By Brian Summerfield, Online Editor, REALTOR® Magazine
We need to talk.
Those aren’t my words. It’s from Catherine Blyth’s recent book, The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure (Gotham Books, 2009). In fact, she starts it off with that sentence.
According to Blyth, an English writer, the decline of this “art form” is more than just a mere cultural problem; it represents a nearly existential challenge to civilization itself. If a society doesn’t emphasize skill in conversation, it can result in social fragmentation, personal isolation, and a general loss of humanity.
Fortunately, the book is not all about making a case for conversation as a source of civilizational salvation. That would probably make for a heavy, tedious tome. Instead, most of it covers — in a light and humorous way — practical methods for improving one’s ability to verbally connect with others, from “Hello” to “Goodbye” and practically everything in between.
There are plenty of interesting suggestions here, but Blyth’s overall point can be summed up as follows: Great conversation does not equal great talking; it’s not a scripted performance, but rather a spontaneous, open give-and-take between two or more enthusiastic participants.
For real estate pros, who are ultimately in the relationship business, conversation can be a powerful tool for achieving success. Below are some of the key ideas they can take away from reading this book.
FROM THE BOOK: 5 LESSONS FOR THE REAL ESTATE INDUSTRY
1. Silence is (or can be) golden: Silence gets a bad rap, mainly because an overly long break in a conversation can create immediate discomfort among the participants. But disciplined, confident speakers know silence can be used to their advantage. Pauses can be a great way to emphasize a point, and an effective method for putting pressure on another party in a negotiation.
2. Small talk is not easy: Its diminutive moniker notwithstanding, there’s not much “small” about small talk. In fact, Blyth reports that a group of financial company directors was once asked what part of their work was most difficult. They all replied, “Small talk with clients.” The reason so-called chit-chat is often so hard is that it’s usually conducted with unfamiliar people. It’s a tool for “conjuring intimacy,” Blyth says. The key to doing small talk well is not to approach it in a rote or careless way, but to employ imagination and listen carefully for opportunities to expand the conversation.
3. Know how to detect deceit: Many of us would be offended at the thought of being lied to, but frankly, it’s something we all do and have done to us. Very few people can make a credible claim to being totally honest at all times. But rather than being a horrible character flaw, knowing how to trim the truth in certain situations is a valuable social skill. So too is knowing when you’re being deceived. But being aware of the fact is not the same as loudly and indignantly calling your interlocutor on it, which you typically shouldn’t do. Instead, listen carefully to what they’re saying and how they say it, and consider what kind of deception it is. Is it a white lie? An omission of key information? An honest delusion (that is, something they may have convinced themselves to be true)? Outright trickery, with the aim of confusing or cheating you somehow? These details matter, Blyth says.
4. Listening is a skill: Listening is something most people say is important, but spend little time actually studying and improving in themselves. That’s a shame, because good listeners often leave a better impression on people than good talkers. Blyth cites country music superstar Dolly Parton as a great practitioner of listening: After an interview with her, a magazine editor marveled at her ability to focus totally on her, especially compared to other entertainment divas. “Great listeners are irresistible because they sense what we want to hear,” Blyth writes. “Soothing noises are part of their art. At its heart lie techniques to seduce purses, votes, and minds.”
5. Make ‘em laugh: If small talk is the door to intimacy, humor is its “electricity,” Blyth says. It melts social barriers and creates closeness quickly. But it’s not easy: Timing, delivery, and appropriateness are critical to being funny. If you take this route, tread carefully and make sure you’ve got a good read on your audience.
“Can conversation save lives? It certainly saves marriages, and few would dispute it builds self-esteem. Shouldn’t it be obvious it can also raise social esteem, generating the goodwill that funds the best in life and business? Neglecting it graffitis cultural DNA, muddles minds, and helps granulate us into extremists. But using it can rebuild our crumbling common ground. As researching this book has taught me, we are more complicated and magnificent than we realize: Far from behind technology, we’re beyond it.
“Close your eyes a moment. Imagine saying hi to the strangers on your street. Imagine everyone saying it. Imagine it is the start of a conversation.
“Is that so preposterous? It never used to be.
“Let’s wage war on shyness. With a friendlier environment, we have a better chance of making it into the next century. And enjoying it.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catherine Blyth is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in numerous British publications, including The Times and The Daily Telegraph. Despite her marriage to a mischievous gossip columnist, she still manages to enjoy a thriving social life.