There are many useful tips for improving your conversation, from the “take advantage of freely offered details” to the “ask open-ended questions”, but the true secret of it, I think, was offered by Scott Adams in his wonderful little book, God’s Debris:
“What topic interests you more than any other?”
“Myself, I guess,” I confessed.
“Yes, that is the essence of being human. Any person you meet at a party will be interested in his own life above all other topics. Your awkward silences can be solved by asking simple questions about the person’s life.”
“That would be totally phony,” I said. “First of all, it would be like interrogating him. Secondly, I couldn’t possibly pretend to be interested in the answers. If he turns out to be some shoe salesman living with his mother in Albany, my eyes will glaze over.”
“”pink2">It would seem phony to you while you asked the questions, but it would not seem that way to the stranger. To him it is an unexpected gift, an opportunity to enjoy one of life’s greatest pleasures: talking about oneself. He would become more animated and he would instantly begin to like you. You would seem to be a brilliant and talented conversationalist, even if your only contribution was asking questions and listening. And you would have solved the stranger’s fear of an awkward silence. For that he will be grateful."
“That solves the stranger’s problem, but I have to listen to this guy drone on about himself. The cure is worse than the disease.”
“Your questions to the stranger are only the starting points. From there you can steer him toward the thing you care about most — yourself.”
“Wouldn’t he want to talk about himself instead of me?”
“When you find out how others deal with their situations it is automatically relevant to you,” he said. “There will always be parallels in your life. Find out what you and he have in common, then ask how he likes it, how he deals with it, and if he has any clever solutions for it. Perhaps you both have long commutes, or you both have mothers who call too often or you both ski. ”pink">Find that point of common interest and you will both be talking about yourself to the delight of the other."
Also valuable is this sideline:
“You think casual conversation is a waste of time.”
“Sure, unless I have something to say. I don’t know how people can blab about nothing.”
“Your problem is that you view conversation as a way to exchange information,” he said.
“That’s what it is,” I said, thinking I was pointing out the obvious.
“Conversation is more than the sum of the words. It is also a way of signaling the importance of another person by showing your willingness to give that person your rarest resource: time. It is a way of conveying respect.