3 Things People Who Are Good at Conversation Don’t Do, According to a Research Psychologist

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It’s easy to fall into bad conversational habits. Here’s how to avoid them.

How good are you at having a conversation? If you’re like most people, you may wonder about your own conversational skills. The truth is, being good at conversation is as much about what you don’t say as it is about what you do say.

In an insightful post for Psychology Today, Dave Smallen, a research psychologist at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota, identifies six bad conversational habits we should all avoid if we want to have good conversations. You may have been guilty of all six — I certainly have. But, as Smallen says, the point is not to be perfect all the time. The point is to be aware of these pitfalls and of how you come across to others. That will help you eliminate them as much as possible.

It’s worth checking out all six habits. Here are the ones I think are the biggest problems.

1. Interrupting.

Different people from different backgrounds have varying attitudes toward interrupting each other. I learned this from my husband. In his large, Irish-American family, everyone talked all at once and that was considered normal, he once told me. In my much smaller family, we almost never interrupted each other, and some family members, such as my father, didn’t do much talking at all.

Interruption may not seem like a big deal to you, but it might be a big deal to other people. It’s also worth noting that interrupting can be an expression of power (i.e., the boss interrupts the subordinate but not the other way around), and that research has repeatedly shown that women get interrupted more often than men do.

The bottom line is that interrupting is bad and you shouldn’t do it. If you absolutely have to interrupt someone, because they’re saying something long and you’re late to a meeting, for example, apologize for the interruption when you do it. And, as Smallen notes, if you catch yourself after you’ve already interrupted someone, it’s perfectly fine to say, “Oops, sorry I interrupted. Keep going.”

2. One-upping.

You know how this goes. A colleague tells you that they fell off a ladder and sprained their ankle, and you recount how you once fell off a roof and broke your femur. Or they’re excited that they won an award, and you tell them about the bigger award you won last year. (For a hilarious look at one-upping, check out the Monty Python skit “Four Yorkshiremen.”)

Whether the topic is something good or something bad, one-upping is likely to make the other person feel belittled. They may feel that you don’t much care about their achievements or problems. Whether the person you’re talking to is an employee, a colleague, or a customer, that is not a message you want to convey.

But an even bigger problem is that if you’re planning to one-up a story that someone is telling you, you’re probably not really listening to them so much as you are planning what you will say in response. That’s bad because it’s hard to have a good relationship with someone if you don’t listen to them. So try to focus your attention on what the other person is saying and save your one-up story for some other time. Or if you really feel the need to tell your own tale, first take the time to respond specifically to the story they told you. “It goes a long way to first acknowledge how others felt about their experience before sharing our own,” Smallen writes.

3. Giving unasked-for advice.

Sometimes people tell us about difficult things going on in their work or their lives because they’re not sure what to do and they want our advice. But very often, people simply feel the need to talk about what’s upsetting them to a sympathetic listener. If that’s the case, then launching into your analysis of the situation and providing advice about how to handle it will only serve to frustrate the other person and make them feel misunderstood.

It can sometimes be hard to tell whether someone really wants your advice or if they just feel the need to vent. Smallen suggests a straightforward solution — ask them. The only problem is that if someone’s been bending your ear for half an hour about, say, trouble with a customer, and you say, “Would you like to hear my thoughts?” they’re liable to say yes out of politeness, whether they really want to or not. So pay close attention to nonverbal signals and listen carefully to their responses and their tone to determine whether your advice really is welcome.

Listening carefully and paying close attention are the two most powerful things you can do to have better conversations in every situation. Most people don’t do these two things because it means putting the focus on someone else instead of themselves, and most of us would rather focus on ourselves than on anyone else.

There’s a growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or tip. (Want to learn more? Here’s some information about the texts and a special invitation to an extended free trial.) Often, they text me back about their thoughts and experiences. They tell me how much they value having someone to talk to who really listens and tunes in to them, and how rare such people are. Do these things, and the people you converse with will value talking with you just as much.