What are the fundamentals of conversation skills?
What do you say when you’re face to face?
Let’s break it down:
1) “Be yourself” is often bad advice.
Is “be yourself” the best advice before a job interview? Hell, no. Dress nice, be polite and act enthusiastic no matter what you’re like, right?
What does “be yourself” even mean? You’re not the same person moment to moment. Face it, you can be moody.
“Fake it until you make it” works. Does acting a bit in social settings mean you’re dishonest? No.
Research shows putting your best foot forward actually reveals the real you:
In sum, positive self-presentation facilitates more accurate impressions, indicating that putting one’s best self forward helps reveal one’s true self.
2) Emphasize similarity.
There is extensive research that we like people who are like us.
In almost every conceivable way, from background to word choice, emphasizing similarity improves social relations.
When salespeople were told to mimic the body language of listeners it was rarely noticed but sales increased 20%.
Despite the rather obvious nature of the copycat animation, only eight of the sixty-nine subjects detected the mimicry (and those mostly because they made a strange movement and then saw the agent making the same unusual motion). The remaining students liked the mimicking agent more than the recorded agent, and rated the former as being friendlier as well as more interesting, honest, and persuasive. They also paid better attention to the copycat presenter and found the mimicker to be more persuasive. In the final analysis, just adding mimicry made the sales pitch 20 percent more effective.
3) Get them talking about what interests them.
People who have trouble with conversation always say the same thing: “But what do I talk about?”
Wrong question. The right question is “How do I get them talking about what they’re interested in?“
What should you say after you listen? Research shows you should respond with things that are “active and constructive.“
4) Make people feel good.
Studies show no matter what people say they prefer likable people over competent people. So don’t worry so much about being impressive.
Dale Carnegie’s work agrees with scientific research.
Even insincere flattery works:
The authors show that even when flattery by marketing agents is accompanied by an obvious ulterior motive that leads targets to discount the proffered compliments, the initial favorable reaction (the implicit attitude) continues to coexist with the discounted evaluation (the explicit attitude). Furthermore, the implicit attitude has more influential consequences than the explicit attitude, highlighting the possible subtle impact of flattery even when a person has consciously corrected for it.
How do you make people feel good without being slimy? Offer sincere compliments and ask for advice.
5) How to keep a conversation going.
Avoid extremes in autonomy. Don’t dominate a conversation, but don’t be a non-contributor either.
Add to what they say and bounce the ball back.
The trick, according to Finkel, Eastwick, and Saigal, is to avoid extremes in autonomy. Accept your date’s pass, redirect it slightly, and then return the ball— all with warmth and genuine interest in his or her responses.
This acceptance and redirection is the push and pull that creates smoothness.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.
Read next: The Science of Dealing With People You Hate
5 Horrible Habits You Need to Stop Right Now
Chris Pecoraro—Getty Images