Everyday (but Sometimes Difficult) Conversations


Conversation is something we engage in everyday, often without thinking about the process itself. Yet, there are conversations that may create difficulty, apprehension, and an uncertainty about how to proceed. Here are a few such conversational situations: small talk, making introductions, giving and receiving compliments, giving and receiving advice, making excuses, and offering apologies. What follows is a brief discussion of each of these conversational situations, some suggestions for making them go more smoothly and effectively, and brief exercises to practice the skills. As such it can easily be used as a unit in a course in Interpersonal Communication [or Introduction to Communication] and in fact much of this comes from my Interpersonal Messages, Interpersonal Communication Book, and 50 Communication Strategies books.


Small Talk

Small talk is pervasive; all of us engage in small talk. Sometimes, we use small talk as a preface to big talk. For example, before a conference with your boss or even an employment interview, you’re likely to engage in some preliminary small talk. How are you doing? I’m pleased this weather has finally cleared up. That’s a great-looking jacket. The purpose with much of this face-to-face small talk is to ease into the major topic or the big talk. On Facebook and Twitter, however, small talk may actually be an end in itself—simply a way of letting your “friends” know that you went to the movies last night and not necessarily to get into an extended discussion of the movie.

Sometimes, small talk is a politeness strategy and a bit more extensive way of saying hello as you pass someone in the hallway or a neighbor you meet at the post office. And so you might say, “Good seeing you, Jack. You’re ready for the big meeting?” or “See you in geology at 1.”

Sometimes your relationship with another person revolves totally around small talk, perhaps with your barber or hair dresser, a colleague at work, your next-door neighbor, or a student you sit next to in class. In these relationships, neither person makes an effort to deepen the relationship, and it remains a small-talk relationship.

Although “small,” this talk still requires the application of interpersonal communication skills.

·        Keep it noncontroversial. Small talk is not the place for deep religious or political discussions.

·        Be positive. No one likes a negative doomsayer.

·        Talk about noncontroversial topics; if there are wide differences of opinion on a topic, it’s probably not appropriate for small talk   

·         Be sensitive to leave-taking cues. Small talk is necessarily brief, but at times one person may want it to be a preliminary to the big talk and another person may see it as the sum of the interaction.

·        Talk in short sequences; dialogue, don’t monologue. Keep it brief.

·        Stress similarities rather than differences; this is a good way to ensure that this small talk is noncontroversial.

·        Answer questions with enough elaboration to give the other person information that can then be used to interact with you. Let’s say someone sees a book you’re carrying and says, “I see you’re taking interpersonal communication.” If you say simply “yes,” you’ve not given the other person anything to talk with you about. Instead, if you say, “Yes, it’s a great course; I think I’m going to major in communication,” then you have given the other person information that can be addressed. Of course, if you do not want to interact, then a simple one-word response will help you achieve your goal.



Here are a few occasions for small talk. What do you say (if anything)?

1.      You’re on a cross-continental flight and feel it would be nice to talk with the person you’ll be sitting next to for the next five hours.

2.      You’re on the elevator with someone who works for the same company but with whom you’ve never talked.

3.      You arrive early for class and three other students are in the room. No one is talking. 

4.      You’re in a coffee shop where people sit at long communal tables and stare at their smart phones and tablets.

5.      You’re on line at a supermarket and the cashier’s computer goes down; it will be a three or four minute wait.


Making Introductions

One of the interpersonal communication situations that often creates difficulties is the introduction of one person to another person. Let’s say you’re with Jack and bump into Jill who stops to talk. Because they don’t know each other, it’s your job to introduce them. Generally, it’s best to do this simply but with enough detail to provide a context for further interaction. It might go something like this: “Jill Williams, this is Jack Smith, who works with me at ABC as marketing manager. I went to college with Jill and, if I’m not mistaken, she has just returned from Hawaii.”

With this introduction, Jack and Jill can say something to each other based on the information provided in this brief (32-word) introduction. They can talk about working at ABC, what it’s like being a marketing manager, what Jill majored in, what Hawaii is like, what Jill did in Hawaii, and on and on. If you simply said: “Jack this is Jill; Jill, Jack,” there would be virtually nothing for Jack and Jill to talk about.

Here are a few suggestions for making introductions:

·        Introduce the lower ranked person to the higher ranked person. Introduce the private to the general. But, use the higher rank person’s name first, for example, General Smith I like to introduce Private Williams.

·        Introduce the man to the woman. Introduce Joe to Mary, for example, Mary, this is Joe.

·        Defer to rank. In cases where rank and gender conflict, rank wins out; introduce Mary, the intern, to Joe, the supervisor, for example, Joe, this is Mary

·        Shake. Introductions are often accompanied by the firm three-pump handshake, though there are wide cultural differences here.


Here are a few situations where introductions seem to be called for. What do you say?

1.      You’re with someone and meet a friend. You don’t want to reveal your relationship with the person you’re with.

2.      You need to make an introduction but forgot the person’s name.

3.      You’re introducing Professor Smart (your Biology professor) and your sister, a first year student.

4.      You’re in a restaurant with a new date and your parents come in.

5.      Your neighbors see you come out of the “wrong” place with the “wrong” person and stop to say hello.



A compliment is a message of praise, flattery, or congratulations. It’s the opposite of criticism, insult, or complaint. It can be expressed in face-to-face interaction or on social media sites when, for example, you retweet someone’s post or indicate “like” or “+1” or when you comment on a blog post. The compliment functions as a kind of interpersonal glue; it’s a way of relating to another person with positiveness and immediacy. It’s also a conversation starter, “I like your watch; it looks very sophisticated.” In online communication—when you poke, tag, +1, or retweet, for example—it’s a reminder that you’re thinking of someone (and, therefore, being complimentary). Another purpose the compliment serves is to encourage the other person to compliment you—even if not immediately (which often seems inappropriate).

A backhanded compliment, on the other hand, is really not a compliment at all; it’s usually an insult masquerading as a compliment. For example, you might give a backhanded compliment if you say “That red sweater really takes away from your pale complexion; it makes you look less washed out” (it compliments the color of the sweater but criticizes the person’s complexion) or “Looks like you’ve finally lost a few pounds, am I right?” (it compliments the slimmer appearance but points out the person’s being overweight).

Yet compliments are sometimes difficult to express and even more difficult to respond to without discomfort or embarrassment. Fortunately, there are easy-to-follow guidelines.

Here are a few suggestions for giving compliments.

<  Be real and honest. Say what you mean, and omit giving compliments you don’t believe in. They’ll likely sound insincere and won’t serve any useful purpose.

<  Compliment in moderation. A compliment that is too extreme (say, for example, “that’s the best decorated apartment I’ve ever seen in my life”) may be viewed as dishonest. Similarly, don’t compliment at every possible occasion; if you do, your compliments will seem too easy to win and not really meaningful.

<  Be totally complimentary. Avoid qualifying your compliments. If you hear yourself giving a compliment and then adding a “but” or a “however,” be careful; you’re likely going to qualify your compliment. Unfortunately, in such situations, many people will remember the qualification rather than the compliment, and the entire compliment + qualification will appear as a criticism.

<  Be specific. Direct your compliment at something specific rather than something general. Instead of saying something general, such as I like your design, you might say something more specific, such as I like your design; the colors and fonts are perfect.

<  Be personal in your own feelings. For example, say Your song really moved me; it made me recall so many good times. At the same time, avoid any compliment that can be misinterpreted as overly sexual.

In receiving a compliment, people generally take either one of two options: denial or acceptance. Many people resist the compliment in an attempt to appear modest and to avoid any indicating of bragging. And so they might deny it (“It’s nice of you to say, but I know I was terrible”), minimize it (“It isn’t like I wrote the great American novel; it was just an article that no one will read”), change the subject (“So, where should we go for dinner?”), or say nothing. And although the motivation may have been an honest modesty, each of these responses can create problems. When you deny the legitimacy of the compliment, you’re may be interpreted as saying that the person isn’t being sincere or doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. When you minimize it, you might be perceived as saying, in effect, that the person doesn’t understand what you’ve done or what he or she is complimenting. When you change the subject or say nothing, again, you may be thought to be saying, in effect, that the compliment isn’t having any effect; you’re ignoring it because it isn’t meaningful.

Accepting the compliment seems the much better alternative. An acceptance might consist simply of (1) a smile with eye contact—avoid looking at the floor; (2) a simple “thank you,” and, if appropriate, (3) a personal reflection where you explain (very briefly) the meaning of the compliment and why it’s important to you (for example, “I really appreciate your comments; I worked really hard on that design, and it’s great to hear it helped close the deal”). Depending on your relationship with the person, you might use his or her name; people like to hear their names spoken and doubly so when it’s associated with a compliment.



How would you express a compliment in each of these situations? How would you respond to the compliment you just gave someone else if the compliment was addressed to you?

1.      Your colleague helped you research information you used in your report.

2.      Your blind date shows up and is a lot more than you ever expected.

3.      You had a great dinner at a colleague’s home.

4.      Your friend just lost weight and looks great.

5.      Your friend just got accepted into law school.




Advice is the process of giving another person a suggestion for thinking or behaving, usually to change his or her thinking or ways of behaving. The popularity of the “Dear Abby” type of columns in print and in online newspapers and magazines and the many websites that offer advice on just about everything attests to our concern with seeking advice.

In many ways, you can look at advice giving as a suggestion to solve a problem. So, for example, you might advise friends to change their ways of looking at broken love affairs or their financial situations or their career paths. Or you might advise someone to do something, to behave in a certain way, for example, to start dating again or to invest in certain stocks or to go back to school and take certain courses.

Notice that you can give advice in at least two ways. You can give specific advice or you can give advice about advice (or what we might call meta-advice). Thus, you can give advice to a person that addresses the problem or issue directly—buy that condo, take this course, or vacation in Hawaii. But you can also give advice about advice. For example, you might suggest that the individual explore additional options and choices. So, when confronted with a request for advice, this meta-advice would focus on helping the person explore the available options. For example, if a friend asks what he or she should do about never having a date, you might give meta-advice and help your friend explore the available options and the advantages and disadvantages (the rewards and the costs) of each. Another type of meta-advice is to suggest the individual seek expert advice. If confronted with a request for advice concerning some technical issue in which you have no competence, the best advice is often meta-advice, in this case, to seek advice from someone who is an expert in the field. When a friend asks what to do about a persistent cough, the best advice seems to be the meta-advice to “talk to your doctor.” Still another form of meta-advice is to suggest that the decision be delayed (assuming that it doesn’t have to be made immediately). So, for example, if your advice-seeking friend has two weeks to decide on whether to take a job with XYZ Company, meta-advice might suggest that the decision be delayed while the company is researched more thoroughly.

In addition to the suggestions for giving meta-advice, here are some suggestions for giving more specific advice:

<  Listen. This is the first rule for advice giving. Listen to the person’s thoughts and feelings. Listen to what the person wants—the person may actually want support and active listening and not advice. Or the person may simply want to vent in the presence of a friend.

<  Empathize. Try to feel what the other person is feeling. Perhaps you might recall similar situations you were in or similar emotions you experienced. Think about the importance of the issue to the person, and, in general, try to put yourself into the position, the circumstance, or the context of the person asking your advice.

<  Be tentative. If you give advice, give it with the qualifications it requires. The advice seeker has a right to know how sure (or unsure) you are of the advice or what evidence (or lack of evidence) you have that the advice will work.

<  Ensure understanding. Often people seeking advice are emotionally upset and may not remember everything in the conversation. So seek feedback after giving advice, for example, “Does that make sense?” “Is my suggestion workable?”

<  Keep the interaction confidential. Often advice seeking is directed at very personal matters, so it’s best to keep such conversations confidential, even if you’re not asked to do so.

<  Avoid should statements. People seeking advice still have to make their own decisions rather than being told what they should or should not do. So it’s better to say, for example, “You might do X” or “You could do Y” rather than “You should do Z.” Don’t demand—or even imply—that the person has to follow your advice. This attacks the person’s negative face, the person’s need for autonomy.

Responding appropriately to advice is an often difficult process. Here are just a few suggestions for making receiving advice more effective.

<  Accept the advice. If you asked for the advice, then accept what the person says. You don’t have to follow the advice; you just have to listen to it and process it.

<  Avoid negative responses. And even if you didn’t ask for advice (and don’t like it), resist the temptation to retaliate or criticize the advice giver. Instead of responding with “Well, your hair doesn’t look that great either,” consider if the advice has any merit.

<  Interact with the advice. Talk about it with the advice giver. A process of asking and answering questions is likely to produce added insight into the problem.

<  Express appreciation. Express your appreciation for the advice. It’s often difficult to give advice, so it’s only fair that the advice giver receive some words of appreciation.



What would you say in giving advice in these situations? Assuming you were given the advice you just gave to the other person, how would you respond to the advice?

1.      Your friend who has let himself/herself go in just about everyway possible and asks you why no one asks him/her out.

2.      Your friend is worried about a persistent rash and asks your advice.

3.      A neighbor is considering moving and asks what you think.

4.      A friend’s spouse is cheating and asks you what to do.

5.      Your romantic partner asks for advice on the increasing bouts of depression and anxiety.



 Excuses seem especially in order when you say or are accused of saying something that runs counter to what is expected or considered “right” by the people with whom you’re talking. Ideally, the excuse lessens the negative impact of the message.

The major motive for excuse-making seems to be to maintain your self-esteem, to project a positive self-image to yourself and to others. Excuses also represent an effort to reduce stress: You may feel that if you can offer an excuse—especially a good one that is accepted by those around you—it will reduce the negative reaction and the subsequent stress that accompanies a poor performance.

Excuses also may enable you to maintain effective interpersonal relationships even after some negative behavior. For example, after criticizing a friend’s behavior and observing the negative reaction to your criticism, you might offer an excuse such as, “Please forgive me; I’m really exhausted. I’m just not thinking straight.” Excuses enable you to place your messages—even your possible failures—in a more favorable light.


Types of Excuses.Different researchers have classified excuses into varied categories. One of the best typologies is offered by Snyder, Higgins, and Stucky in their Excuses: Masquerades in Search of Grace:

I didn’t do it: Here you deny that you have done what you’re being accused of. You may then bring up an alibi to prove you couldn’t have done it or perhaps you may accuse another person of doing what you’re being blamed for (“I never said that” or “I wasn’t even near the place when it happened”). These “I didn’t do it” types are generally the worst excuses (unless they’re true), because they fail to acknowledge responsibility and offer no assurance that this failure will not happen again.

It wasn’t so bad: Here you admit to doing it but claim the offense was not really so bad or perhaps that there was justification for the behavior (“I only padded the expense account by a few bucks”).

Yes, but: Here you claim that extenuating circumstances accounted for the behavior; for example, that you weren’t in control of yourself at the time or that you didn’t intend to do what you did (“I never intended to hurt him; I was actually trying to help”).


Good and Bad Excuses.The most important question for most people is what makes a good excuse and what makes a bad excuse (Dunn & Cody, 2000; Slade, 1995; Snyder, 1984). How can you make good excuses and thus get out of problems, and how can you avoid bad excuses that only make matters worse?

What makes one excuse effective and another ineffective will vary from one culture to another and will depend on factors already discussed, such as the culture’s individualism–collectivism, its power distance, the values it places on assertiveness, and various other cultural tendencies (Tata, 2000). But, at least in the United States, researchers seem to agree that in the best excuses in interpersonal communication you do the following (Coleman, 2002; Slade, 1995).

<  Demonstrate understanding. Show that you really understand the problem and that your partner’s feelings are legitimate and justified. Avoid minimizing the issue or your partner’s feelings (“It was only $100; you’re overreacting,” “I was only two hours late”).

<  Acknowledge your responsibility. If you did something wrong, avoid qualifying your responsibility (“I’m sorry if I did anything wrong”) or expressing a lack of sincerity (“Okay, I’m sorry; it’s obviously my fault—again”). On the other hand, if you can demonstrate that you had no control over what happened and therefore cannot be held responsible, your excuse is likely to be highly persuasive.

<  Acknowledge your own displeasure. Make it clear that you aren’t happy with your behavior, with what you did or say.

<  Promise that this won’t happen again. Make it clear, to the other person’s satisfaction, that your misdeed will never happen again.



Mistakes and missteps are inevitable; hence, so are excuses. In framing an excuse you might want to consider such questions as these: how important was your transgression? How important is the person you’ll make the excuse to? Where and through what channel will you express the excuse?

1.      Your report for a scheduled meeting will be two days late.

2.      You expressed especially harsh criticism and the person is crying in response.

3.      You lose your temper over a trivial issue.

4.      Normally, you’re an A student but this last paper was really bad. You need to maintain your good reputation with your instructor.

5.      You make a remark that some people—you can tell from their expressions—take as racially offensive.



Despite your best efforts, there are times when you’ll say or do the wrong thing and an apology may be necessary. An apology is an expression of regret or sorrow for having done what you did or for what happened; it’s a statement that you’re sorry. And so, the most basic of all apologies is simply: I’m sorry. In popular usage, the apology includes some admission of wrongdoing on the part of the person making the apology. Sometimes the wrongdoing is acknowledged explicitly (I’m sorry I lied) and sometimes only by implication (I’m sorry you’re so upset). In many cases, the apology also includes a request for forgiveness (Please forgive my lateness) and some assurance that this won’t happen again (Please forgive my lateness; it won’t happen again).

An effective apology must be crafted for the specific situation. Effective apologies to a longtime lover, to a parent, or to a new supervisor are likely to be very different because the individuals are different and your relationships are different. And so the first rule of an effective apology is to take into consideration the uniqueness of the situation—the people, the context, the cultural rules, the relationship, the specific wrongdoing—for which you might want to apologize. Each situation will call for a somewhat different message of apology. Nevertheless, we can offer some general recommendations.

<  Admit wrongdoing (if indeed wrongdoing occurred). Accept responsibility. Own your own actions; don’t try to pass them off as the work of someone else. Instead of Smith drives so slow, it’s a wonder I’m only 30 minutes late, say I should have taken traffic into consideration.

<  Be apologetic. Say (and mean) the words I’m sorry. Don’t justify your behavior by mentioning that everyone does it, for example, Everyone leaves work early on Friday. Don’t justify your behavior by saying that the other person has done something equally wrong: So I play poker; you play the lottery.

<  Be specific. State, in specific rather than general terms, what you’ve done. Instead of I’m sorry for what I did, say I’m sorry for flirting at the party.

<  Empathize. Express understanding of how the other person feels and acknowledge the legitimacy of these feelings, for example, You have every right to be angry; I should have called. Express your regret that this has created a problem for the other person: I’m sorry I made you miss your appointment. Don’t minimize the problem that this may have caused. Avoid such comments as So the figures arrived a little late. What’s the big deal?

<  Give assurance that this will not happen again. Say, quite simply, It won’t happen again or, better and more specifically, I won’t be late again. And, whenever possible, offer to correct the problem: I’m sorry I didn’t clean up the mess I made; I’ll do it now.

<  Avoid excuses. Be careful of including excuses with your apology, for example, I’m sorry the figures are late, but I had so much other work to do. An excuse often takes back the apology and says, in effect, I’m really not sorry because there was good reason for what I did, but I’m saying “I’m sorry” to cover all my bases and to make this uncomfortable situation go away.

<  Choose the appropriate channel. Don’t take the easy way out and apologize through e-mail (unless the wrongdoing was committed in e-mail or if e-mail is your only or main form of communication). Generally, it’s more effective to use a more personal mode of communication—face-to-face or phone, for example. It’s harder, but it’s more effective.



Like excuses, apologies are an inevitable part of relationships—friendships, romantic, and family. In making an apology, consider, for example, How important is the other person to you? How important was your error? Will you have to do something as well as say something?

1.      You posted an unflattering/revealing photo of your friend on your Facebook wall

2.      You revealed a friend’s secret that you had promised to keep confidential

3.      You turned down a date saying you didn’t feel well and later that evening, on a date with another person, you run into the person you told you were ill.

4.      You spilled coffee on a stranger on the bus

5.      Made a remark that was interpreted as racist.



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