Table of Contents page
Objectives "Conversation Skills 1
1. Conversation skill: "an explanation” 2
1.1. The conversation 2
1.2 The basic skills 4
1.2.1 The conversation plan 4
1.2.2 Leading a conversation 5
1.2.3 Acting assertively 6
1.2.4 Active listening 7
1.2.5 Non verbal skills 7
1.2.6 Verbal skills 7
1.2.7 Evaluate /give and accept criticism 8
1.2.8 Guidelines for giving feedback 9
1.2.9 Guidelines for receiving feedback 9
2. Checklist 10
"A reader about conversation skill ? Why, what for ?" It is only natural that people react in this
way when they see this document. Obviously: leading a conversation seems easy. Everybody
does that several times daily.
However, many conversations do not develop entirely as desired. There may be
misunderstandings or an undesired ending of the conversation. Such things cannot always be
avoided. But a good preparation of a conversation can enhance the quality of a conversation.
This reader provides the support of this preparation. Also points of attention are mentioned,
which are of importance during the conversation.
To this reader a checklist and a number of annexes are added, which - we hope - will enhance
the applicability of the information provided.
Drs. M.G. Altena
Drs. W.G. Bekkering
Ir. J.J. van Veldhuizen
Translation: K.M.L. Slot-Lim
Revised version: Brian Thompson 2009
The person can prepare and lead a conversation in such a way, that as far as his part is
concerned, the chances for success are optimal.
The person knows:
* the various factors, which determine a conversation.
* the basic skills which support the preparation and leading of a conversation.
* makes a conversation plan and uses the given guidelines (1.2.1)
* fulfils the role of conversation leader (1.2.2)
* uses the mentioned assertive skills (1.2.3)
* uses the skill of active listening (1.2.4)
* evaluates a conversation; making use of the evaluation skills provided (1.2.5)
1. CONVERSATION SKILL: an explanation
"Talking is creating confusion".
Nobody wants it, nevertheless the above proverb has often emerged. Leading a conversation
that leads to a suitable conclusion often proves to be difficult. The effect of words can be
different from what was foreseen, so confusion and misunderstanding may result.
It is of importance, to avoid such situations as much as possible in a culture as ours, where
conversations play a crucial role. For this reason this document pays attention to conversation
skills, especially for business conversations. With the help of these skills a conversation can
be carefully prepared and its guidance and evaluation enhanced.
The reader deals with the conversation in two parts. The first part deals with a number of
aspects of "the conversation", the second part deals with "the skills".
1.1 The conversation
A conversation always has an goal. A speaker sends a message to someone else making use
of a language. A spoken message is accompanied by gestures and expressions and a certain
body language. The combination of all this influences the way in which the message reaches
the conversation partner.
A speaker does not by definition control whether the message reaches his conversation
partner. The partner and the situation play a role of great importance as well. The following
model summarizes the elements which are determinant in a conversation. These elements will
be explained briefly with the help of the model.
TYPE OF RELATION
YOU<--------------------------------------------> THE OTHER
RESULT OF THE MEETING
In the first place: everyone starts a conversation with a personality and an image of himself, a
certain mood, an impression of the conversation partner(s) and an estimate of the situation of
the conversation. Someone's framing of a conversation is influenced by the aspects
mentioned. Uncertain people will always manifest themselves completely different from people
with a high self-esteem. Uncertainty may lead to an aggressive attitude or to reticence. People
with a positive attitude approach a conversation partner differently than pessimists who are
constantly critical of something. Hence: personality and mood strongly influence the way
someone leads a conversation.
- The other
The conversation partner starts a conversation from the same initial situation, bringing his own
self-image, a certain mood and an interpretation of the situation in which the conversation
takes place. Of course he additionally has an image of the person with whom he has a
It is always important that one realizes the situation of the conversation partner, "the other"
may have sorrows or may be irritated for certain reasons that have nothing to do with the
Already the sole fact that conversation-partners realize that "the other" is also in a certain
mood and brings in his personality, may lead to a less confusing conversation. It is worth the
effort to understand the situation of "the other"!
- Type of the relationship
In formal conversations the type of relationship between the partners has a great influence. An
employee takes a different attitude towards a member of management than towards a
colleague. A business woman speaks differently with a client than with her secretary. The type
of the relation influences the choice of words, the openness and the attitude of the partners.
- Result of the conversation
Every conversation has an goal and this result determines the "tone", the setting of the music.
The following results can be distinguished:
- business goals (work conversation, meetings etc.)
- emotional / relational goals (sharing feelings, friendly conversations)
- convincing goals (sales promotion, influencing conversations)
- The situation / the settings
The settings have great influence on the outcome of a conversation. In a cosy, noisy room it is
difficult to keep a business conversation, while a confidential conversation is best held in a
quiet and pleasing setting, where it is not possible for somebody to barge in unannounced.
People are well prepared for conversation if they keep in mind the elements which have
been discussed before and which determine the conversation. Well-prepared persons know
have react to such elements and how they can turn them to their own advantage. They are
well aware of the many influences on the progress of the communication.
1.2 The basic skills
Conversations, especially business-like conversations, will pass more satisfactorily when the
conversation partners know a number of skills / skills thoroughly. Hereafter a number of the
skills will be elaborated upon:
1. Preparing a conversation plan.
2. Leading a conversation.
3. Assertive speaking.
4. Active listening.
Some of these skills are of special importance to those who play a leading role, other skills are
of importance to all those who participate in a conversation. Of course here it is also true that a
conversation is based on mutuality. This means that the skill of one partner in the conversation
is no guarantee for a good result of a conversation. Only if everybody keeps to certain
conversation rules is there a real chance of success.
1.2.1 Making a conversation plan.
A good preparation of the conversation is of great importance. An goal can only be reached if
that goal is clear and if one knows which factors will influence the result. It is therefore
expedient that a person who wants to reach an goal in a conversation with someone else,
makes a conversation plan. This plan is based on an analysis of the elements, which
determine the conversation. Such an analysis can be made by posing questions to each of the
The "I" - person
- why should I have this conversation ?
The answer to this question indicates the goal of the conversation. It is also good to
emphasize the word "I": are you the suitable person for the conversation in question ?
- do I want to lead the conversation and am I capable of doing so ?
Do I have sufficient time and opportunity to lead this conversation and do I have the
- if not ... is there an alternative?
- whom is the message aimed at ?
- what do I know about the other person ?
Consider the points mentioned in paragraph 1.1 concerning personality, situation and
circumstances of the conversation partner(s).
The type of relationship
- what is my relationship to the other ?
- what should be my attitude within this relationship ?
- what is the type of conversation I want to have ?
A conversation may be aimed at solving a problem, providing or obtaining information,
discussing someone's functioning. Or just personal. With each type of conversation a
certain approach and a certain attitude fits.
- what do I want to achieve with this conversation ?
See to it that the desired result is clear: one must know the goal to be achieved.
* sharing information
* behavioral change
- which approach serves the goal best ?
Sometimes it is good in a conversation to take some time before coming "to the point",
sometimes it is better to come to the point immediately to pass on the message. It is
good to consider this point before the conversation.
The setting / situation
- where should the conversation take place ?
- which moment is the most suitable ?
- what other considerations may play a role with regard to the subject ?
Finally: it is useful to consider the following items, before the conversation takes place:
- how will the conversation be evaluated ?
- should there be a report on this conversation, and if so, who will be responsible for
The answers to the former questions should be a guide for the preparation of a conversation
planning. Of course, not in every situation will it be possible to prepare an analysis
beforehand. However, making a conversation planning is recommendable in case of an
1.2.2 Leading a conversation / Keeping the result in mind
The person who plays the role of conversation leader, has the task to see to it that the
conversation develops in such direction that the goal will be reached. It is of importance to pay
attention to the following points (see also reader "Presentation"):
A. "The head" - the welcome ritual
- do not come immediately to the point, but take some time for greetings and a
few informal remarks. Adjust to the other and create a suitable atmosphere.
- indicate clearly the goal of the conversation: why are we here?
B. "The body" - the deepening
- get to the point
- protect the progress of the conversation, avoid straying from the subject.
- summarize between times and round off subjects correctly before entering a
new conversation subject.
C. "The tail" - the rounding off ritual
- indicate whether the result has been reached
- indicate whether additional conversations are needed.
- close off officially (word of thanks)
- farewell to partners with handshake, informal remarks, etc.
1.2.3 Acting assertively / Take care of yourself.
With assertive speaking and acting a type of expression is meant, whereby someone takes
care of his own interests without ignoring the interests of the other. It may concern personal
feelings, the personal interest or goals. Openness and honesty are important characteristics.
Assertivity also means: be open for the thoughts and feelings of the other.
Assertivity can be expressed verbally (verbal signals) and non-verbally (non-verbal signals).
Thereby the following attention points should be taken into account:
- take care of eye contact, do not look down.
- sit up-right, but bend your upper body every now and then towards your
- create an atmosphere of openness: a smile, arms unfolded and open hands.
- see to it that non-verbal and verbal signals are in vision.
verbal / "I-messages"
- speak short and concise.
- speak for yourself by using the word I as subject:
not: " you feel bad if you fail"
but: "I feel bad if I fail".
not: " it is sensible to ...."
but: " I think it is sensible to ..."
not: "you deal with me in an unpleasant way ..."
but: "I feel that you deal with me in an unpleasant way..."
not: "it could be done in this way"
but: "I want you to do it this way"
From research it has been found that this type of "I" messages can take away estrangement,
distrust and conflicts between people, because the "I" does not hide but is clear about himself.
This active/acting assertively should of course be accompanied by the skill of active listening
to feelings and intentions of the other.
1.2.4 Active listening / Taking care of the other1
Active listening must encourage the partner to tell his story in such a way that it is understood.
The basis of active listening is: to treat the other with respect and take an open and honest
attitude. If this attitude is accepted, the following technical "tips" can enhance an active
What an "active listener" should not do is:
- to change the subject
- to disagree, to criticize
- start a conversation (yes but.....).
- too many closed questions, to which the other can answer only with "yes" or
One may show active listening, partly by non-verbal signals, partly by certain questioning
skills. The following is of importance:
1.2.5 non verbal / attention paying attitude
body posture: - at proper distance, at 90 degree angle.
- bowing slightly toward the other.
- open, relaxed attitude.
eye contact: - make regular eye contact.
- never stare !
follow attitude: - nod understandingly.
- use ‘small’ words like hum..., yes... ?
- don't be afraid of short periods of silence.
- invite to go on by using ‘signals’.
carefulness: - take care of good settings
- make coffee/tea available
- avoid interruptions by third parties or the telephone
1.2.6 verbal / questioning skills
Posing good questions is very important in a conversation. Wrong questions may result in
closing-up of the other, good questions, on the other hand, may invite further talking.
A few basic skills are of importance for good questioning. Take special care of the following:
- open questions
Open questions invite the other to extensive answering. Open questions may
start with: "please tell me how... ?" or "how is ..?" or "what happened with ..?"
- use the 6 Ws
The 6 Ws are the question words who, what, where, when, which way, why ?
Questions starting with one of these words are open questions which stimulate
speaking, so deeper answering of questions may occur. Another invitation to
further information is a question like: "What do you mean ..?
- ordering and summarize
An active listener tries to check with questions whether he understood the other
properly. He may use a question like: " Did I understand you properly when I
summarize your words as follows ....? " or "Am I right if I understand the
following points from your story ....." If the listener puts such questions, he gives
the speaker the opportunity to give additional information or correction.
- voice feelings, opinions and wishes of the other in an open way
It is of importance that the listener discovers (hidden) emotions and needs in
the story of the other. The listener must thereby pay attention to verbal and
non-verbal signals. The listener must be capable to identify with the situation of
the other. The active listener can - with the required respect - continue asking
for goals and feelings by using questions like: "You actually wanted to
say ......?" or "...that will not leave you indifferently ..."
1.2.7 Evaluate / Give and accept criticism
So far basic skills for conversations have been dealt with. These can be used in every
conversation situation. One thing still has to be added: evaluation. Often evaluation at the end
of a conversation is forgotten. It may, however, be extremely useful to take some time for
evaluation and thus in preparing a conversation, plan for a short summary and evaluation.
What has to be included in the evaluation and which skills are required?
A proper evaluation compares the result of a conversation with its initial goals and
expectations. An evaluation often goes further than the conversation itself. Atmosphere,
impressions left behind from one on the other, the attitude of the partners, etc. are also often
taken into account. This skill of evaluation is also applicable to other situations such as
meetings, presentation and teamwork.
An evaluation in general must lead to:
- clarity about goals and wishes from both sides.
- clarity about the (eventually un-aimed for) mutual effects.
- clarity about the required changes.
- looking for required solutions / problem solving actions
Evaluation is sometimes felt as somewhat threatening because it is considered as a test for
someone's resilience. That of course is not necessary. Evaluations must include also the
positive items. However criticism must not be excluded. It is an art to handle giving and
receiving criticisms within an evaluation in a proper way. The following guidelines can be
1.2.8 Guidelines for giving criticism / feedback in evaluation:
- speak from a basic respect for the other.
- speak with the partners only in a suitable place.
- evaluate quickly after the conversation.
- speak about one item at a time.
- describe conduct in a concrete way
- not "character": "You are..!"
- not interpretative: "You want ..!"
- use "I messages" (see 1.2.3)
- mention your own part in the conversation: what is your own responsibility?
- state clearly what you had expected and what, in your opinion was the result
of the conversation.
- watch carefully how the other reacts: does he understand what you mean?
- give criticism in a positive way: look for solutions for problems, do not stay
with disapprovals only.
Listening to criticism is often more difficult than giving criticism. Many people, while listening to
criticism, take a defensive attitude. This may be in the form of negating, denying, start counter
attacking, justifying the criticized item. Such reactions are seldom positive and should be
avoided as much as possible.
1.2.9 Guidelines for receiving feedback / criticism in evaluation.
- active listening: try to identify (see also 1.2.4)
- continue questioning: what / when / how.
- recognize the right of the other to give criticism.
- remain assertive
- think and act in a problem solving way
- ask time to digest.
A number of aspects always return such as: mutual respect, openness about own wishes and
intention to solve problems (see reader Problem solving). If this is realized a proper basis for
evaluation is set.
2. CHECKLIST CONVERSATION SKILL
CONVERSATION PLAN Yes More No
1. The conversation leader is the right person for this conversation.
2. Sufficient attention has been paid to the other person.
3. The conversation leader knows the type of relationship.
4. The goal is clear and the path to follow is outlined.
5. As far as possible, time, place and situation are, suitable.
6. A follow-up has been thought of.
7. There is a 'greeting ritual'.
8. The goal of the conversation has been clarified.
9. At a suitable moment the conversation leader 'comes to the point'
10. The development of the conversation is guided (task and sphere)
11. The goal of the conversation is mentioned again.
12. There is a rounding-up ritual.
13. The conversation leader is clear, open and direct
14. He sits upright, makes eye-contact
15. He speaks with consideration
16. Opinions, feelings and wishes are expressed as 'I messages'
17. Respect is shown for the feelings, opinions and wishes of the
18. There is an active listening attitude (eye-contact/body).
19. There is understanding nodding, hum.. and moments of silence are used.
20. Direct and open questions are posed.
21. Question word are used (what, where, when, who, why, how).
22. The conversation leader classifies and summarizes.
23. Feelings, wishes, opinions of the other are openly voiced.
24. The conversation leader shows a stimulating and listening attitude.
25. Conversation leader evaluates and steers the conversation.
26. He is open for criticism.
27. Criticism is expressed with care.
28. The approach is positive and directed towards problem-solving.
WAS THE CONVERSATION EFFECTIVE / WAS THE LEADERSHIP GOOD?