Conversation Killers: What Not To Say

What Not To Say: The Conversation Killer

By Gene Griessman, Ph.D.

Gene Griessman

Sometimes it’s not easy to begin a conversation, but what can be even more difficult for many people is keeping the conversation going.  Believe me, doing more  than just asking a lot of questions. Ask the wrong question, and the conversation is over.

One of my friends calls them conversation killers. You may be able to save the conversation with a fast footwork, but why take the risk?

Here are three conversation killers.

Man or woman asks woman: “Do you have any children?”

This could be a sensitive issue. The woman may have tried to have children and failed; she and her husband may have quarreled about whether or when to have children, or she may have lost a child.

A better question might be “Do you have family here in Denver (or Milwaukee, etc.)? That question will usually get you enough information to do a follow-up question and keep the conversation going.

Man or woman to man or woman:  “Where did you go to college?”
He or she may have flunked out, or had to quit for financial reasons, or she may have suspended her schooling to have a baby, or he couldn’t get into his  first-choice school and settled for a technical institute about which he now feels embarrassed.

He may be making more money than the snobbish English Lit major from an Ivy League school, but it’s still a sore point.  You can wait until later in the conversation to see if schooling might be mentioned, but  if it doesn’t come up, don’t bring it up.  Whatever you say to assure them that what they did was OK will sound patronizing.

Man or woman asks single man or woman: “I can’t believe you’re not married. How is that possible?” This question can touch a nerve. The man may have had a painful breakup, losing to someone else.

The woman may have stayed in a non-married relationship for years, and may feel bitter about wasting her youth on a man who didn’t really love her.

The man may have come close to marriage but decided that the relationship shouldn’t become a marriage. There may be sexual-compatibility or sexual-identity issues. In any of these situations, you may stir up painful memories with your question. Just don’t go there even if you mean the question as a compliment.

The best response I ever heard to this question was given me by a stunningly beautiful woman in her mid-50s who volunteered—I did not ask the conversation killer—that whenever people asked her why she had never married, she replied: “I guess I’ve just been lucky.”

From time to time, I will share additional conversation stoppers. In fact, share some of your own with us.

Here’s a good rule to follow to keep a conversation going: do forward-thinking before your speak. This means you may need to pause from time to time, which may not be all that bad.

Pauses give a conversation breathing room, invites the other person to participate, and gives you moments to think before you speak again

Lawyers are taught never to ask a question in court if they don’t know its answer.  That’s a pretty good rule to follow. At least think about what the possible answers might be, and never ask a question if there’s a chance it will annoy, cause pain or awaken unhappy memories.

The Words Lincoln Lived By

“This is a book to cherish and share.”—Bill Marriott, CEO, Marriott International, Inc.

“Not only does Griessman give us Lincoln quotes, but he also weaves each one into a little jewel of an essay on that particular subject.” Wayne C. Temple, renowned Lincoln scholar, Illinois State Archives

A stirring, inspirational treasury of quotations from our greatest and most admired president, the book offers rich material for interpretation, reflection, and spiritual guidance.

You will also enjoy Lincoln Speaks To Leaders by Gene Griessman and Pat Williams.

Don’t leave yet. You’re in a goldmine. Check out the great power phrases and unusual quotations. Why rush off?


Gene Griessman is an internationally known keynote speaker, actor, and communication strategist. His book “TheWords Lincoln Lived By” is in its 23rd printing and “Time Tactics of Very Successful People” is in its 43rd printing. His training video “Lincoln on Communication” is owned by thousands of corporations, libraries, and government organizations. He has spoken at conventions and annual meetings all over the world. To learn more about his presentations, call 404-435-2225. Learn more at Atlanta Speakers Bureau or at his website. His latest book “Lincoln and Obama” has just been released by Audible.
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