The difference can be dramatic. Various dictionaries define a conversationalist as someone who “enjoys talking,” “likes interacting with people,” and “talks about amusing things.”
For those of us who’ve studied communication as part of our life’s work, we’d add to those definitions some other qualifiers: Someone who listens more than they talk and draws out interesting things about other people through dialogue.
Yet even with that expanded definition, we still haven’t captured the essence of a great communicator. Those characteristics mark the difference between one who can carry on an engaging conversation versus someone who can communicate a specific message and produce the desired outcome.
Connor, the conversationalist, typically has no big “goal” in a conversation other than simply engaging another person to connect. The topics they talk about really don’t matter all that much as long as both parties stay interested in continuing the conversation. The exchange simply allows them to get to know each other and maybe discover a little random information along the way.
Katie, the communicator, typically has a purpose for engagement: to send a message that informs, inspires, or motivates the other person to believe a certain way, change something, or do something. Of course, like Connor, Katie will need to “connect” first before she can communicate—but her goal is more specific.
Connor’s conversation will likely fade from memory, leaving only a feeling of warmth or coolness. If she communicates successfully, Katie’s interaction or message can have a profound impact on the other person, on an organization, or on an entire society. The impact is determined only by the importance of the message.
People like Connor can turn a conversation “on” or “off.” Although they may feel sick, sad, or just serious, they can flip the switch and engage in a lighthearted conversation with someone by moving into listening mode. By pulling a few stand-by questions out of their tool kit, they can solicit intriguing tidbits from the other person and have them leave the conversation feeling amused and entertained. Never mind that Connor’s heart never entered the room.
But Katie engages on both an emotional and intellectual level when she communicates with a goal. If she has a tough message, she delivers it directly, clearly, and compassionately. Her goal is neither to entertain, nor to be liked, but to produce a specific outcome. If she entertains or is liked, well and good. But the outcome is her measure of success.
Conversationalist Connor typically has an air of pride because his skills are easily on display. People respond to his comments. They smile at his stories. They answer his questions. They listen to his musings. They follow his facilitating.
As a strong communicator, Katie has a sense of intellectual humility. She understands how complex the human spirit is and how difficult it is for new information to overcome biases. So she never considers her communication successful until she sees concrete action. She’s always sharpening her ax, trying to learn better ways to break through barriers, fine-tune language, and understand reactions.
Conversationalists keep people talking. Communicators often stop people in their tracks. On occasion, you need to do both.
Discover more ways to enhance your communication skills in What More Can I Say: Why Communication Fails and What to Do About It. To learn more, click here.