On Conversation

When I was little young fellow, I loved to go to the car wash with my Dad. On bitterly cold days, we’d sit in the line-up for a car wash, listening to Car Talk on NPR. At the high-intensity air-dryer at the end of the wash, I looked at the windshield wipers fluttering in the wind. I still my remember my stupid little joke that I thought was so funny at 7 years old: “It looks just like a nervous bride on her wedding day!”

I guess I’ve never been that funny. I love analogies, metaphors, imagination, and I’m fond of irreverence and non-sequitors. I agonize over stupid things I’ve said, over-analyzing and over-thinking previous conversations. This is interesting, because sometimes I have a reason to agonize — I tend to struggle with describing things… I’ve been working really hard on proper nouns. Otherwise it’s — we went to that theater to see some movie with that one actor written by the guy from *snap snap* who rebooted that franchise. What’s more, I’m terrified of hurting other’s feelings, and I favor the most gentle forms of humor possible: ones which hurt and offend nobody.

As a conversationalist, I need some practice.

It’s all stuff I’m working on, especially because imagination and irreverence are completely out of place in doctor-patient relations. I have found, however, a few great rules to follow in casual conversation:

  1. Listen your ears out. Listen so hard that you think you’re right there by this person in whatever event they’re describing. If their dog puked on the carpet this weekend, you’re right alongside them, trying to clean it up… imagining how awful that must be.
  2. Listening will bring up things you can relate to in your own mind: “oh yeah, I remember cleaning up cat hairballs.” Do not share these things unless they’re short and do a great job of furthering the person’s point. If you’ve cleaned up any sort of animal refuse, don’t bring it up. If you’ve also cleaned up pomeranian vomit from wool shag, now would be a good time to offer tips on cleaning products. Your job, however, is to keep the person talking about themselves. Which brings me to the next point.
  3. Keep your conversational partner talking about themselves. They are not listening to stories from your weekend, however much they may feign interest. Stay one step back from “and how did that make you feel?” but keep them talking.
  4. Remember. The best way to pick up the conversational thread is the follow-up. The fact that you remembered will touch a deep, primal chord in this person. They will feel cared for, though they won’t necessarily realize this. (Corollary: don’t remember too much. People love to feel cared for, but dislike feeling stalked. If you do remember every detail from the conversation, you should hide this fact.)
  5. When the person is new, use open-ended initiators. I always have liked “How are you today?” with my patients. It is too formal for casual interaction, so I leave those examples as an exercise for the reader. Anyhow, seemingly simple questions help you immediately gauge your interaction: did they immediately skip to politics? Are they in pain that should be addressed? Did their response exhibit an equivalent understanding of the rules of conversation? As quickly as possible, you must figure out what is safe ground and what are risky areas.
  6. Understand how your conversational partner uses fillers between utterances. Some people appreciate you completing their thoughts, as doing so indicates to them that you are tracking their thought process. Others will immediately, almost unconsciously, contradict your attempts to show you are listening. In those cases, it is best to withdraw into vague, positive affirmations. Some people would rather argue than converse.

Most of you understand these things instinctively. I did not, and sometimes still do not. I vividly remember sitting in band class in ninth grade. It was a Monday. A guy I knew struck up a conversation with a girl on whom I had a crush. “So, how was your weekend?” A synaptic foghorn went off in my conversationally stunted adolescent mind. AHA. THAT’S what you’re supposed to do to start a conversation! It’s been an uphill battle ever since. I’ll fight on.

7 comments left


Parag Shah

Nice post… and clear points. Thanks.


It’s like reading description of myself… And I’m really bad at conversations. I’ll definitely use your advice next time!

Sis Meech

Lol, “little young fellow.” That’s cute, Bro Meech :)

Web Developer

Keeping people talking about themselves only works if the person is talkative. Often when trying to make conversation with shy people, you have to learn to tell interesting stories.

Dan McKeown

Don’t forget, conversations do not have to be about extracting information all the time or eliciting emotional feedback. They can be fun too!

Markoe +1

4 is a very important one to remember in any job where you have repeat customers. People love to be remembered.

In my job its things like, “Hey, how’d you like that game we picked out for you last time?” but for you its going to be more like, “Hey how are those fake teeth I made for you working out?”

Its funny how well most people respond to even small things like that.


I agree with Markoe, especially for your profession Alex. You will meet many people a day, all with a different story, and you have to remember those stories next time they are back in. Otherwise you could upset them and lose them as patients. You could put notes in their file about them to help you remember. The best way to establish a clientele is by being personable, listen then respond, and remember. I’m sure you will be great at this when the time comes.

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