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Emotional Intelligence and the Gentle Art of Conversation

Susan Dunn -- Dinner-table conversation is not a time to complain, rage, or stress others. It’s a time to keep those things to yourself, and find pleasant things to talk about in a pleasant tone of voice.

Having just returned from a cruise, where I was seated nightly with a table of 10 strangers, I was reminded of the many definitions of “emotional intelligence.”

When I ask laypeople what EQ means, they respond “common sense,” or “manners,” or “knowing how to get along.” These are good definitions. And nowhere is this more evident than in the gentle art of dinner-table conversation.

What are the rules?

They used to be -- nothing controversial. This included religion, sex, money, and politics. How far we have strayed from this. It was also inferred that nothing unpleasant should be discussed: problems with the in-laws, unemployment, incest...need I go on?

What does this leave?

Let’s use this quote from Samuel Johnson, a writer back in the times when men of letters spoke on matters of decorum:

“That is the happiest conversation where there is no competition, no vanity, but a calm, quiet interchange of sentiments.”

Dinner-table conversation is not a time to complain, rage, or stress others. It’s a time to keep those things to yourself, and find pleasant things to talk about in a pleasant tone of voice. Yes, it takes discipline. It requires Intentionality, a high-level EQ competency. The intent is to talk about something informative, pleasant, and enlightening. In other words, be “good company.” Can you do that? If not, why not? Think about it.

On a cruise, you would think there would be plenty of pleasant things to talk about, wouldn’t you? Rather, it’s an example that you take your happiness with you. I speak on cruises and have had ample time to sample this theory. Some people spend the whole cruise complaining.


Here are some positive and negative examples that occurred at my dining table on this last cruise. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

-- Madame Winifred, a self-appointed ambassador for the cruise line due to the money she had spent cruising. Overdressed and arrogant, she spent the entire time monopolizing the conversation with vanity comments and being judgmental about staff. We had to simply talk over her, or ignore her and break into one-on-one conversations for relief, as there were no breaks in her monologues.

-- Sally entertained us with tales about teaching preschool and her trip across the US by Amtrak. Also her childhood growing up as the daughter of an ambassador. Could’ve bragged, but didn’t. She spoke a few sentences, and then tipped the conversation someone else’s way -- i.e., “...and so we moved every 2-3 years...what about you, Susan?”

-- Nurse Sherry informed us jovially about her day in Calica dwelling on the negatives with humor. It was her first cruise. She asked the rest of us seasoned cruisers questions which made us all feel important. This is always a plus in a conversation. A talented conversationalist doesn’t monopolize the conversation.

-- Doctor Don probably scored high on the “able to love and be loved” category on the VIA strengths profile. Seated the first night between Winifred and a drunk woman who never returned, he remained cordial and charming. BTW, showing up drunk is not high EQ.

-- Jen, Miss Congeniality, was a pro. When there was silence, she would begin a conversation -- “Well, what did everyone do today?” She would then turn to someone who would speak a little. Then she would ask the next person.

-- Major Drag Donald and his wife Edna added nothing positive to the group. Donald, when he managed to “get the floor” as surely he thought of it, would drone on about something that could’ve been interesting if it weren’t for his style and demeanor. Then his wife would correct him. For instance, Sally started talking about how the rocking of the boat reminded her of earthquakes and the San Andreas Fault. This got MD Donald, an engineer professor, talking about geophysics. We could’ve learned some really great stuff if he’d been talking to us instead of a group of Ph.D. geophysicists or whomever he had in mind, and if he’d cut it short. Then Edna corrected the numbers of the Richter scale with hostility.

-- Kristina listened to Doctor Don asking me about emotional intelligence and interjected by asking Doctor Don, “Are you a Christian?” This is not appropriate over the dinner table. Doctor Don’s response was appropriate: “Kristina, what a charming question. Could you please pass the butter?”

Here are some dinner conversation rules. Learn the rules. When it’s time to break them, your intuition (an EQ competency) will tell you.

1. Avoid controversial subjects.
2. Find something pleasant to talk about in a pleasant tone of voice.
3. Pay attention to nonverbal cues from table mates that you are boring them.
4. Use interpersonal skills to include others. Don’t hog the conversation no matter how charming you think you are.
5. Do your part. It’s up to you to make it a pleasant evening.

6. Save private quarrels with your partner for another time; don’t correct them, make hostile comments, criticize, or ridicule your partner in public.
7. If you’re greatly skilled, gently “control” the flow of the conversation.
8. Don’t be a boring person. When is a person boring? When they’re bored. If you’re bored, why are you? Work on that. (Get a coach!)
9. Have a store of topics at your fingertips when you approach the table. Such topics as movies, books, scenery, travel, celebrities, sports, art, and questions-about-others are always appropriate.
10. Find new ways to ask old questions. Make this a creative exercise for yourself. For instance, “What do you do when you’re not cruising?” will lead to a far more interesting answer than “What’s your job?”

11. Ask open-ended questions, that is, ones that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”.
12. You’ll never fail if you show interest in others. If you’re lucky, you’ll be in a high EQ group where such consideration is shared.
13. Conversation’s like volleyball -- keep it in the air, set up others, don't hog the ball.
14. As Dr. Johnson says, avoid vanity and competition.
15. Spend some time observing talented others.

Susan Dunn, The EQ Coach, Global EQ. Emotional intelligence coaching to enhance all areas of your life -- career, relationships, midlife transition, resilience, self-esteem, parenting. EQ Alive! -- excellent, accelerated, affordable EQ coach certification. Susan is the author of numerous ebooks, is widely published on the Internet, and is a regular speaker for cruise lines. For more details, visit:

© 2008 Susan Dunn

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