Shutting up with style means you can’t just shut up. You have to shut up in a way that gets other people talking to you. The more they talk, the more—usually—they reveal. You have to shut up in a way that gets people to tell you what you want to know.
Certain conversation “tricks”—I hate that word, but it’s convenient—can keep a conversation going. You undoubtedly use several of them already, probably unconsciously.
First are the mirror phrases. You use these to signal that you’re going to restate what the subject has told you, either to clarify it or to indicate that you understand it and are taking it seriously. Here are a few:
“So, is this what you mean?”
“Are you telling me . . .?”
“Are you saying . . .?”
“Let me see if I understand this . . .”
Notice how they tend to start with questions? The questions make the statements seem less threatening: Maybe I got this wrong, and here’s a good chance for you to correct me.
Mirroring important points not only helps get them straight, it helps objectify them: If we’re both saying it, it’s something that exists outside us.
Out there we can work on it, fix it, put a little wax on it and get a nice shine to it.
Another technique to keep a conversation going is simply to be quiet for a while. Newspaper reporters and police investigators are taught that most people don’t like a long pause or silence in a conversation. It’s like the saying about nature and a vacuum—something has to rush in to fill it, even if it’s only hot air.
And while we’re on the subject of pauses, stopping mid-sentence while you’re talking helps to emphasize that what follows is important. And for some reason I’ve never entirely figured out, it makes the other person think that you’re actually trying to figure out what to say. Like it’s important.
So . . .
You can use a pause. . . .
Even a sentence break—
To emphasize something. Even to seem . . . more intelligent.
Whether that’s justified or not, I leave you to say.