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How to Become a Conversational Captain

- By Janika LeMaitre -


To be engaging is to show that you are participating, meaning you join in with the conversation and you give thoughtful comments or insight. Knowing what topics to avoid and what’s okay to talk about is how you keep the conversation flowing.

Visualize yourself as the seafaring captain of a large ship.

Being the head of the ship, you are often faced with many obstacles like stormy weather with lightning, catastrophic tidal waves, pirates seeking a hostile takeover, and other uncontrollable variables. Conversations can be turbulent; we often find ourselves in murky waters. As the conversational captain, it’s your duty to navigate the discussion in the right direction.

When steering a dialogue in which you are still getting to know the crowd, having some topics ready at a moment’s notice can be like discovering new land after years at sea.

Begin by giving a genuine compliment, and then use any of my proposed go-to topics:

✓ Current events (*avoiding controversial events and politics) such as what is happening globally, show your understanding of real-life happenings. This will show that you are an interesting person.

✓ Compliments about someone’s life achievements. Everyone likes to be complimented; it makes them feel good.

✓ Future happenings which could include big events, like the Winter Olympics, the Boston Marathon, or a classic band that could be coming to town.

✓ Restaurants and the current food scene. Many people have a favorite type of cuisine. It can be an easy way to find common ground.

Starting a rapport with these topics can help you open up further talking points; you’ll learn more about what someone else is interested in, and this is truly one of the best ways to polish your persona. Everyone can appreciate it when others show they care about their interests.

A quick tip: In the USA, it is common to be asked what you do for work and where you went to college.

Being Australian, this initially caught me off guard as it’s considered rude to be asked about your work-life or education upfront. You must be wary of cultural differences. There’s no need to divulge the ins and outs of your job or schooling unless the other person is truly interested in hearing this level of detail about your work. Even still, it’s best to switch topics when you are networking, except if you’re meeting this person one on one.

What’s also acceptable in the USA is to compliment someone’s outfit. In other parts of the world, including Australia, it is best to avoid compliments, for they come across as inauthentic.

What you want to avoid are topics like:

  • Intimate relations, for these, are a personal matter.

  • Political views unless you happen to work in politics.

  • Someone’s religious views, for you, may not see eye to eye.

  • Family because there are too many unknowns about another person’s family. The exception to this will be if the other person prompts you to talk about their family.

  • People love to talk about their pets. Wait until they give you the signal, though, for all you know, their pet may have just passed or been sick.

  • People love to talk about their kids, but some people may find a question about if they have kids or not to be invasive or sexist if only directed to a woman.

  • Asking a woman if she plans to have children can be considered very invasive because it assumes: a. She wants to, and b. She can. Not everyone wants to or can have children.

  • Give a generic comment on what the other person is wearing. This can come across as demeaning.

  • Dietary habits are a sensitive subject, and people are often conscious of their weight.

  • The weather is a topic for people who want to fill time. Ultimately I call this the “time filler” because it can be boring over the discussed topic.

  • Sickness is also a delicate subject. I have done a lot of fundraising for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and have learned that, even when you are raising money for a cause, you should only talk about your experiences with a certain illness when it’s the appropriate time to do so.

All of these subjects are considered taboo. If you slip up, then you’ll learn very quickly so make sure to stick to the appropriate conversations only.

You now have the fundamentals of what it takes to excel at making conversation. Practice with someone you know–or don't know, role-play with a friend or colleague and see how you feel when they respond to your topics. The rest will flow well once you discover that 'sweet conversation spot' for someone. So, stick with these pointers; you'll be sure to see your interactions with people elevate!


About the author, Janika LeMaitre

Jan is a certified etiquette and protocol advisor, specializing in personal brand strategy. Her mission is to provide life-changing soft skills for business owners and industry trail-blazers to self-manage and evolve their reputation. Jan is certified with the Protocol School of Washington® and The British School of Excellence™. In addition, she is the board president of Women's Business Group Connects, and as a second-generation Rotarian, proudly serves as a board director at the Rotary Club of Weston & Wayland.

Download your complimentary copy of Jan's "Handling Gender-Neutral Pronouns With Style" quick guide here.


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