When We Know How To Work a Room®: These are Conversation Killers We Avoid

My audio only book, RoAne’s Rules: How To Make The BEST Impression is what is called in publishing; “evergreen”. That means it stands the tests of time. As a special “sneak preview” or “look back”, here is Chapter 7 on Conversation Killers To Avoid.


‘Bite Your Tongue’ to Avoid These
Conversation Killers:

Making the right impression means saying the right thing. We benefit when we know how to work a room It’s equally important to know how to say it and what not to say. It’s easier to recognize these conversational “don’ts” in others than it is to see them in ourselves. Successful conversationalists, those who make us feel comfortable, don’t engage in these inappropriate behaviors. Let’s look at the “10-to-Shun.”

In my world of business, publishing, speaking, and entrepreneurship, I have heard colleagues wax rhapsodic about consulting contracts, clients, multiple speaking engagements, and book advances. In the telling and retelling, somehow the figures, perks, and benefits are always exponentially increased. They remind me of the rappers – bragging, blasting and blaspheming – with a boom-boxed message: “Mine’s bigger than yours.”
A sales executive told me that competing about money was “the way of the business world. It’s always about money.” Because it’s a measuring stick as well as a topic of conversation, money is a way to compete. Unfortunately, the impression is usually not a positive one. Conversations are neither a competition nor a contest! They are mini-contracts between two or more people to give and take information for a prescribed period of time. These conversation contracts should come with a non-compete clause.

The grammar, syntax, and punctuation police can kill a conversation in mid-sentence. When someone interrupts and corrects us, especially in public, it’s rude. Unless someone has been asked to be our personal “Grammar Guru,” the corrections officers should take a hike.
Whether the grammar police are trying to show off, put others down, or control the direction of the talk, corrections kill conversations.
On the other hand, our command of the English language and its correct usage does make an impression on people. If you’re unsure how proper English is spoken, watch the Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. I used to tell my students to watch the nightly network news but I’m not sure most broadcasters are sufficient role models.

There is an art to asking questions. Like Baby Bear’s porridge in “Goldilocks and The Three Bears,” our tone has to be “just right.” That means not too probing, not too personal, not too aggressive, not too close-ended, not too open-ended, and not too many of them!
Remember, we are talking about conversing, not a game of “Twenty Questions.” When I assailed by a barrage of questions, my defenses go up. I’m immediately suspicious of the grand (or not so grand) inquisitor’s motives. We should only “grill” the entrée or the vegetables ¬– never our conversation partners.
When someone asks a question that’s inappropriate, it’s best to deflect it by turning it around. If it’s too personal say, “Oh, that’s ancient history. I’m far more interested in hearing about your (new job, car, computer, vacation, mountain climbing expedition, sales plan).” Curiosity is a wonderful trait especially in scientific discovery, but in conversations an excess of curiosity is nothing more than prying.
On the other hand, people who only talk about themselves and never ask a question about their conversational partner give the impression: “I’m not interested in you.” Marcie Bannon, a business consultant, advises that a colleague or acquaintance – and especially a friend of several years – should know something about your past and your life. “If they don’t pry a little, maybe they aren’t interested.”
No questions, no answers, no interest – and no real conversation. Balance and sensitivity are the keys to asking questions, and making sure that our questions imply no judgment.
Jeff Slutsky, a super speaker and author, shared his friend’s “Five Minute Rule” for dating. “If I speak to a person who does not, in the first five minutes, ask a question or otherwise express interest in me, I leave.”

Have you have ever attended an event and started to chat with “Mr. or Ms. Sales Pitch?” You know who I mean. Those people are under the mistaken impression they must always give a prepared thirty-second “commercial.” Their elevator pitch shouldn’t even be given in an elevator. No one gets into that small moving box to listen to a verbal ad.
At a business function it’s appropriate to say what you do to in conversation, but the sales pitch is not a conversation.
I met a young man at a Chamber of Commerce mixer. No sooner had I said hello when he enthusiastically began to espouse his product line. I listened, until he did the unpardonable. He asked me, “How would you like to have youthful skin?” Geez! I thought I did! He then claimed he had the “perfect product to help me achieve a youthful look.” Hmmm, let’s see. First he insults me and then he thinks I’m going to buy his product. What he could have said was, “You have beautiful skin and I know of a product that would keep it that way.” I would have been his best customer and unpaid pr person.
The self-promoting commercial or sales pitch should be just that – pitched! Save it for an appropriate format, perhaps a structured networking event where everybody is specifically asked to talk about their wares.

Some people’s entire conversation is an avalanche of jokes: “Did you hear the one about …?”
A client told me about a colleague whose joke repertoire was enormous, catalogued, and committed to memory. When I asked if he were a good conversationalist, she paused and thought a minute. “I just know he is funny. Come to think of it, there’s not much conversation with him. He mostly tells jokes.”
The ability to tell jokes well is a gift. It can be part of conversation, but it can’t replace the give-and-take of real social exchange. If done excessively, joke telling becomes a monologue. That can be a way to control the conversation, and at the same time distance ourselves from genuine involvement and dialogue.
Remember, there is a difference between genuine humor arising out of the topic under discussion and memorized stories.
And then there are the not-very-funny interrupters who HAVE to make a wisecrack in the middle of a serious matter. If you hear someone say, “I was just teasing” or “Can’t you take a joke” or you find yourself wincing at their words, know they are not funny. But they’re good at deflecting. Bottom line: “Conversation is no joking matter.


We’ve all heard the famous last words, “This is for your own good.” It rarely ever is. Spare me the people who ask, “Have you thought about … (losing weight, hiring an virtual assistant, buying az Zoom microphone, working with an etiquette specialist, coloring your hair)?”
Emotionally intelligent conversationalists have honed the skill of giving advice in the right way, at the right time. Feedback, even when expected or mandatory is tricky.
If no one asks our opinion, we should just refrain from giving it. Conversation is not unsolicited advice.

One person’s gossip is another person’s “shared news” – and I admit that sometimes I subscribe to the Alice Roosevelt Longworth school of conversation: “If you have nothing nice to say, sit by me.”
But in truth, sharing information and news is dicey. One must be very careful not to:
• Bad mouth other people.
• Start or pass rumors.
• Pass on negative information, even when it is confirmed as fact.
“Mr. Preston,” an insurance company CEO, told me of a problem with his CFO who decided he should have the CEO’s job. The CFO started a rumor that the CEO was “cooking the books.” This is a serious charge that requires an investigation. “Mr. Preston” learned that this untrue rumor was leaked to members of the board of directors and other senior executives. Ironically, the company had lost money and was scheduled to take a $10 million charge. The CEO’s response demonstrated his humor, “If I were cooking the books, don’t you think I would have done a better job and covered up a $10,000, 000 loss?” The board never suspected for a minute that this rumor was true and they want to sue the former CFO. The upshot is that the rumormonger may never get to be a CFO again. His career was the price he paid for that rumor.
As adults, diminishing others does not demonstrate superiority. It just shows a lack of conversational skill, compounded by a lack of self-confidence and savvy. People who are self-confident and comfortable in their own skin do not put down others to build up themselves.

Some people complain incessantly. It’s all they’re willing to offer or contribute. We all know them. They are best at finding fault.
• The service was terrible.”
• “The car is a lemon.”
• “The elevator is too slow, too crowded, too fast.”
• “The food was too bland, too spicy, too hot, too cold.”
It doesn’t matter what is said to assuage them. “Kvetching” is their conversational “M.O.”
We all have tales of what was not superb about a restaurant, hotel, photo lab, printer, or leasing company. It’s not that we can’t ever mention problems, as long as we limit our complaints and mix them with a healthy dose of curiosity, compliments, information, humor, and support.

If you remember your classic (old) actors, you know that Gary Cooper is dead! “Yup” and “nope” were his best words but they do not a conversation make! Even if we are asked a yes/no question by someone who hasn’t learned about open-ended questions, monosyllabic responses kill conversation.
Because it’s difficult to chat with a person who barely responds, most people won’t bother. This may work as a technique if you want the other person to end the conversation, but it can leave a memorable – a memorably bad – impression.
Monotones, the cousins of monosyllables, can also kill a conversation. The good news is that they, too, can act as sleeping pills encouraging the other person to end the conversation. To keep someone’s interest, we need to vary our pitch, pace, volume, and tone.

Sarcasm may work if used with a light touch in humor, but as a dominant way of conversing it won’t endear us to people or advance our careers.
Sarcastic communication tends to be confusing, and not very pleasant. It always has an edge, and the listener is never sure when or how that edge will be turned in his or her direction. Those listeners may be friends, family, bosses, employees, or colleagues – and there is no point in alienating any of these people.
Sarcasm may have been cool and clever in college, but once we move into the workplace, it’s just plain risky – and a conversation killer.
It’s a good investment of time and energy to examine our own style, with its quirks, to make sure we aren’t committing any of the “Cardinal Conversation Killers.”

While we’ve discussed many of the facets of a good conversation, it’s important to remember that conversation is not:
➢ Competition … about money, deals, “toys,” knowledge, degrees, or anything else
➢ Lies
➢ An interrogation or probe
➢ A sales pitch
➢ A joke … or a barrage of them
➢ Unsolicited advice
➢ Gossip or Rumors
➢ “Dissing” or putdowns
➢ “Kvetching”/complaining
➢ Monosyllabic answers
➢ Sarcasm
If we assess our conversations, avoid these killers, and develop ways to cope with those who commit them, we are well on our way to creating the right impressions in our personal and professional lives.

About Susan RoAne

Susan RoAne leads a double life as a sought-after professional keynote speaker and a bestselling author. Known as The Mingling Maven®, she gives diverse audiences the required tools, techniques and strategies they need to connect and communicate in today’s global business world. The San Francisco Chronicle says she has a “dynamite sense of humor.” To hire Susan to speak for your company, association or college, 1.415.461.3915