How can I have better conversations?

First, understand what counts as ‘better’. A better conversation is one where there is minimum friction, misunderstanding and repetition, and maximum alignment between both parties. Some people are naturally good conversationalists, others less so. My job is to collect conversations from ‘the wild’, and then analyse them to see what’s effective and what isn’t.


What makes a good communicator?

I think people who are good at communicating are also good at listening. They can see what the other person is doing and fit their responses to it. They open up slots for people to make productive contributions. I research police crisis negotiations with my colleague Rein Sikveland. If a negotiator is talking a suicidal person down from a ledge, what works is opening up slots in the conversation so the person in crisis can decide to come down. A good negotiator makes it possible for someone in crisis to show they’re deciding things for themselves.

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Is there anything that I should avoid doing?

Avoid starting conversations with challenging or aggressive statements. I once had a neighbour whose opening shot when I left the house was, “You left your bins out.” It immediately catches you on the wrong foot. Don’t point it out [their challenge] overtly, or they might feel like they’re the victim. One thing you can do is just give a lengthy beat of silence and look at them, or you can take the heat out of the situation and say, “Hello.” This is what belongs at the start of a conversation.

Need to know:
  1. Don't start conversations with aggessive statements.
  2. Be nice to cold callers. Or just don't answer the phone.
  3. Distinguish between arguments that do and don't matter, and let the small stuff go.
A scientist's guide to life: conversation © Getty Images

How should I deal with cold callers?

You have to remember that this is a difficult job. They spend their days dealing with people who don’t want to talk to them. Think about it empathically. If you don’t recognise the number, you can choose not to answer the call. If you do pick up, you can ask early on, “Is this a sales call?” Be concise, but be nice.

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What techniques can help me to win an argument?

First, distinguish between the arguments that do and don’t matter. Let the small stuff go, and remember it’s good for humans to challenge each other sometimes. If you do need to voice your disagreement, try to disagree in a good way.

For instance, if someone says, “Ooh, I hate the BBC,” and you want to remain in alignment with that person, while being true to your view that the Beeb is great, then start with a weak agreement. “Yeah, it can be stuffy sometimes, but I love it.” You’ve made a concession and attended to a potential problem, but maintained your own view.

How can I shut people up?

Make a small noise, like “Ah…” then cut it off and withdraw. It shows people that you’re trying to join in, but it also lets them continue for a moment. A decent human being will recognise that you want to speak!

  • This article was first published in BBC Science Focus in June 2019 – subscribe here


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Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.