A whole lot more than just words passes between people who are talking, so a few simple conversational skills can help you recognise what's really being said and help you lead the discussion your way. Learn how to read body language and facial expressions, de-code euphemisms, ask sensitive questions, criticize constructively, get what you want in negotiations, cut off chatterboxes, and more with our top 10 conversation hacks. Photo by PhillipC.
10. Feign sincerity with eye contact and repetition.
When you're just not feelin' it but you've got to look like you are, the Wired How-to wiki suggests ways you can feign sincerity. In short, make eye contact, echo what the person is saying to you back to them, and nod in understanding (even if you're not).
9. End a conversation with body language.
When that chatty co-worker just won't go away, use some of manager Brendan Connelley's techniques. My favourite is simply standing up (or crossing your arms, or speeding up to a "fast walk") to indicate it's time for that person to go and you're busy. In more desperate situations, grab your mobile phone and say, "oh sorry, I've got to take this." Photo by SiBorg.
8. Ask sensitive questions indirectly to skip awkwardness.
When the info you need from someone is somewhat sensitive, check out journalist advice site MBToolbox's suggestions for asking delicate questions indirectly. Use the bluff ("the breakup must've been hard, huh?") or blame others ("so has anyone asked about your prison time?") or the indirect inquiry ("what year did you get divorced?") to broach sensitive topics with tight-lipped folks with more ease and less awkward silence.
7. Use silence to win arguments and nail a negotiation.
Lawyers and price hagglers know that a little silence can go a long way. When the other party offers a price, opt for a long pause to indicate hesitation, which might prompt them to go lower. In the case of arguments, prolonged silence may frustrate the other person—but it'll also make you look like the winner. (The evil winner, but the winner nonetheless.)
6. Soften critiques with the sandwich method.
When you need to critique someone—whether it's a co-worker's presentation or a spouse's choice of outfit—start with a compliment, then mention your critique, then end on a positive note. The "criticism hamburger" gets the message across but softens the blow.
5. Say "no" gently—or say "yes, but...."
When someone's asking you to do something you just don't want to—or don't have the time—there are ways to say "no" that are polite and respectful and won't burn any bridges. OnlineOrganizing.com offers 20 "scripts" for turning down a request, from "I'm in the middle of several projects right now" to "I'm not the right person for that job." (I've found that suggesting someone else or offering a tip on the best way to proceed also helps a whole lot.) Master of attention-firewalling Merlin Mann says you can partially commit by qualifying your "yes" with specific boundaries around what you'll do (that also imply what you won't).
When you need information, the people that have it need some reason to help you. Whether you're posting a question on a tech support forum or asking a colleague for help, here are some ways you can master the art of asking to get the answers you need.
Client want to "touch base"? Manager want to "get on the same page"? Corporate euphemisms translate into pretty strong words, and you'll navigate your career a whole lot better if you recognise the ones that mean "get off your ass." Career adviser Penelope Trunk offers a non-nonsense dictionary for parsing office-speak.
When you're dealing with someone who is absolutely freaking out—like a parent flipping out at the playground—use school administrator Bert Webb's "pace and lead" technique. Instead of remaining calm, match the other party's emotional intensity to show you're empathetic, then lead the complainant to a calmer level of discourse.
When you suspect someone isn't telling the whole truth, tune into their voice, eyes, and body language. Monster.com's Marty Nemko lists a few indicators that should trip your BS detector, like a sudden change in voice pitch, rate of speech, or "ums" and "ahs," a change in eye contact, and body position. Similarly, project manager Scott Berkun weighs in on how to detect bullshit.
Perhaps the greatest human behaviour and communication hack is an awareness of what makes people tick. If you can offer someone something they want, they'll give you what you want in return.
What are your favourite conversational hacks and skills? Ever tried any of these techniques? Tell us about it in the comments.