Arts and Entertainment

The art of the conversation

By BILL MICKELSON

bmickelson@northkitsapherald.com

The holidays always tend to elicit their fair share of awkward conversation.

Idle chatter. Awkward pauses. Meaningless small talk. Those off-color comments from drunk Uncle Charlie.

So, in advance of all the family reunions and Christmastime cocktail parties, we talked to local conversation expert Brian Banke — a member of the Bremerton Toastmasters, winner of this year’s district competition — for the wisdom on getting past that nervous awkwardness.

“Everybody has different ways to deal with that,” Banke said. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to channel my nervous energy into preparation. As long as I feel I’m prepared, I’m not really nervous.”

While Banke’s forte is generally public speaking — given his role in Toastmasters and occupation as pastor — he said many of the same principles apply when addressing an audience as do in engaging someone in one-on-one conversation.

“How do you draw people in and keep them engaged,” Banke said, “and make them feel like there’s a genuine personal connection?”

Debra Fine, a renowned public speaker and author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk” — a guide to starting the conversation and leaving a good impression — says its up to you to assume the burden of conversation.

“If you generally wait for someone else to take initiative in a conversation, you have been self-centered,” she writes. “You have allowed your own comfort to take precedence over every other person’s. You haven’t been doing your fair share of the work.”

Oftentimes initiating the conversation can be half the battle for non-socialites thrust into a social situation.

In the interest of preparation, Fine suggests coming up with a list of icebreakers and conversation points ahead of time, which could come in handy in the event of an awkward silence. She lists no-brainers for the holiday season, like: “How do you know the host/hostess?” “What are your favorite holiday traditions?” “Tell me about your plans for this holiday season.”

Icebreakers get the ball rolling, while remembering names, paying attention, keeping eye contact and showing an interest in what the other person has to say — without interrogating — can keep the conversation going.

At the other end of the spectrum, Fine adds, you’ll also want to have exit lines prepared.

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