The Fine Art of English Conversation

My Conversation with the Real Soldier of Orange

6 minute read

One of the most memorable English conversations I’ve ever had was over dinner with a charming group including the famous Nederlander, Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema. Erik was a real life hero and is the character portrayed in the Academy Award winning film – and more recently the play –Soldaat van Oranje. When we met in 2003, he was in Chicago on an international book tour to promote his biography, “In Pursuit of Life.” It’s a great read about an extraordinary life.

Erik’s English was perfect, but it was his social intelligence and superb conversational skill that made him so compelling. Here are my 14 rules of good English conversation. I dedicate them to the memory of an extraordinary Nederlander!

1. Take turns. In 44 BC, Cicero said that good conversation requires alternating speakers. Just as children must take turns and share toys, adults should take turns and share “airtime.”

2. Do not interrupt. Nothing is more irritating than the partner who takes your first millisecond pause as a chance to complete your thought for you, contradict you, or change the subject.

3. A conversation is not a lecture, so be aware of time. Do not become didactic or go on too long without allowing your partner to speak.

4. Be considerate about volume (loudness). Speak at an appropriate volume. Being shouted at is no fun, and listening to someone who whispers is a lot of work.

5. Really listen, and show that you are listening. Show your partner that you are listening with the look on your face, your gaze (eye contact) and body language. Show your partner that you are listening by giving them some reflection or restatement of what they said. Do this even if you want to disagree when it is your turn to speak!

6. Do not use the time that you partner is speaking to mentally prepare your response. Your partner will quickly pick up on this. You must truly listen to connect to what they say in order to smoothly carry the conversation forward. Trust the process. Listen, then respond!

7. Preface disagreement with a connecting comment by saying something like, “Yes, I see your point about the dangers of GMO foods, but in the article I just read in the New York Times, blah, blah….”

8. Credit your sources and provide context. We all appreciate context. If you are talking about an impersonal subject, briefly mention where you got your info.

9. Be careful with the use of present simple tense in English. When you state things as facts (for which we use present simple tense), your opinion sounds like accepted fact. Thus if you say, “Putin is a maniac who is bent on destroying the world,” it sounds like, one, you are an expert, or two, this is a well-known fact. Such “factual” statements can make the listener feel that if she does not agree, he must be crazy, stupid or at the least, uninformed. And, maybe even worse, it can make the speaker sound like a pompous windbag. So if your statement is your opinion, it is best to identify it as such! This will create less resistance in your conversation partner. After all, a conversation is cooperation, not a battle, right?

10. Edit yourself for unnecessary detail. Too much detail is, in general, boring. Do not bore your partner!

11. Do not always be the hero of your own story. Celebrate others in your story to show that you are not a diva.

12. Talk about something that is of interest to both parties. Just because I love 13th century music that does not mean that you do too! Watch your partner’s eyes, face and body language to know when you are boring them.

13. Ask questions. Show interest in your partner’s life and opinions. The most charming people in the world do this very well. When I had dinner with the real Soldier of Orange, Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, he asked me lots of questions about my life. No one had more heroic, fascinating stories than Erik, and yet he wanted to know about me! He was a brilliant conversationalist: charming, witty and interested in others.

14. Finally, be kind. Conversation is not war. It is an art. And even great soldiers know that!

Photo credit Patricia Steur

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