Imagine you are in midst of a conversation and all of a sudden you are struck by an awkward silence. You think to yourself “what do I say now?”
You find yourself caught looking around the room, sweating on someone to swoop in and save you from the awkward situation that is a conversation that is running out of steam.
What’s worse is that you are now a position that doesn’t just test your social skills but your language skills as well.
Negotiating a party with a room full of people you know only through loose connections can be tough. But, if it’s a room full of people that don’t speak your first language, the prospect can seem impossible.
That said, if you want to be conversational in Spanish, a moment is going to come when you’ll need to take off the training wheels and set off down that steep hill.
And, this idea of getting out and using your Spanish—before you feel you are ready—is a central principle of conversation hacking and sets the tone for everything I talk about on this blog.
Getting out and actually speaking to people is the best training ground if your ultimate goal is to be conversational in Spanish.
Certainly, whenever you put yourself into a social setting, there is an ever-present risk that you are going to run out of things to say.
But, if you feel like this happens to you (often), it doesn’t have to be your fate forever.
In fact, I don’t see a keen sense of social abilities as something you are born with. I see social skills as a skill that can be trained like any other.
Moreover, just like skills such as juggling, dancing or swimming have guiding principles, so too do socials skills.
Setting the scene: Bootcamp
Recently, I went to a 30th birthday party of a friend that was born and raised in the Dominican Republic.
Since the party hosts were Spanish natives, it was highly probable that a large number of guests were also going to be from a Spanish speaking country.
To my delight, this turned out to be the case which allowed for plenty of opportunities to use my Spanish skills.
After an hour or so of mingling, I ended up in a one-on-one conversation with a girl from Colombia.
Before the moment when we were left in a one-on-one, we had two other Australians in the conversation that didn’t speak a word of Spanish so it may have been rude to switch to another language while they were standing there.
Once they had left though, I thought fantastic, here is an awesome opportunity to hear a native Colombian accent and learn about the country from a local’s perspective.
First things first, the switch to Spanish.
Principle 1. Just ask!
Up until that point, we had only been speaking in English. So I think it came as quite a surprise when I asked:
¿Te va bien hablar conmigo en Español?
Despite the surprise, she appeared excited about the switch.
I’m not sure if that was because it was a relief to be speaking in her native tongue again or if I simply asked in such an enthusiastic way that the excitement was infectious.
Either way, we were now speaking in Spanish. And we wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t asked.
The first principle that sets the foundations for social skills training is being able to ask for something.
Of course, the way you ask is extremely important, but if you don’t go up to the girl or guy that you want to speak to and ask to start a conversation, then it may (and probably) will never happen.
If you want to improve your ability to speak Spanish, then you have to ask for a conversation in Spanish.
Put simply: don’t ask, don’t get.
Finding people to practice your Spanish with is not always easy. But, once you do, it’s not only perfectly okay to ask to speak Spanish, you may have to do it in order for it to happen.
Again, there are good ways and bad ways to ask for something. But, if you are polite, friendly, and not persistent if the person says they aren’t interested then you will give yourself plenty of opportunities to practice the Spanish skills you have been building over time.
One last point here, even if (and importantly) the conversation is easier in English, you have to start asking to make the switch to Spanish to give yourself the opportunity to improve.
Principle 2. Eye contact / Body language
After our friends had left and the conversation had moved to a one-on-one, I gave my new friend my full attention.
This meant I faced my body towards her and offered my best level of eye contact.
Body language and eye contact are huge skill fundamentals in interpersonal communication.
What I have learnt is that this is even more important when you are speaking in a second language.
In a recent podcast episode on the topic of body language, I told the story of a friend that instructed me to look him in the eyes when I was speaking Spanish.
He said it didn’t matter how low my levels of confidence or skill were if I communicated with my body and my eyes he understood me better.
When you are feeling low on confidence, the last thing you may feel like doing is pushing your shoulders back, sticking your head up and looking the person you are speaking with directly in their eyes. Especially if the language you are using is short, broken sentences that barely resemble the way the language should be spoken.
But, if you do, you may find that you are better understood, even without any development in your use Spanish vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation.
Principle 3. Make it all about them
When I was young, I got taught a fundamental lesson about people that has stuck with me and I have used my whole life.
It’s more important to be interested than interesting.
This advice has served me well so far and it certainly served me well at this party.
One of the first things I wanted to ask my friend was about life in her country.
I asked what city she grew up in (Bogotá). I asked about life there (it was great). I asked what she studied at university (Inorganic Chemistry). I asked about the economy and job opportunities (partly why she is in Australia, but will return home if a good opportunity arises).
I learnt so much about Colombia. And I think I have made a friend that I will have no trouble reconnecting with at the next social opportunity.
The theory here is that everyone’s favourite subject is themselves and what they are interested in.
You, therefore, want to take this as an opportunity to improve your conversations by allowing someone to talk about themselves.
All you have to do is ask the questions and then see where the conversation goes.
You can even prepare a set of questions in Spanish along these lines ahead of time.
Principle 4. Show a genuine interest
The fourth principle of improving conversation skills is showing a genuine interest.
In the previous principle, you learnt that you need to shine a spotlight on your conversation partner. But, what if the topics or information they are sharing with you are out-and-out boring?
Here, it’s your job to find the aspects of their story that are interesting to you.
When my friend was telling me about life in Bogotá, it seemed that some aspects of life there were almost exactly the same as here. At least, I thought that was the picture she was painting.
I asked if Bogotá is a dangerous place to live. I had heard that it was, I was fascinated to see if a local saw it that way.
She told me that her whole life, she had never got into any serious trouble. She had needed to follow sensible rules that meant not going out late at night on her own or walking into bad neighbourhoods but this meant she had almost no stories to share.
She did have one, however, that involved two men on a bicycle that jumped her and her boyfriend in the middle of the day to steal everything they had on them. She screamed and so did he. They both kicked and shoved the guys and ran. A number of locals heard the cries and came to their aid. In the end, they didn’t lose their possessions. The police came but the guys on the bikes got away.
I was hanging on every word.
It is difficult to fake interest. And it is no good asking for someone’s life stories and then yawning and losing interest halfway through.
You should practice navigating using principles 3 and 4 in combination by honing in on areas that are about them but of utmost interest to you.
Principle 5. Suspend judgement
The first piece of advice in Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is:
“Never criticise, condemn or complain.”
For me, these three activities all come out of one area of the mind: the judging mind.
Whenever you judge someone or something you allow a chain of thought that could lead to criticising, condemning or complaining.
At one point in the night, our conversation took a strange turn. My friend started telling me about how the people in Colombia feel about brujería (witchcraft). She told me that brujería has a strong root in the indigenous cultures there.
When she was telling me this, I had a choice to make. Do I tell her that I think the topic is stupid and doesn’t fit in with what we know about science or do I suspend any kind of judgement and let her tell me everything she wants to say about the topic?
Hopefully, the choice is obvious.
When you are practising social skills, the main goal is to allow conversations to grow and move in any direction. Whenever there is an aguafiestas (wet blanket or killjoy) on what someone is saying that person will likely go into their shell.
It’s your goal to make sure this doesn’t happen. Avoid sharing any initial reaction that may involve some sort of judgement and instead let your default position be “wow, where is this going next?”
Principle 6. Avoid one-word answers
Eventually, if you have done a good job of following the previous 5 principles, the topic of discussion is going to turn to you.
At some stage in the conversation, I was asked about where I grew up.
I could have easily just given the name of the town I grew up in and minimal description of where it was. But this would leave my conversation partner with nowhere to turn next.
This last principle is about allowing a conversation to grow around you. If you give only small portions of information about yourself you’ll leave your conversation partner at odds of knowing what to ask next or how to comment.
One word and short answers often lead to the situation I was talking about at the start of the post—an awkward silence.
So, where you can, elaborate or provide tidbits of information that will allow your partner a bunch of opportunities to expand the conversation in different directions.
What I did instead was a give a brief run-through of my town. There are 20,000 people that live there. My parents were both teachers in the local high schools there. Yes, my mum was my teacher in year 10. I failed French in year 9 and thought languages weren’t for me. I was in the local swim team there and I used to get up a 5 am to train.
Here, I have now given lots of different areas that my friend could explore. And as a reverse of principle 4, my conversation partner can now choose a topic of conversation that most interests her.
Of course, you can probably guess the area she went for. The topic we had in common—the challenges of language learning.
Just like vocabulary and grammar, social skills can be practised and improved.
What’s more, you don’t even have to be speaking in Spanish to practise the ideas in this post.
I suggest you try a few of these principles out at your next social gathering in English. See if you can make a conversation all about someone else. Then find the aspects of their story that most interest you.
These techniques may not come as easy at first but if you practise them often enough, over time they will start to feel and become natural.
What other techniques have you used to improve your conversation skills?