Some Common Conversation Mistakes
There are lots of mistakes people can make during conversations, and this article will go over a bunch of them. Before I get to that, here are some points I want to make:
Everyone makes mistakes while conversing from time to time
It's great if you can steer clear of as many bad habits as possible, but don't put too much pressure on yourself to be flawless when you talk to people. No matter what the skill, no one gets it right 100% of the time. Also, even if you do things that most people think are fine, there's always going to be the odd person who has their own perspective and sees it as a mistake on your part.
Don't let a fear of making a mistake paralyze you
Many so-called mistakes aren't ideal, but they're not that bad. You can often recover from them and move on. For example, it's not great to brag, but if you subtly talk yourself up one time, most people aren't instantly going to be turned off. They may not even see it as bragging to begin with, just you stating a fact about yourself.
If you're just getting the hang of making conversation, and are anxious about getting rejected or making a bad impression, you can get so worried about all the behaviors you have to avoid that your mind goes blank. Often saying something less-than-perfect is better than saying nothing at all. At least that way you're keeping the conversation going and giving the other person something to react to. For example, if you mildly brag about how good you are at drawing, it may get someone talking about how they're into art as well.
People get away with making mistakes in conversations all the time
An observation socially inexperienced people sometimes make is, "I've read about all these things that are supposedly bad conversation habits, but I see people doing them all time. What gives?" There are a few explanations:
- Some "bad" habits are okay in certain situations. For example, in loud, rowdy group conversations people often interrupt and talk over each other as they try to make their points heard.
- Some "bad" habits are accepted in particular subcultures or social groups. Like in a group of young, bro-ish guys, mild bragging may be common and acceptable. A circle of intellectual friends may be fine with members debating and correcting each other.
- Individuals vary in which social mistakes bother them or not. Someone who's not a big talker themselves may have fewer issues with a monopolizer. Our friendships are partially determined by what mistakes we don't mind, or even find endearing.
- People's personalities are somewhat defined by the minor, mostly tolerated mistakes they tend to make - "Yep, that's Andre, always telling those meandering stories", "Sherry's just excitable. I used to get annoyed when she interrupted me, but now I'm used to it", "Ha ha, Frank's a passionate guy. If you talk to him about politics you're going to get into a debate with him. You've been warned."
Here's the list of bad habits. You'll see I didn't include everything someone could possibly do wrong in a conversation. That would be impossible. I tried to stick to common mistakes that anyone can make from time to time. I didn't include things that stem from larger personality problems, like all the things someone might do wrong if they had a very hotheaded temperament.
Not listening well
We all know how annoying and discouraging it can be to speak to someone who isn't listening to us. It makes us feel disrespected and misunderstood. Here we are sharing something that's important to us, and the other person's mind is clearly elsewhere. If we're the poor listeners we'll be more likely to interrupt and make other mistakes. It also causes us to miss the information that's given to us in the conversation, so we'll have less to go when it's our turn to talk.
Poor listeners aren't always self-obsessed jerks. They may be shy and too stuck in their head. They may be stressed that their son isn't doing well in school. Whatever the reason, if you're a weaker listener this article may help you work on it:
You can interrupt by directly cutting someone else off to speak over them, or by finishing their sentence for them and then launching into what you have to say. Either way, it's frustrating for the speaker because they're getting the message, "I don't care what you have to say. What I'm going to talk about is more important." Sometimes if we're simply eager to speak we can interrupt without meaning any harm by it. If you catch yourself interrupting someone you can usually recover by saying, "Oh sorry, I cut you off. What were you saying?" It is okay to interrupt if someone is talking your ear off and it's the only way you can get a word in.
Hijacking / making it all about you / changing conversations to what you want to talk about
"A few years ago I was in Mexico and went to the nature reserve that all the Monarchs migrate to in the winter. It was the most amazing, surreal experience..." (clearly wants to talk more about their trip)
"Yeah, I usually don't travel on my vacations. I like to stay home and work on the house. During my last week off I replaced all the fixtures in my downstairs bathroom. It took way longer than I expected because blah blah blah... "
Hijacking can be done slowly and subtly, or abruptly. Either way it's one of the more blatant mistakes.
When you take up more than your fair share of air time, especially in group conversations. Monopolizers can be good at turning every discussion back to what they want to speak about. Someone can accidentally monopolize a conversation if they're more outgoing and talkative than the people they're with, or they've got something they're enthusiastic about sharing. They may start telling a funny story and not realize they haven't given anyone room to speak for the last five minutes. People in more senior, respected positions can also unintentionally become monopolizers, since everyone's usually too polite to tell them to stop.
Bragging / trying to shoehorn your positive qualities into the conversation
There's blatant, gaudy bragging and then there's the more common variation of forcing your 'selling points' into the discussion. That's usually motivated by the belief that you have to impress people to get them to like you. If you're subtle about bringing up your strengths no one may notice, but if they catch on they'll see you as trying too hard. It's best to let your accomplishments come up naturally, rather than being in a rush to let everyone know about them.
You can unintentionally come across as bragging if you're more accomplished in an area than the person you're talking to, and it's one they're sensitive about. From your perspective you're just straightforwardly talking about your life, but they may see you as rubbing their nose in the fact that you're more successful than them. Try to be aware of these disparities and downplay your achievements if you need to (but don't go too far and falsely portray yourself as having it just as hard as someone else if that obviously isn't true).
"I went zip-lining this weekend. It was a rush!"
"Yeah, zip-lining's alright. I've been skydiving about a dozen times though. If you want a real rush try doing your first non-tandem jump."
One of the more infamous conversation mistakes. Sometimes you can one-up someone accidentally when you're just trying to relate to their experience by mentioning one of your own, but yours is 'better'. Try to get a sense of why someone brought a point up. If they're proud of themselves and are looking for admiration and a pat on the back, then you'll annoy them if you 'top' them.
Trying to force a dynamic
For example, trying to get into a joking, teasing dynamic, or a deep and serious one, and then not dropping it when the other person isn't receptive. It's fine to see if you can get a dynamic going, but it's a mistake to keep pushing for it when it's clear it's not going to happen.
Not moving on from an unproductive topic
For example, you're trying to ask someone about their job and they seem unenthusiastic about the subject and are giving you brief responses. Rather than change gears you keep trying to get them to open up about it. Some conversation threads won't go anywhere, and it's better to switch topics if the current one isn't working.
Asking too many questions / getting into an interrogation vibe
Along with making statements of your own, asking questions is one of the building blocks of conversation. However, if you pepper people with one question after another it can put them on the spot and create a job interview or interrogation atmosphere. If the person you're speaking to is giving you a lot of short answers we can fall into this behavior without meaning to. If you've asked several questions in a row mix things up by making a statement instead.
Giving too many quick or one-word answers
This mistake is like the mirror image of the one above. When someone asks you a question your role in keeping the conversation going is to provide an answer that gives the other person enough to go on that they'll be able to come up with further things to say. Too many short responses from your end doesn't give them that, and puts too much pressure on them to keep the interaction alive. Of course, we often don't mean to give one-word answers. We may be feeling shy or caught off guard, we may not know what to say, or our conversation partner could be asking too many closed-ended questions that are harder to answer well.
Changing topics too abruptly and randomly
You don't always need to make a seamless transition from one topic to the next. Often friends will be talking about one thing, run out of things to say, and go, "So anyway, I finally started watching (some new TV show) the other day..." However, it is still possible to switch topics in a way that's too sudden and out of left field and throw people off.
If you do want to change topics:
- If the other person is expecting a reply, give them one first. Like if they tell you about their winter holiday, comment on it, or tell them about you did yourself. Don't bring out a new topic without responding to their old one.
- Make a shift seem less jarring by tacking on a statement like, "That reminds me...", "Speaking of...", "I'm not sure why, but that makes me think of...", or "This is going to sound random, but...".
- If you pause for a few seconds before switching topics it often sends a signal of, "That subject is done, switching to something else."
Bringing up inappropriate topics
Unless you know the people you're speaking to won't mind, don't bring up anything that's too controversial, offensive, upsetting, disgusting, or overly personal and familiar. That goes for whether you're joking around or having a more serious discussion. Even if it's a subject you're personally comfortable with, it doesn't mean everyone else feels the same way. Sometimes people make this mistake because most of the time they hang around friends or co-workers who are okay with certain material, and they forget the whole world isn't on the same wavelength.
This isn't to say you must only ever stick to bland, sanitized topics. Sometimes people earn points by being the first to start joking around in a more edgy way, break the serious, reserved atmosphere in a group, and let everyone show their real selves more. However, doing this requires good judgment. You've got to gauge your company, and still have a sense of where the line is between 'just inappropriate enough' and 'too far'.
Over-sharing / sharing too much, too soon
(To someone you don't know at a party) "Hey, how's your night going?"
Sharing your problems with someone is asking something of them. It's mental and emotional work to be supportive. Asking that from a person you don't know well puts them in an awkward spot. They may not be up for listening to you talk about your issues, but also don't want to seem rude or uncaring. It's expected that you know someone at least somewhat well before seeking their support.
Putting your foot in your mouth
That is, you accidentally say something that offends someone and makes you look foolish. More details on that mistake here: How Not To Put Your Foot In Your Mouth
Being too guarded and closed-off
The opposite of over-sharing. You've probably heard that analogy that conversations are like a game of tennis. When you're too closed-off it often leads to situations where you don't hit the ball back to the other person. When people reveal something about themselves they often expect you to try to relate to them by disclosing some similar information in return. When you don't, it stops the process of connecting in its tracks. That's not to say you always have to share your deepest secrets just because someone else did first, but guarded people are usually too protective of their personal details, and overly worried about what would happen if they got out.
Guardedness becomes even more of an issue when it gets in the way you contributing even when the topic is fairly light and casual. For example, if everyone is talking about their weekends, and you're thinking, "I don't want to share what I did. That's no one's business. I don't need people poking into my life" that's a problem. You'll never get to know anyone very well that way, and it probably won't be long before you get a reputation for being too secretive. Some advice for getting past this tendency:
Over-relying on negative, downer subjects to keep your conversations going
Realistically we can't be cheery and positive constantly. Sometimes we have things we want to criticize. Sometimes we need to discuss heavy, depressing issues. In moderation that's fine. Some people are negative too much, which tends to bring everyone down. They might just be going through a tough time and not mean to act that way.
Other people unconsciously fall into a habit of negativity because they find they have an easier time thinking of things to say when they do. Like they may normally feel tongue-tied around their co-workers, but can reliably get into a discussion with them if they start a complaint session about the management. Or the only time they have long, flowing conversations with their friend is when they prod them into talking about their relationship problems. The problem with this approach is that while it can work in the short-term, over a longer period it can turn people off you. It can also create unhealthy dynamics in your friendships, where all you do is complain to each other, or you attract needy people who mainly want to use you as a free therapist.
Talking at people rather than with them
A person feels talked at if they get the sense that they could replace themselves with a cardboard cut-out and it wouldn't make any difference to the speaker. When you talk at people you're not having a true interaction with them. There's no back and forth. There's no opportunity for the other person to interject and influence the course of the discussion. It's when what you want to talk about is more important the needs or comfort of everyone else.
When you're enthusiastic about a topic and want to share your thoughts on it you can sometimes talk at others unintentionally. Long-winded storytellers can also be guilty of this. If there's something you're dying to talk about, ask yourself:
- "Is this something the other person would actually care about? Or do I just want to say these things I've been thinking about to the first warm body that's available?"
- "Even if the person may be interested, do they need to hear the full spiel I've got prepared, or would it be better to give them a quick summary?"
If you do decide to share your thoughts, keep tabs on the other person's body language. If they start to look bored or distracted it's a sign you may be going on too long. In general don't monologue at people. Share some thoughts, sure, but then let them respond or give them a turn to contribute.
Pointlessly correcting people
Most people find it annoying to be corrected, especially over minor details that aren't relevant to the overall point they're trying to make. It derails the flow of the interaction. Calling attention to their mistake may make them feel bad about themselves. Depending on the tone you use when you make a correction it may make you seem condescending, pedantic, snobby, uptight, like a know-it-all, and so on.
Some people have personalities that value truth, logic, and accuracy and it irks them if anyone says something that's incorrect. Whenever it happens they really, really want to correct the person, and it eats away at them if they can't. Sometimes their attitude is, "I'd want someone to correct me if I was wrong, they'd be doing me a favor, so other people should feel the same way."
You need to pick your battles. If you correct someone is it going to do more harm than good to the conversation? Are you giving them information they really need and care to know? Is what they're saying incorrect in a way that's offensive to your values, and it would be wrong not to speak up, even if it created some tension?
If you do correct someone there are ways to soften the blow:
- Be modest. Add a statement like, "I could be wrong, but..."
- Play dumb a bit, even if you're sure you're right; "Is her character named Khaleesi? I thought it was Daenerys, and 'khaleesi' was just a word for 'queen'. But who knows, that show can be hard to follow..."
- Be self-aware and self-deprecating: "Ha ha, I know I'm being finicky and uptight here, but..."
Even if do it in a polite way, it can still bug people to be corrected, so be selective. Of course, if someone is blatantly wrong about an important topic you may decide it's better to be direct.
Being too quick to argue with and debate people
Like with correcting, this is a conversation mistake intellectual types are prone to. Getting into debates with people, especially when they weren't expecting it, can inject negative, adversarial vibes into the interaction, and make you look angry, intolerant, and opinionated. Unless you're with fellow debaters who enjoy a feisty exchange of ideas, try to steer clear of this behavior.
Having poor body language
When you're talking to someone you should aim to look reasonably friendly, interested, open, and calm and confident. You can do this by:
- Making decent eye contact
- Facing your body towards them
- Having a relaxed, friendly expression on your face
- Having open body language (arms are at your side, not crossed protectively in front of you, legs about shoulder-width apart)
- Leaning slightly forward if you're sitting with them. Leaning back is okay too, as long as you don't look relaxed to the point of being disengaged and disrespectful.
- If you're standing, having fairly straight posture
Sometimes even when they feel at ease and like who they're with people unintentionally send the wrong signals with their body language.
- They may look too meek and withdrawn (fidgeting, looking down, speaking with a quiet voice).
- They may seem too closed-off and defensive (arms crossed, legs close together, pulling back). Again, it's about what signals they may unintentionally send. Many people naturally cross their arms at times because it feels more comfortable, but someone might still misinterpret how they're feeling.
- They may come across as overly dominant and challenging (hands on hips, chest puffed out, legs firmly planted, jaw set, overly intense stare)
- They may look too laid back and out of it (overly open, relaxed posture, leaning or sitting too far back, tired or dopey facial expression)
- They may seem distant and judging (standing or leaning farther back, not quite facing everyone, skeptical expression, arms crossed, head tilted so they're literally 'looking down' on everyone)
If you become aware that your body language isn't always lining up with how you feel, consciously try to adopt a friendlier, open stance. Changing your body language can take time, so just aim to get better little by little, not fix everything overnight. If you're showing less-than-ideal body language because you're actually experiencing the states that bring it on (e.g., a lack of confidence) then as you address and improve your attitude your non-verbals may come around on their own.
Making poor eye contact
Poor eye contact can make you appear nervous, shifty, or like you're not paying attention. Often it's due to shyness, but it can also simply be a bad habit. If this is an area you struggle with, this article has some advice:
Now that I've listed a bunch of conversation mistakes, this article goes into what you can do once you've made one: