by Alysia Bartley

Everyone Has Something to Say – How to Improve Your ESL Conversation Skills and Make Them Great

Youth with Social Media Symbol

Did you ever wonder how you can improve conversation skills? Do you ever think about what makes “good” conversation? Have you been involved with great conversation? Have you been a participant or a witness to conversation that was “not so great”?  This article shares a few suggestions to make your ESL conversation speech a little better.  So how can you improve conversation skills? And what makes a “good” conversation? What changes “not so great conversation” to “great”? Do you have the confidence to speak?  First, let’s look at this film clip from the popular Seinfeld series to see for yourself. You know. About conversation skills. About what makes “good” conversation. About the changes needed to make “not so great conversation” to “great”. And to have confidence in speaking.

So what do you think? Did any of these conversations seem stimulating? Did the body language of the various speakers and listeners seem like they were in response to each other?  What could have been done differently to show more engaging conversation? Would you have shared what you do a living with the guy asking Jerry Seinfeld? Would you have been excited to talk about peanuts with the guy talking to Elaine? Do you have any ideas of what could have been improved? Why do you think Jerry and Elaine were so willing to send a signal that they needed to be rescued from their “bad” conversations?

Were you ever in a similar situation? How did you react?

  • Did you pretend to listen?
  • Did you excuse yourself?
  • Did you try to change the topic of discussion?
  • Did you interrupt?
  • Did you appear to be uninterested?
  1. Listening is key

    portrait of woman listening to music outdoors

“Good listeners have a huge advantage. For one, when they engage in conversation, they make people ‘feel’ heard. They ‘feel’ that someone really understands their wants, needs and desires. And for good reason; a good listener does care to understand.” – Simon Sinek

Truly listen to the person talking. Look at them. Respond to them with eye contact and facial expressions and other body language. Be genuinely interested in what they have to say. Don’t interrupt. Ask pertinent questions so the person can expand on what he/she has to say. Don’t judge what is being said. Don’t try to “top” what is being said. The goal of conversation is not to “win” it. Verbalize. As you listen, ask for clarification. “Let me see if I got this right. You’re saying…” By repeating what the prospect says, you reinforce it in your mind and clarify that what you heard is, in fact, what he/she said.  Just relax and listen. Enjoy what is being shared. Can you think of a time when other(s) truly listened to you?  How did that make you feel? Remember…

“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.” – Margaret J. Wheatley

  1. Ask the right amount of questions

Too many question marks on striped paper

“He had a talent for asking exactly the right questions to lead me to my own answers. Just being near him made things clearer.” – K.D. Sarge, His Faithful Squire 

If you are a good judge of body language, you can tell when you have pushed it too far and asked too many questions. The person might answer questions quickly or with short answers. They may not want to talk at all. They may appear nervous. They might not want to look at you. They may change the subject. They might excuse themselves and leave the room. Let’s face it.  No one wants to feel that they are being interrogated. Have you ever felt that way? Did you feel on the spot?  Did it make you feel uncomfortable? How did you react?  Were you defensive?

Be a genuine listener and ask a few questions that come to your head. You might have questions ahead of time that you want the person to answer, or you can decide what questions to ask based on what the person is talking about. Just treat the speaker how you would like to be treated. Be respectful. Allow others to ask questions, too. You can also make some comments to break up the conversation.  Your response does not always have to be in the form of a question. And remember you should not continually quiz the speaker. Use eye contact and be welcoming. If you are genuine in your question, you will get a genuine response and then genuine conversation will flow.

  1. Be relaxed – enjoy the situation and the company

Teenage friends lying on the floor and laughing.

“I don’t know, I think, in times where I’m really nervous, and I’m really under the pressure the worst possible outcome is for me to start thinking about it. I just do.” – Shaun White

It is easy to say to be natural and not to worry when you really are beginning to feel the

opposite. Take a few breaths, smile and think positively. Talk about things you know or what you have read recently. Talk about something in that situation that might be common to everyone.  It might help to imagine talking to a good friend so the conversation is easy and you relieve some of the stress that you might be feeling. Or you could try this…

“I’ve found that if I say what I’m really thinking and feeling, people are more likely to say

what they really think and feel. The conversation becomes a real conversation.”  – Carol Gilligan        

  1. How you say it

Young woman with her hand on the face talking secret with letters coming out of her mouth

“Everyone has their own ways of expression. I believe we all have a lot to say, but finding ways to say it is more than half the battle.” – Criss Jami, Salomé:  In Every Inch In Every Mile 

Observe the conversations around you. Listen to what makes “good conversation”.

  • Do you hear the rhythm of the language?
  • Do you see how the rate of speaking varies?
  • Someone may speak a little quicker if they are excited. Then they will possibly slow down to clarify or to repeat.
  • Can you hear the volume of typical conversation – not overly loud but loud enough for everyone who is in that circle of conversation to hear.
  • Can you listen for the enunciation, the clarity of what is being said?
  • Can you feel the emotion behind the words?
  • Do you hear the pauses between words and parts of sentences that are being said?
  • Can you see the body language being used to convey meaning and interest?

Well-known author George Bernard Shaw talks about “how to say it”…

“She had lost the art of conversation but not, unfortunately, the power of speech.” – George Bernard Shaw

Can you work to develop the art of conversation?  Observe and model others. You will be a pro in no time.

  1. When to take turns and what to say

Two women smiling at each other with an yellow autumn background

“Be interesting, be enthusiastic… and don’t talk too much.” – Norman Vincent Peale

No one likes the person who monopolizes the conversation. You know the person who keeps

talking and talking. Often the person feels he/she must talk about themselves and his/her own

accomplishments.  They don’t let others talk very much. They always switch the conversation back to themselves. They are often thinking about what to say next rather than actually listening

to the speaker. They interrupt. They may think or appear to think that what they have to say is more important than what others have to say. All the time. They routinely try to “top” what is being said with something bigger or “better” or funnier.  All the time. You get the idea. Allow others to talk. Invite others to share their ideas. There is no need to be right or better. All the time.

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” – Friedrich Nietzsche 

There is no need to be negative or to use language or stories that are inappropriate to the people you are with or the situation you are in. Don’t make people feel uncomfortable by talking about a topic that should be off limits with that group of people. Look at them and develop a sense of what is appropriate to talk about in any given situation. You might need to avoid politics. The same for religion. You might not be able to talk about your work situation. You might have to avoid talking about relationships. If there is something that will hurt others, this should be avoided. So you were invited to a fun party last night but those present knew the host and weren’t invited. This is better not to be talked about. It is also impolite to talk about a specific topic that maybe only one other person there knows about. That is unless the group of people recognizes you for this talent or interest and invites you to talk about it. Furthermore, it is not in the best taste to pass on rumors or negative talk about other people.

  1. Build on what others are saying

three friends woman in urban scene

“The true spirit of conversation consists in building on another man’s observation, not

overturning it.” – Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts and experiences to help build conversation. You might need to be proactive. It might be really hard. You will have to try. Build up your confidence and tell yourself that you can do it. Say something positive or interesting. Add some humor to make others feel comfortable. Try to contribute to the conversation. Ask those questions. Say some related comments. Expand on what others are saying.

Don’t know what to say? Read as much as you can and share something interesting you read…this could be a current event or some insight about a book or article. Develop your listening habits and your questioning skills. Work on your body language and your eye contact. You can learn to…

“Inject a few raisins of conversation into the tasteless dough of existence.” – O. Henry

  1. Begin slowly

Sitting on Top of the World - hiker rests and admires views of Blue Mountains on a beautiful sunny day.

Practice and practice some more

Learning English is a challenging task in itself. Learning to improve conversation might seem overwhelming. So pick out an area or two to work on for a short time. Evaluate your progress. Keep practicing.

  • You could listen to newscasts or taped books or speeches and develop questions and comments as if you were in a real-life conversation.
  • You can practice with friends and family members.
  • You can add conversation time to your day with a neighbor, a colleague or over the dinner table with your family.
  • You could join an English conversation group.
  • You could find and develop a friendship with a native speaker.
  • You could have a goal to speak so often each day, or in certain situations.
  • You could practice speaking in front of a mirror to improve your eye contact, facial expressions and body language.
  • You could join a club or community activity that will nurture the development of casual conversation.
  • You can take an ESL class or speech class to work on your speaking skills.
  • You can check on various on-line ESL classes to engage in 1-1 targeted English instruction and also group conversations
  • You can tape yourself talking and play it back to work on needed skills

After you have polished this area(s) for a few consecutive weeks, you can then add another area that you feel would help you with your conversation. Continue to evaluate your progress until you are happy with your ability to engage in conversation and that you not only know what makes “good” conversation, but that you have the skills to make this happen.  Then “pat” yourself on the back and continue engaging in conversation. Like anything and everything with practice, you will get better. Soon the art of conversation will be easy for you.  You’ll know just when to ask people certain things (i.e. like what they do for a living), to comment on specific things (i.e. like George Washington Carver and his scientific work with peanuts), and how to be simulating and engaging (i.e. think George and how he wants to impress his girlfriend).

But you will do this naturally. You will have perfected the art of conversation through practice. You will have achieved your goals. Now that’s something worth talking about.

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Write to me using the comments section below and tell me about the progress you have made in your daily conversation. Have any of these tips worked for you? Let me know. I am always available to talk. I am always available to share ways to help you with your ESL progress.

About the author:

Alysia is a co-founder of TalktoCanada. Since founding the online English teaching company in 2006, she has gone on to teach over 10,000 hours of online classes and managed large and small English training projects around the world. During her free time you can find her listening to the latest business book, travelling and going to the gym.