The Art of Speaking  

The art of conversation

By Celeste Headlee
Toastmaster magazine

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.”

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.

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.


As it turns out, we get in the way of our own enjoyment and well-being. A recent study showed that often, 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 behaviour. 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.

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. 

Celeste Headlee is an award-winning journalist, public radio host, speaker and expert in communication. She is the author of if We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter. Learn more at atwww.celesteheadlee.com.


Want success? Try happiness

By Lauren Parsons
Toastmaster magazin

Scientific research suggests that success does not lead to happiness, but that the opposite is true.

Happiness has a profound effect on brain function and significantly increases individual performance, leading to greater success.

If you focus on boosting your personal well-being, you will be a better leader and communicator to the benefit of your company, your Toastmasters club and your family and friends.

Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, was the first to promote positive psychology as a field of scientific study while serving as president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998.

This approach to psychology challenged what Seligman refers to as “the disease model” and focuses not on what’s wrong with people but instead on what’s right with them.

“Psychology should be just as concerned with human strength as it is with weakness,” Seligman says in a 2004 TED Talk, adding that researchers are developing measures of “what makes life worth living” and “different forms of happiness.”

Shawn Achor, a leader in the field of positive psychology and founder of GoodThink Inc. and the Institute for Applied Positive Research, has found that increased happiness leads to “a 23 per cent reduction in stress, 39 per cent improvement in health and 31 per cent improvement in productivity.”

Specifically, Achor found that happiness leads to increased cognitive function, improved problem-solving ability, increased memory and retention, higher accuracy and greater creativity.

All of these things give happy people a significant advantage, allowing them to perform at their peak. Imagine how keeping your brain in positive mode could affect your next speech or conversation with your friend, boss or spouse.

Through his work in 50 countries, including with Fortune 100 companies, Achor discovered that happy people work smarter and produce significantly better results. They stay in an organization longer and are more engaged in achieving its vision.

How to Be Happy

Below are four practical strategies to use in and out of Toastmasters to keep your brain in “positive mode” and create the “happiness advantage.”

Practice gratitude

Gratitude and thankfulness are cornerstones of every Toastmasters meeting. Skilled evaluators congratulate and encourage speakers, offering practical suggestions and support by highlighting speakers’ strengths, just as positive psychology focuses on strengths versus weaknesses.

The human brain is designed to scan the world for danger, which often means focusing first on the negatives. People are inclined to notice when things go wrong more often than when they go right. A disgruntled customer or broken equipment tends to get the attention, whereas people doing daily tasks well are often overlooked.

Leaders can shift this paradigm by “catching” people doing things right and thanking them on the spot. Immediate and specific feedback creates a nurturing environment in which people thrive, because prompt, affirmative reinforcement increases positive behaviour and motivation — people do more of what they are thanked for.

This is why genuine praise is one of the best parenting, relationship and management techniques available. 

Actively encourage kindness

You can rarely give a gift without getting something back yourself. As we give out “random acts of kindness,” we feel a deep level of contentment that keeps our brains in positive mode. Kind acts also deepen social connection, a key indicator of happiness.

The New Zealand College of Fitness fosters kindness by ending team meetings with each staff member awarding a gold star to a colleague, publicly explaining why that person was chosen. The gold stars go up on a large wall chart to track progress toward rewards.

This one small practice creates immense positivity; staff members are more inclined to help one another and feel valued hearing direct compliments from co-workers.

Be intentional and set yourself a goal. See how many acts of kindness you can do each week and share your stories with others. It will encourage a culture where people continue to “pay it forward,” not only making someone else’s day brighter but also boosting their own happiness.

Don’t forget to move

Our physiology directly affects our psychology. Frequent movement is beneficial for both bodies and brains, improving creativity, focus and efficiency. Exercise augments neurotransmitters in the brain, increasing both short- and long-term happiness.

The good news for busy people is that studies show that even short intervals of exercise can be more effective than longer periods at a lower output. Try to integrate movement throughout your day by taking regular “deskercise” breaks, even for just 60 seconds.

This will not only put your brain in positive mode and leave you feeling more alert, it will also increase your productivity. 

Recharge in rhythm

Learn how to tune in to internal body-clock rhythms and pay attention when it’s time to take a break — when you become distracted, tired, thirsty, hungry, fidgety or frustrated.

It is possible to ignore these signals, say if you have a report deadline looming and just don’t want to stop; your body will go into fight or flight mode, pushing through with a burst of adrenaline.

This is acceptable from time to time, but if you continue this practice day in and day out, you will reach a chronic state of stress, which has serious health consequences.

To refocus, create a change of state by spending a few minutes outside, standing, walking around or stretching. Your brain will be sharper, allowing you to complete your work faster and with greater accuracy, all saving time and making you happier and more productive than when you simply “push on through.”

By fostering a thankful attitude, intentionally spreading kindness, integrating uplifting movement into your day and taking time out in rhythm with your body, you will not only increase your personal, physical and emotional well-being but also fundamentally improve your performance and experience greater success in all areas of life.

Lauren Parsons is an award-winning Wellbeing Specialist who equips and inspires people to boost their health and happiness, for life. Get a free copy of Lauren's e-book and register for updates at www.laurenparsons.co.nz.

Leading by example

Toastmasters not only helped me become a better speaker, but helped make me a better leader.

I have learned from many people and I continue to grow and to not only be a leader to myself, but to my family, my mentees, employees, friends and community.

Toastmasters is just one of the many ways I strive to learn to develop my abilities and grow as a leader.

My background has primarily been in retail:

  • managing stores
  • merchandising
  • team leader
  • analyzing
  • store openings
  • buying — with such companies as Woolworth Canada, Footlocker, Ricki’s,(Comark group).

During the last eight years, I have partnered with CMS Toys to run Halloween Alley stores in the Okanagan (Most recently adding the district co-ordinator role over-seeing stores all across Canada.

I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that strong leadership skills are a key ingredient to success in business and in life.

There are many books on leadership, and I encourage you to read them, but in business, it’s important to learn from everyone, and to create your own skills and style.

My favourite book is Yes or No: The guide to Better Decisions, by Spencer Johnson

It may sound unusual, but it teaches you to own your decisions and to keep moving forward.

Top influencers such as Richard Branson, Napoleon Hill, John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill state that we need to fail to become more successful.

Even actor Will Smith has advice on using failure as a tool to get better.

“Fail early, fail often, fail forward,” he said.

We all want people to be proud of us, to be better role models and achieve our dreams and aspirations.

I will share with you some of what I believe can make you a well-rounded leader.

Inspire, be passionate and motivate

Everyone has a vision. Share it! With everyone you know. I recently asked the owners of Halloween Alley what they thought my contributions to the company were.

“You are the company’s biggest cheerleader,” they said.

I agree. Although my stores are only open seasonally, I breathe and promote the Halloween Alley brand all year.

Your enthusiasm and excitement for whatever you do is addictive; you need to believe that everyone would want to be a part of whatever it is you do.

You are the most invested. For every action, there is a reaction, so let’s make them great ones.

Be proud of what you do!

Be a teacher

No one knows your product and vision better than you.

It must be a priority to teach your staff, and your family, to be better than you.

We have a huge opportunity to share the best tool in the world — our knowledge.

If we take time in the beginning to set people up, grant them access to the things and information they need, you will eliminate frustration and find you’ll be able to work more efficiently together.

If something is working, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Give up ownership!

Although the hardest thing for us to do, as a good leader we must realize that we need a full team to be successful.

Whether it is our children or an employee, we need a team working cohesively to create a better world. As VP of membership and previous vice president of public relations for Kelowna AM Toastmasters, I'm part of the club executive that works to ensure a great experience.

Take a step back, and allow others to rise and be the best they can be.

I wear many hats in my life and these are just a few things what I believe help me a better leader. Taking on new roles and consistently challenging myself to learn and grow makes me who I am today.

We meet people for a reason, a season or a lifetime, so make the most of and be the best to everyone who enters your life.

Deb Lawless is a mother of three very busy and active children, an entrepreneur, an employee (working part time in the accounts payable department at Total Restoration Services), district co-ordinator For Halloween Alley and VP of Membership for Kelowna AM Toastmasters.


Webb of words

Moya Webb will be the Okanagan’s champion when the best talkers in Southern B.C. clash in Kelowna this weekend.

Webb won the Toastmasters Division K (the Okanagan and Western Kootenays) International speech and Evaluation contests. That earned her the right to compete at the Division 21 (Southern B.C. and Vancouver Island) spring conference.

“It is quite an honour to have Moya represent us in both the International Speech and Evaluation contests,” said Jennifer Mlazgar, director of Division K.

“She is a true representation of what it means to be a Toastmaster, so to be able to see her compete at this level is an honour and privilege,” said Mlazgar, a Penticton accountant, who has won the District 21 impromptu speaking contest.

Webb is the quintessential Toastmaster — dedicated, hard-working and always learning. In addition to the two division championships, she has won area contests for humour and impromptu speaking.

In 2017, she also received the District 21 Toastmaster of the Year Award for leadership.

“Toastmasters is the best training program I've ever been on in my career, and certainly the most cost effective,” said Webb, who has a BSc and MBA.

And she has poured her heart and soul into that training program since joining the Kelowna Club in 2006.

She has since been area and division director, sponsored the Okanagan College Toastmasters club and the Downtown Express club, and is now helping start another one.

She is a member of two clubs: OC Toastmasters and Kelowna AM.

“This is the first time I have won the International speech contest at even the club level. I guess I never felt before I had anything to offer from an inspirational perspective,” said Webb, who, with her husband, Dave, runs InvLogik Solutions.

She almost pulled out of the club contest this year because she didn't think she had a good enough speech – until one wrote itself while she was sitting on a Big White chairlift.

“A new speech came into my head — just like that. In basic terms, I considered how the lessons learned while learning to ski were great life lessons for designing a fabulous life.”

In spite of her accomplishments, Webb is humble and self-effacing; she was surprised to win the division since she came second in the area contest.

“The fact that I had come second to Dave Maller (Westside Toastmasters) in the area contest and then beat him at the division contest was unexpected. It was a tough contest.”

After the area contest, she re-wrote parts of her speech, gave it at various city clubs, seeking feedback and incorporating what she felt helped make it a winning speech.

“I even changed the title. I practised it, edited it, practised it some more and felt very good about it.”

While many people have butterflies before they give a speech, Webb had them after winning the division contest.

“I do feel a little intimidated, but at the same time a little excited. That's what competing does for you. The more you challenge yourself, the more you grow and the better the results.”

After Webb won the International, a five-to-seven-minute speech, she competed in the Evaluation contest in which listening and the ability to pick out nuances that most people miss are crucial. Contestants then have five minutes to spin a coherent three-minute story that teaches the speaker and the audience.

“I find the Evaluation contest much harder, because I can't prepare. I have to depend on what I hear, what I think and how I feel about the test speech.

“This is what I'm most nervous about for the district level contest — I could just draw a blank and have no idea what to say. When I say it like that, it makes you wonder why I decided to compete.”

But, she argues, when people step out of their comfort zones, their abilities grow and so does their comfort zones.

“If I have pulled anything out of all of this, it is that I enjoy spending my time with energetic, positive people, working together to achieve something worthwhile and giving back in some way.

“I like to make the best of every day, because you never know what lies around the corner.”

Erin Trifunov was second in the International speech contest and Sharleen McBlain second in the Evaluation. Both are members of the Kelowna Club, which is marking its 60th anniversary this weekend at the spring conference.

More The Art of Speaking articles

About the Author

The mission of a Toastmaster Club is to provide a mutually supportive and positive learning environment that offers every member the opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills, which in turn foster self-confidence and personal growth.

There are eight Toastmasters clubs in the Central Okanagan.

For more information and/or to find a club near you, check http://www.toastmasters.org.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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