Do you ever feel awkward in conversation with others - either at work or at home? Are there times when you are at a complete loss as what to say next? Have you ever been accused of interrupting or finishing other people's sentences for them? If so, you are not alone.

Being a good conversationalist is an art. For some, it comes naturally and the words flow without effort but for many others, it is often a challenge.

If I sit back and listen to a discussion that is flowing well, I can actually hear the specific techniques that are being used quite naturally.

These inter-personal skills can be learnt and here are some tips to help you become a better communicator.

Be interested

This is not to say that the conversation should become a cross-examination with you firing questions like a machine-gun, but if you are really interested in the other person, what they have to say and what they do, then this will encourage an empathy and they will ‘open-up' to you. It is important to get past this step before you move onto the next.

Don't forget, it's much easier for you to be interested in the other person rather than them to become interested in you!

Meaningful questions

Ask open questions, ‘what?, ‘why?', ‘when?', ‘who?' and ‘how?'. These questions will elicit an open response rather than a monosyllabic one e.g. "Did you go out last night?" might just bring a response of "Yes". Instead, open the conversation with "What did you do last night?" That ‘open' question will bring about a response that you can build-upon and develop further.

Ask "how's life?" and you might just receive an "OK!", and that can kill a conversation dead. But a specific question "Tell me about your new job?" can develop into a whole conversation.

Positive comments

You can always find a reason to say something positive to someone and there is no easier way of getting someone else's attention than to deliver a compliment or flattering remark.

Active listening is not about listening with just ‘half an ear'. It's about giving your full attention to what is being said to you, and not about planning your own next comment. Active listening is about replying after you have listened to what has been said to you and there's a big difference.

Humour can be used to break the ice with someone you've not met before. However, be aware that what is amusing in one culture, may not be so in another.

Build rapport

Try telling a short personal story, with empathy and a smile. A genuine smile can be very disarming and a great ice-breaker.

If you can build rapport with the other party, you are half way home. Ask any successful salesperson. They are ones who know what it feels like to walk in the other person's shoes.

The chances are that if the salesperson communicates a friendly, open attitude, rather than an aggressive one, you'll be more likely to buy from them because an initial relationship has been established.

And we all like to buy from people who we like. And it is no different in a conversation.

There are certain people with whom I can have a really good conversation. The synergy is right, the conversation flows.

Two-way street

It is two-way. They listen to me and I listen to them. At the end of the conversation, I feel good, and because of that I always look forward to speaking with them.

So next time, someone tells you that you are not listening to them, don't retaliate with ‘It's not me, it's you!'. Maybe this is an opportune time to think about improving your skills.

I know it's easy to say, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks!" Well, the answer is, you can. We can all improve our listening skills, at whatever time and at whatever age.

The author is a BBC guest-broadcaster and Motivational Speaker. She is CEO of an international stress management and employee wellbeing consultancy based in London. Contact them for proven stress strategies -

Key points: keep learning

  • Good conversation is an art
  • Inter-personal skills can be learned
  • Communication requires ‘active-listening'