How to Have a Better Conversation

Engage, stay present and listen.

By Celeste Headlee


Talking well and conversing well are not the same thing. We often make the mistake of thinking someone is a good conversationalist because they’re funny, witty or tell good stories. But that’s what a stand-up comedian does well, and you’d hardly describe an evening at a comedy show as a conversation.

It’s best to remember what a true conversation is and what it is not. If one person is dominating the conversation—talking about what they’re doing, what they believe or what they know—that’s similar to a lecture. One person is supplying information, and the other person is mostly absorbing that information or tuning out.

A conversation is also not a debate. A debate is an adversarial exchange, even when it’s civil, in which two people are putting forth arguments for opposing sides. While a debate can be productive and informative, it’s not a conversation.

Many so-called “conversations” really consist of two people saying what they know or think. Neither is really listening to the other; they’re often repeating things they’ve said before, and the exchange is focused on each individual’s thoughts, ideas, and needs.
Engaged Listening

A conversation is a mutual exchange of ideas. To have a real conversation, you must hear what the other person is saying, think about it and then respond. Sadly, this kind of exchange is not common. We often don’t hear everything someone says. Instead, we listen to the first 5–10 seconds and then stop listening and simply wait for them to stop talking so we can say what we want to say. As notable author and keynote speaker, Stephen Covey, said, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.”

The most essential component of a good conversation is engaged listening, but it doesn’t come easily. Ralph Nichols, known as the “father of listening,” wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review with Leonard Stevens in 1957 after years of studying human listening skills and said, “People, in general, do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but seldom have they acquired the necessary aural skills that would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening.”

“Imagine conversation as a game of tennis in which you are constantly hitting the ball back to the other side.”

Listening is hard because it requires that you be focused and present. In an era of smartphones and other distractions, it’s difficult to practice mindfulness. But even if your phone never makes a sound, you may be less focused when it’s near because your brain is prepared for it to make noise. Because your brain knows you might receive a text, email or other notification at any time, it may remain on constant alert.

Research shows that typical daily stress can cause your IQ to drop about 10 points because your brain is in fight-or-flight mode most of the day. But the cognitive cost you pay is higher than that. Since that phone causes your mind to be in a constant state of stress, the prefrontal cortex is too busy to help you listen or respond to what you hear during a conversation. The prefrontal cortex is involved with executive decisions, planning, impulse control and complex thought.

So while your phone is visible and keeping your prefrontal cortex busy dealing with stress, you are not making good decisions, planning for the future or controlling your impulses. There’s a good chance your conversation could go awry under those circumstances.
The ‘Liking Gap’

Another obstacle to engaged listening is our own fear. For some time, social scientists have struggled to understand why we avoid in-person contact and face-to-face conversations. As a social species, conversation is beneficial for us. Regular in-person socialization can extend your lifespan, strengthen your immune system and stave off depression and heart disease. So why would people stare at their phones on the subway and avoid making eye contact with others?

When researchers forced people to start conversations with strangers on trains, in waiting rooms and at coffee shops, the participants ended up enjoying themselves. They also reported they were no less productive than if they’d kept to themselves. And yet, when these subjects were asked if they would start more conversations in the future, most answered no. Why?

As it turns out, we get in the way of our own enjoyment and well-being. A recent study showed that oftentimes, we are so caught up worrying about saying the right thing or being witty, we don’t notice that the other person is enjoying our company. This is called the “liking gap” and it means we tend to significantly underestimate how much other people like us. We’re stuck in our own heads, afraid we will say the wrong thing.

While we obsess about what we’re saying and how we’re coming off, we don’t have time to really pay attention to what another person is saying. Sadly, this is also what prevents us from engaging in conversation in many circumstances: our fear that we’ll say the wrong thing or be judged negatively by the other person. That means the first step to listening well and enjoying a good conversation is to let go of your fear. Rest assured that the vast majority of conversations you have, whether they be with a loved one or an acquaintance, will lift your mood, engage your mind productively and improve your health.
Finding Balance

The next step is to allow the other person to speak as often as you do. Keep in mind that you can’t control other people’s behavior. That means you can’t prevent them from talking too much, interrupting you or rambling on about irrelevant subjects. Therefore, it’s best not to expend mental energy worrying about someone else’s conversational etiquette and instead focus on what you can control—namely, your own habits.

Pay attention to how often you allow the other person a chance to respond. The best conversations resemble a friendly game of catch, in that there’s a perfect balance between throwing and catching. Attention spans have been shrinking for at least the past two decades, so if you talk for more than 30 seconds at a time, it’s likely you’ve lost the other person’s focus. Help them stay engaged and remain focused by keeping it brief. An easy way to do that and to ensure what you’ve said will be understood and remembered is to talk about one thing at a time. Many of us are in the habit of telling everything we know on a subject or telling too many stories.

“Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.” —Stephen Covey

If someone asks what you did over the weekend, don’t start with Friday afternoon and give them all the details you can remember. Instead, give the bullet points and then allow them to respond. Alternatively, you could focus on one aspect: “We went paddling on Saturday. We were on the water for about four hours, and it was really fun. There were four of us, and we each had our own kayak. Brandon forgot sunscreen and got burned, but it was a great day.” That story takes about 20 seconds to tell and, if you stop there, it’s likely the other person will have some questions.

Imagine conversation as a game of tennis in which you are constantly hitting the ball back to the other side. Remember that you already know everything you’re going to say and, if you’re going to learn something new, you’re going to have to listen to someone else. 


Do You Devalue Your Success Because of Self-Doubt? You May Have Impostor Syndrome.

How high performers overcome insecurity

By Maureen Zappala, DTM



What were they thinking when they hired me? They must have made a mistake.” That’s what I thought at my first
post-college job, as a project engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Cleveland, Ohio. Surrounded by engineers, rocket scientists and researchers, I thought I didn’t belong. “I’m not as smart as they are. They’re going to figure out I’m a phony.”

I was experiencing impostor syndrome. It’s a form of self-doubt that plagues smart, accomplished and well-qualified people, causing them to devalue their skills and dismiss their success. They feel like frauds, as if they somehow tricked the world into thinking they’re smarter than they really are.

The phrase “impostor syndrome” was first coined in 1978 by Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, two clinical psychologists who identified a pattern among high-performing, successful women. Despite external evidence of great accomplishments, these women could not internally accept their own success. They dismissed it, attributing it to luck or people overestimating their intelligence. They felt like frauds. Initially, the experience was thought to be limited to only women, but research since then indicates otherwise. In 2012, Amy Cuddy, author of the best-seller Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, gave a TED Talk during which she described her own experience of feeling like an impostor. She was inundated with letters from men saying they felt the same way.

At the core of the impostor syndrome is an inability to confess to your success. It’s difficult for you to embrace your expertise and acknowledge your abilities. The result is twofold: You either refrain from taking on challenges, or you take on a challenge but are too worried about failing to enjoy it, even when you do it well.

Many Toastmasters can experience the impostor syndrome, which is often triggered by stepping into a new, unfamiliar assignment. Their confidence doesn’t match their competence. A Distinguished Toastmaster from Connecticut who owns her own marketing consulting firm confessed, “I took a leadership role in the Pathways rollout, and I didn’t feel qualified. I had the training, but I still felt like I needed to know more.” Another member, a pet-care-industry professional, reflected on her involvement in a Toastmasters speech contest: “I volunteered to be club contest chair. I was a one-year member and had never seen a contest. I visited another club first to observe its contest and studied some on YouTube. I figured I would be replaced at any moment for failing. Thankfully, I did not fail.”

Imagine being free from this chronic self-doubt, and able to enjoy the challenge of a new assignment or the success of a job well done. Imagine not constantly wondering if failure is just around the corner. It’s possible. You can match your confidence to your competence to unleash more influence. These four strategies can help.

1 Get the information.

Overcoming impostor syndrome begins with learning about it, and how it can affect people in all fields, including technology, engineering, art/design, education, entertainment, sports, law and business. It affects executives, career changers and entrepreneurs. American actress Sally Field, poet Maya Angelou and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg have all confessed to it. Tennis champion Serena Williams and famed author John Steinbeck also struggled with impostor syndrome. Speaking on what it’s like to ascend to the highest position in most organizations—chief executive officer—Starbucks’ longtime CEO Howard Schultz told The New York Times, “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”

If you identify as a self-doubter, you probably share these symptoms. Typically, when facing a new assignment, you either over-prepare or procrastinate as long as possible and then burst into action. Either way, you do an outstanding job. People praise you, but you can’t enjoy it because you’re thinking “Oh no … I need to do it again!” The cycle repeats when you are faced with the next challenge. You probably also strive for uniqueness or perfection, because being ordinary or mediocre is unacceptable. You often don’t delegate because you think it shows weakness. You’re charming and funny, but it’s meant to deflect attention from the fact that you don’t think you’re smart enough. You do everything you can to either eliminate failure, or completely avoid it. Oddly, you fear success because you don’t think you can repeat it. Finally, you dismiss compliments by attributing success to something random like luck or timing.

“Our thoughts affect our feelings, which influence our actions, which create habits that set the direction and tone of our lives.”

Toastmasters around the world provided input for this article. A successful sales manager said, “After being elected as our club president, I still feel incompetent. I am only a CL! I feel that there are many far more qualified Toastmasters who would be a better leader for our club.” Another member, a well-respected and experienced physician, revealed, “When people praise me for a speech, I feel they’re just saying it to be nice.” Yet another member, a highly educated IT consultant, confessed, “I was averse to giving my first speech evaluation. I felt unqualified, and that my evaluation would not do justice to the speaker.” A business analyst implied he’d rather not volunteer for a role than face failure.

2 Examine the accusation.

The self-doubter battles a relentless internal dialogue of incompetence accusations. Our thoughts affect our feelings, which influence our actions, which create habits that set the direction and tone of our lives. Gaining control of our thoughts is essential. Cognitive behavioral therapy explains the link between thoughts and feelings and helps people think differently so they behave differently. It’s a complex process, but a modified condensed three-step approach can be quite helpful.

Step 1: Capture the thought.

When you recognize a symptom, immediately capture your thought. For example, the instant you think “I’m not entering the speech contest because if I fail, I’m a fool,” hold on to that thought.

Step 2: Cross-examine the thought.

Next, evaluate what evidence supports this thought to establish if it’s true or false. “I don’t think poorly of other contestants who don’t win. Why would they think that of me? And what if I win? It would be fun. Plus, rehearsing will help grow my skills.”

Step 3: Counter the thought.

After you’ve captured and cross-examined the thought, then you counter the thought with decisive action. “OK! Sign me up! I’m in!”

3 Cultivate conversation.

Cultivating the conversation means making connections and building community. When you realize you are not alone in this experience its detrimental power is defused. Chances are there are others in your club who feel like you do.

It’s beneficial to be honest, even vulnerable, without losing your dignity. For example, if you’re a first-time contest chair, say, “I want to do a good job. Can you teach me?” Maybe you are evaluating an experienced speaker and you don’t feel qualified. Ask the speaker ahead of time, “What specifically would you like feedback about? I’d like to help you.” If you are a leader, engage others by asking for their help. Your team will have greater respect for you. It will create an opportunity for more people to be involved in the problem, which could lead to a better solution. Most significantly, cultivating conversations like this gives others permission to do the same thing. Transparency is contagious.

4 Collect your documentation.

In 1997, shortly before I left NASA, I wrote a 14-page “job manual” describing every aspect of my job … the policies, the procedures and the people involved. I wrote it to ease the transition for my successor, and it helped immensely. In 2015, I rediscovered the document in a closet. I read it and thought, “Wow. I was good!” I forgot how complex the job was. Putting it on paper forced me to be objective about it.

Try it. Pretend you are training your successor, and create your own “job manual.” Include every detail even if you think it’s mundane or trivial. Then, put the document aside, and revisit it at another time. Then, read it as if it were someone else’s job description. Be as objective as you can; observe the details and complexities. As you read, be impressed with what’s there—because you are impressive.

Need more confirmation? Collect your good press. Keep thank-you notes, letters of appreciation and any type of recognition. Keep your trophies, certificates, special emails, texts, photos, gifts, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, plaques, performance appraisals, promotion letters, even old pay stubs (which validated that what you did warranted cash compensation!). This is all evidence of your competence. Review them, believe them and enjoy them—frequently. You earned them. It’s not egotistical; it’s essential to overcoming your self-doubt. Resist the temptation to discount them or explain them away as luck or some other random factor, because you did your part to earn the recognition. Don’t discount an award if it wasn’t as high as you wanted, because giving your best beats being the best.

Similarly, don’t confuse being the expert with being an expert. There’s plenty of room for many experts on the same topic.
Pushing Your Envelope

In the jet-engine industry, every aircraft engine has its own “operating envelope,” the range of speeds and altitudes that allow safe operation. At NASA, we would often “push the envelope,” and run the engine past its normal safe conditions to test a new concept. It almost always produced a new and larger operating envelope.

“Giving your best beats being the best.”

You have your own operating envelope. But it can be larger. Toastmasters is the ideal laboratory for pushing your own envelope. You can turn down the volume of that limiting impostor syndrome that kidnaps your confidence. These strategies can free you, so you can push the envelope of your self-imposed limitations. You can be bolder and more courageous. You can take more risks and truly enjoy your success, as other Toastmasters will confirm.

A DTM who is a project manager by profession says, “Getting feedback for my speeches helped me overcome self-doubt and increase my self-confidence. While it helps me in Toastmasters, the big benefit is at work and other organizations.” A club president who works as a college instructor says, “Overcoming self-doubt can’t help but spill over into your everyday life. It’s as if you’ve put on something—confidence—and you wear it everywhere.”

Don’t Stress Over Holiday Networking

Holiday NetworkingIt’s that wonderful time of year when mingling is inevitable; are you ready for holiday networking? Whether you dread it or love it, seasonal interaction can be managed, not just for survival, but for fun. Being prepared with these 10 tips will help get you there, and maybe raise the bar for others who look to you for leadership, even in festivity:


  • Practice your one-minute elevator pitch regarding your career and/or Toastmasters. While it’s good to know three- and five-minute pitches for other events and circumstances, holiday events call for short, sweet descriptors.
  • Introduce people you know to one other. People appreciate it when you do the networking for them. You will become known as someone who is well-connected and gets things done.
  • Pay attention to people standing solo and introduce yourself to them. Ask them open-ended questions to get them engaged.
  • Consider volunteering for a networking event, rather than just attending. If you’re on the organizing team or help check people in, you have a role to play that will help you to interact with new people. People are also more likely to come to you as someone who is working the event.
  • Stay away from controversial topics like politics and religion. Both cause polarized responses and heated debate. If they come up, try to change the subject diplomatically.
  • Stick to topics that get people to talk about what they know—asking about their hometown attractions is a great conversation starter. So is asking about favorite holiday destinations or holiday traditions. Remember, to be interesting, you must be interested.
  • Keep your hand-shaking hand available, which typically means holding a drink glass and napkin—or small plate of food and napkin—not both, in the other hand. Keep your phone on vibrate and out of sight.
  • Give yourself a measurable goal for the event before leaving, such as talking to three new people or finding one person from your industry or finding a prospective Toastmasters member.
  • Exit gracefully. If you must end a chat because of a controversial topic, or you are simply wanting to move on, do it politely. “It’s been great chatting, please excuse me,” is appropriate. “Nice meeting you,” is another graceful exit line.
  • Savor the moments of merriment and good cheer. Let yourself enjoy meeting new people—and learning new things about people you know—at the time of year when most are in a festive mood.


Additional Resources:

Cheer On Your Members at the Area Contest on October 27 at 1:30 PM

Speech Contest

Congratulations to Jesse Stein and Wanda Bee who won the Club’s recent Humorous Speech and Table Topics Contests, respectively. They will now move on to represent Miracle Mile Toastmasters at the Area level.

If you’ve never attended a contest outside of the club, I encourage you to come out and enjoy this experience while cheering on your fellow members.

WHERE:   Carnival Cruise Line
3655 NW 87th Avenue
Miami, FL 33178
WHEN:     Saturday, October 27, 2018
TIME:        1:15 pm – 5:00 pm for Contest Personnel
1:30 pm – 5:00 pm for Audience Members

Area 52 and 53 Contest flyer – Humorous and Evaluation Speech Contests

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