NPR Host Terry Gross Offers Advice on Making Better Conversation

Author: Casey Gale       

Terry Gross

Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” says every conversation should start with “Tell me about yourself.” (Photo courtesy WHYY)

While networking receptions at conferences often start off feeling like a great opportunity to engage in enlightening conversations, such discussions often pivot to the event’s ballroom décor and food offerings instead. But networking doesn’t need to be so painful.

In a recent New York Times article, Jolie Kerr caught up with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” who has made a 40-year career out of interviewing people. Gross shared some of her best tips for becoming a better conversationalist. Here are our favorite tidbits:

  • Begin a conversation with four words: “Tell me about yourself.” According to Gross, this seemingly vague question can actually lead to a more stimulating conversation than asking a specific question about a person’s job or family. “The beauty in opening with ‘tell me about yourself’ is that it allows you to start a conversation without the fear that you’re going to inadvertently make someone uncomfortable or self-conscious,” Kerr writes. “Posing a broad question lets people lead you to who they are.”
  • Be curious. While being curious and invested in what the other person is saying may sound like obvious ways to engage in an interesting conversation, Gross stresses their “I can respond to what somebody is saying by expressing if I’m feeling sympathy or empathy, and explaining why,” she tells The Times.
  • Pay attention to body language. In other words, don’t hold someone whose focus has clearly wandered hostage in a conversation. “Try to pick up on when you’ve kind of lost somebody’s attention,” Gross says. This rule goes both ways — Gross says don’t be afraid to cut off a conversation if the other person has lost your “If a person is being insensitive to you, you don’t have a commitment to be beholden to their insensitivity,” Gross says. Disengaging from an unproductive conversation, after all, can mean more time to connect with someone better-suited and less time discussing décor.

Read the full New York Times interview with Terry Gross.