Great communicatorsHave you ever walked away from talking with someone that you’ve just met and thought to yourself “Wow, this was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had!”? I’ve recently had one of those and at first I quite selfishly concluded “Wow, I’m a great communicator”. But then I realized, hang on a second, I think this other person was the reason I felt so good about this talk, how did he do that?

I started to think about a few of the things this person did, that made me feel so comfortable and open to speak with him. In usual Buffer blog manner, I thought of finding some real science to back up some of the simple habits this newly found friend had so ingrained when talking with me.

So what I’ve come up with are 5 of the most effective habits famous communicators have used for hundreds of years. Recently some new science studies have backed up their claims and I feel it makes for a very compelling case to overhaul my own communication efforts and maybe it’s some inspiration for you too!

Let’s dig in:

1. They listen first – then focus on being Active and Constructive

The word conversation generally brings to mind talking—at least for me. However, if you’ve ever seen two people trying to talk to each other at the same time, you’ll know that listening is just as important. In fact, listening is half of a successful conversation—you take turns to talk, and everyone feels heard. This is great communication.

Listening and type of responses

You might have heard of active listening before. It’s something we often get confused with passive, silent listening. Active listening, in fact, means taking part in the conversation and working on the rapport between you and your partner. It’s made up of three parts: paraphrasing, inquiry and acknowledgement.

Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is also a great one to read for tips on improving your listening skills (and, in fact, how you build relationships in general). Stephen’s advice stresses the importance of being nonjudgmental and not making assumptions when listening to others. He also talks about empathic listening—understanding your conversation partner fully, rather than seeing what they talk about through your own point of view.

This overview of Stephen’s chapter on listening breaks down the five types of listening he explains:

  • Ignoring – The “La La La, I can’t hear you” fingers in the ears school of listening
  • Pretending – The “Uh huh, Oh really? That’s nice” school of listening
  • Selective Hearing – The “But I’m sure I heard you say…” school of listening
  • Attentive – The “I know exactly how you feel, when that happened to me…” school of listening
  • Empathic – The “And how does that make you feel*?” school of listening

Empathic listening is the one we want to aim for to have meaningful conversations with others. It works in four stages, one after the other:

  1. Mimic – Repeat what the other person said
  2. Rephrase – Rephrase their comments to show that you’ve understood
  3. Reflect – Put their feelings into words for them
  4. Rephrase and Reflect – Combine steps 2 and 3

If this seems overwhelming at first, you might like to think about it in a more simple way. I like the idea of ‘bouncing the ball back.’ This means you listen to your conversation partner, take in what they’ve said and add to it, passing the turn back to them to elaborate further. In fact, studies have shown that people who express interest in their conversation partner’s viewpoint and followed up with questions to encourage debate were more liked and more likely to be picked for future interactions.

2. They use people’s names more – others will be more likely to help you

In Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends & Influence People, he says this about names:

Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

In fact, our names actually affect our whole lives, more than most of us realize. Students with more likable names tend to get higher grades from their teachers, while students whose names begin with A or B have been shown to have significantly higher grade point averages than those whose names begin with C or D.

The effects continue after school as well, with people whose names have negative connotations (like the surnames Short or Little) more likely than others to feel inferior throughout their lives.

So our names make a big difference to our lives, even thought we’re usually unaware of it. This probably explains why, as Dale Carnegie points out, our names are “the sweetest and most important sound” to us. In conversation with others, we can use this to our advantage by not only using someone’s name initially, but by remembering their name later.

Remembering someone’s name has been shown to make people more likely to help you, more likely to buy from you, and is seen as a compliment.

3. They let others talk about themselves – it’s as rewarding as sex

Whether we want to admit it or not, we love to talk about ourselves. In fact, we love it so much that it triggers the same sensation of pleasure in our brains as food and money do. Harvard neuroscientists have even said that it feels so rewarding, we can’t help but share our thoughts. This makes sense when you realize that talking about our own beliefs and opinions, rather than those of other people, stimulates the meso-limbic dopamine system, which is associated with the motivation and reward feelings we get from food, money and sex.

Brain activity

Studies have even shown that participants are willing to give up between 17% and 25% of the monetary reward offered for talking about others in order to feel the intrinsic rewards of talking about themselves. And outside of the lab, 40% of our everyday speech is devoted to telling other people how we feel or what we think. That’s almost half!

The lesson here is that if you want to make your conversation partner feel good, get them talking about themselves and their interests. If you’ve worked on your active listening skills (see #1), you should be able to do this pretty well.

4. They focus on making others feel important – it’ll re-evaluate how they feel about them

We’ve already talked about how to make your conversation partner feel good by using their name and letting them talk about themselves and their interests. Making them feel important is slightly different—it shows that you place value on their thoughts and opinions, and can encourage them to engage more in the conversation.

Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has a couple of suggestions for how you might do this, particularly for someone who you’re trying to win over. If they’re already a fan or friend, this step will probably be much easier!

Robert’s first suggestion is to give honest compliments. He says that offering compliments on someone’s good traits can help to break the ice between you, particularly if you haven’t had a perfect relationship so far. This can also be a trigger for them to re-evaluate their perceptions of you, giving you a chance to use steps #1–3 above to engage them in a rewarding conversation.

His second suggestion is to ask for their advice. This could be professional advice for your business, personal advice on a decision you’re wrestling with, or even simply a book recommendation. This gives the impression that you value their opinion, which is a little confidence booster. It also gives them something to talk about, which they care about (see #3).

5. They emphasize similarities – we prefer people who are like us

I wasn’t too surprised to find out that we like other people who we think are similar to us, but I was surprised how unaware of that fact we seem to be. When people were asked whether they would prefer a partner who has similar personality characteristics or complementary ones, the majority of people said they would choose someone with complementary traits. The data, however, shows that we are actually more likely to choose a partner who we think is very similar to us.

Likewise, we’re more likely to become friends with people who we perceive as being similar to us. In the book Brain Trust, there’s a cool experiment by Cornell computer scientist John Kleinberg where he studied different people’s Wikipedia editing styles. Here’s what he found:

As people get closer to each other in the network, their editing behaviors become much more similar, but after they meet, their editing becomes only marginally more similar.

This proves that rather than being influenced by our friends after we meet them, we’re actually gravitating towards others like us, naturally.

Here is a quick overview from a great Youtube video about this:

3 Factors: Similar, compliments, cooperative

So how can you point out similarities between you and your conversation partner, to make them more likely to enjoy your company? Well, you can drive the conversation towards topics you’re both interested in. This serves two purposes, since you also want to keep them talking about things they like, as per #3. You can also repeat things they say, paraphrase their wording (that’s part of active listening, remember?) and use mimicry to match your phrasing and body language to theirs.

Hostage negotiator Gary Noesner points out that just repeating the last word or phrase someone used will show that you’re listening and engaged. I’m definitely keen to try that one—who better to get conversation tips from than a hostage negotiator?

Another hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, explained in an interview how paraphrasing can be powerful for better understanding in a conversation:

The idea is to really listen to what the other side is saying and feed it back to them. It’s kind of a discovery process for both sides. First of all, you’re trying to discover what’s important to them, and secondly, you’re trying to help them hear what they’re saying to find out if what they are saying makes sense to them.

Mimicking the body language and verbal cues of your conversation partner can have varying benefits, including making you seem more likable, more physically attractive and making the person you’re mimicking more generous and helpful toward others, not just you. That’s pretty cool, right? Plus, in a sales situation, your conversation partner is 17% more likely to buy from you if you mimic their speech and behavior, and will feel more positive about you afterwards.

A quick summary of the 5 top communication habits

Just to refresh your memory before you go, here are the five tips to help you have more successful conversations:
1. Active listening
2. Use their name
3. Let them talk about themselves
4. Make them feel important
5. Emphasize similarities

Want to chat about this post? You can leave a comment below, email me or find me on Twitter at @BelleBethCooper

Image credit: Barking Up The Wrong Tree

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Written by Belle Beth Cooper

Belle is the first Content Crafter at Buffer and co-founder of Exist. She writes about social media, startups, lifehacking and science.

  • This is a great list. It reminds me of Nancy Duarte’s talk at this year’s World Domination Summit – she analyzed the greatest speeches in history, and found they shared a common trend: the speakers would alternate between describing the world as it is, and the world as it could be. MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address were both used as examples.

    My favorite on this list is #3. Letting people talk is crucial, especially because people do not change their minds when they are listening – they change their minds when they are talking.

    • Belle

      I love that, Caelan! I’m sure you’re right, and that’s why helping people open up about what they want to talk about is important.

  • LucidGal

    These techniques are so cliche…I can see a mile away when someone is using them to pretend they give a rat’s patoot. I have two friends in particular, both executive coaches, who follow the formula so closely it secretly makes me laugh. I’d rather they ignored me and talked about themselves than use this tired old rubric.

    • Belle

      I think Ophelie makes a great comment above, about not sticking to these to the letter (I doubt I’d be able to anyway!)

  • Another excellent post Beth. It definitely takes a lot of self-discipline to not move into the other types of listening, especially if you want to share your own thoughts (and potentially interrupt). Good communication in that sense also demands patience.

    • Belle

      Thanks Neil! Agreed on the patience comment 🙂

      – Belle

  • I’d add one last step: actively throttle back your action on these steps. Don’t get me wrong: they’re all worth following, but I think we all know someone who sticks to these rules a little bit too closely, and it shows.

    There’s a great line in Mad Men when Don Draper tells Peggy the secret to finding an idea: think about it really really hard, then forget about it, and the idea will appear. This is how I feel about advice like this: think about it, consider your actions, then forget about trying to follow the advice and just let its message reflect in your actions.

    • Belle

      So true about ideas! Good advice, thanks Ophelie 🙂

    • Sounds like advice I give to my tango students here in Lausanne,.. Work hard on the technique, but then try to forget about so the skill pops up on its own. The worst thing dancers do when they are in a social context is to “try to do” the things they are working on in class.

  • James McKey

    There’s also another aspect to how the active listening can ideally play out that includes understanding the other person’s communication goals. Dr. Deborah Tannen talks about it extensively in her book “You Just Don’t Understand” and essentially it comes down to two main buckets for what people want get out of a conversation. Even today (though I see it shifting) it’s heavily aligned along the gender lines; mostly b/c boys still mostly play with boys and girls with girls… reinforcing the gerder conversation norms from generation to generation. Guys are often aiming to establish themselves in a hierarchy by way of showing what they know (like I am now) or how they can solve a problem. While women are often often (again, not always, and there are many exceptions) looking for a connection and understanding (commiseration).

    So I try to assess when someone’s body language goes ‘bad’ to see if I took the route they weren’t hoping for… perhaps I commiserated when I shouldn’t have (many guys want to feel unique and commiseration actually denies this to them) or maybe I offered a solution when one wasn’t wanted. It’s hard to recover from in the instant it happens but it can help guide your response in a future conversation. Mostly men screw up by offering solutions when their partner just wants to hear, “Yeah, sounds like your boss was a quantifiable jerk today… sorry.”

  • Anna

    You know, when people use my name when they’re talking to me, they are almost always annoyed with me, and even if they aren’t, I assume they are. Is this just a New Zealand thing? Just me?

    • Michael A. Levine

      Not just you, Anna. Using someone’s name repeatedly is often highly manipulative, much as every other technique for “better communication” can be. It becomes the human equivalent of “your call is very important to us.” The list above is very good – as long as it’s sincere. Of course, as George Burns said, “Sincerity…once you can fake that you got it made!”

  • Clave de Sole


  • Brilliant article, everyone needs a little reminder once in a while how to be a great conversationalist 🙂
    I agree, it’s totally obvious when people stick to the rules like these and follow them as their bible in order to be liked, but a more worldly wise person will read, remember and adapt these points to be a natural, and not forced, part of their character.

  • Leo Grisotto

    Great article and very useful! Congratulations! 🙂

  • Spook SEO

    Great post Beth. I also read Dale Carnegies book and it was FANTASTIC!

    I’m also a strong believer of making others feel improtant but am very careful with it. The sad part is that others only do this to manipulate other people.

    Not only is it destructive to the person that they are manipulating but its also very destructive to them who’s manipulating others. In the end, everyone loses because someone decided to manipulate others.

    Awesome post! Cheers!

    • Belle

      Really glad to hear you enjoyed this article, thanks!

  • Rachel Ben Hamou

    Excellent article. It is interesting that you put Make Them Feel Important. I think I would say Make Them Feel Valued. To make someone feel important in conversation, might seem quite disingenuous. I think I prefer to feel valued over important. Overall, a great read. Thank you.

    • Belle

      Great point, Rachel. Thanks for reading!

  • imera

    Nice post. I think the quantity is important too, not saying too much or too little.

  • Cryptologics

    Great article, I wish you wrote more about gestures and mimics for effective communicating.

    • Belle

      Thanks for the feedback! I’ll keep that in mind next time I write about communicating effectively 🙂

  • Kohinoor Devroy

    Quite an observation Dale Carnegie points out, our names are “the sweetest and most important sound” to us

  • I’d prefer that 4. say “Recognize their importance, internally, and communicate that authentic conviction to them”
    … but I guess that “Make them feel important” would *also* cover the case where you miserably fail to find whatsoever importance in them/theirWords… but then your 90% nonverbal expression of their nonimportanceInYourEsteem is going to cross signals with your efforts to fake their importance no?

  • Okeke Daniel Leo

    This is really nice, reading this article has made me realise that listening before talking back is a really big deal when it come’s to having a conversation with another person, thank’s for this.

    • Thanks for the comment! That’s a great point!