Conversation skills learned from traveling with 500 entrepreneurs

21. February 2017



Refuga trips are always a bit intense in the way, that it’s a small group together for a short period in a remote place. It’s a setup we’ve found works best because the group gets to know each other fast, and thereby share more faster.

All groups have their own dynamics. On many trips, we have had people from 10 different countries, people who are spread out in age (we’ve had people age 16-63 join the trips) and of course people who work in very different fields. It’s difficult to define a persona or the typical Refuga participants. It’s much more about mindset, which can be a bit more difficult to explain.

When you put a group of strangers together in a remote place and you have that experience a few times, you start to notice small things about how people interact and what sparks good and deep conversations.

In this post, I want to share a few of the things I’ve noticed about good conversation skills, from my experience with traveling with over 500 entrepreneurs.


Don’t fight back when you asked about feedback

One of the things we do a lot on Refuga trips is to give each other feedback on projects and ideas. On some trips we do it in a facilitated manner and in other trips (like our adventure trips), it’s more casual and part of a conversation. Being with people doing completely different things is a great opportunity to get some valuable feedback and insights, that otherwise would have been difficult to get.

It’s a bit of a cliche, but the quote “everybody wants change, but nobody wants to change”, is kind of true. It’s very normal that people ask for feedback, but when they get it they quickly react with why that specific advice is good, but not possible to execute.

To be fair, getting feedback is difficult. You know your business the best and here you get advice, where you think that in theory, it’s a good idea, but you know how difficult it will be to actually do it.

The challenge is, that responding to feedback limits the feedback and even more importantly the openness and quality of the feedback. What we try to encourage people to do, is that when they get feedback, you should present your challenge and then just note ALL the feedback you can. Saying no is a no-go. This open ups the feedback much more and people starting digging deeper. You might not be able to use big parts of it in reality, but this is what is needed to get really deep. Spend the time noting the feedback instead of finding reasons why a specific advice is not possible.


Your tone and body language is the biggest part of your communication

One thing is what you say, another thing is how you say it. Your tone and body language is a very big part of how good a conversation will get. Saying the exactly same words, your body language and tone can make the person you’re talking to feel very different.

It’s an important thing to just be aware of because often it’s something we don’t give that much thought and it can limit the quality of our conversations. Sometimes, something that’s just natural for a person, like having the arms over cross, can send a wrong signal.

Having an open body language, keeping eye contact and changing your tone during conversations are all things that can improve a conversation. It will be more obvious that you’re interested. Of course, this is not a tool to act interested, but something you can use, to be better at showing that you’re actually interested.

If it’s more obvious that you’re interested, the other person will feel more comfortable, probably like you more and share more with you.

Research shows that we humans like people who we think are like our self. You can use your tone and body language to follow the vibe of the person you’re talking with to and use the same tone and body language and the other person will be more likely to like you and open up to you.


Don’t practice persuasion and techniques too much

As mentioned above my suggestion is that you use it to improve your conversations, not to fake your interest. This leads to my next point.

There are so many self-help books out there trying to learn you have to persuade and get what you want when communicating with other people. While it’s great to try to improve and get better, it can get to obvious that you’re using different methods and strategies. If it’s too extreme, it’s obvious that you’re not sincere and honest, but just trained.

Having real, deep and meaningful conversations are much more likely to happen if you have practiced how to have good conversations and are naturally interested.


When you disagree, don’t change the energy of the conversation

Many good conversations, where you learn something is based on some kind of disagreement or at least different point of views. Having such a conversation is a great opportunity to learn.

Often in a conversation where the other part comes with an argument you don’t agree on, it’s very easy to cross your arms and say “No, I really don’t believe that!”. Changing the tone and body language when you have some kind of disagreement / different opinions changed the energy of the conversation and is likely to lock the debate. The result will be that no one really learns anything.

Instead, try to follow the energy and ask about deeper arguments in an interested, open tone. This makes the discussion much more positive and creates a good vibe, where different opinion is a good thing.


Broad interests helps you have better conversations

In my own humble opinion, we have some pretty interesting participants. Our participants are always pretty proactive and interested in a variety of things. One thing I’ve noticed, and this is maybe a simple thing, is that people with broad interests normally have way, way deeper conversations.

If you’re good at doing business, but that’s your whole life and your only interest, then that limits the topics where you can have a good conversation.

Not just talking about one topic with someone, makes your connection even deeper and can expand a relation to another person from just professional to also personal.

I think this is a trade you see in many entrepreneurs actually. Entrepreneurs are often very curious and interested in a lot of stuff. That’s where their ideas come from. When talking about broad interests, it can be anything. I’m not meaning that you have a hobby where you’re an expert, but if you’re in general just interested in different things, what happens around you, the world and maybe most important; just learning new stuff, then it will be much easier for you to start conversations with someone else and make those conversations good.


There is always something you have in common and that can be where the conversation starts

It’s very easy to think you don’t have anything in common with someone else and then not get involved in a conversation. It’s pretty normal to consider if starting a conversation – or for that sake, starting a relation – is worth it or not – because you’re thinking that you don’t have anything in common anyway.

In my experience the vast majority of people have things in common, that could create the foundation for some kind of relation. Often when you feel you don’t have anything in common, it’s just because you haven’t dug deep enough.

It’s a bit of a cliche, but talking about the weather is a great example. It’s something that’s so easy to use as a conversation starter because we’re all experiencing it. There is nothing wrong with talking about the weather, just use as a subject to kick off a conversation that can lead anywhere.


Ask for advice or insights – It’s a great conversation starter

Everyone likes to be considered as knowledgeable and as someone people would like advice from. Asking for advice is also a great conversation starter, and it’s something where you start off by actually giving credit to the other person, which can set the tone for the rest of the conversation.

We see this quite a lot on our trips. It’s natural that you haven’t talked with all the other participants in the first day or two, but you know everyone from the presentations etc. Starting a conversation is very easy if you ask about advice or insights. If you know a person knows something about a specific area, you can ask about that or it can be asking about insights into his or hers life, country, and work.

The above both shows respect and in interest in the other person and that’s a great way to start a conversation.


The 30-day conversation challenge

Being able to have great conversations is an art form and something you can practice. It’s something we take for given, but just being aware of trying to start and have great conversations will lead you to better conversations, meeting more people and create better relationships.

But how do you train to be a better conversationalist? Well, one fun idea could be to do a 30-day conversation challenge where you have to have a conversation with a stranger every day for 30 days. Not just hi and goodbye, but an actual conversation over some minutes.

This will both challenge you to find people to have conversations with, improve how you start a conversation and lead to you being better at asking, listening and having a conversation.

The great part here is that you will be forced to kickstart a conversation and that will slowly make it easier for you. It will become natural to talk to strangers. For some, this challenge will be easy because it’s already natural for you, but for most, it’s really difficult.

I’ve struggled with this challenge myself and have yet to reach 30 days straight. It’s not easy, but an excellent way of learning! My experience is that for me at least, it’s very difficult to start conversations with complete strangers, so I’ve started out with the most natural situations, like talking with Uber drivers.

I hope you can use some of these pointers to create better conversations yourself. Let’s finish up with a quote, that actually says it all very precisely:

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you. Which is just another way of saying that the way to make a friend is to be one.”

This post was sponsored by our friends at Åderbråcksklinikerna.