helpful. What missteps do you make in conversation? What mistakes do you see others commit? There are plenty of blunders not mentioned here so share your answers in the comments below!