Even great conversation topics can lead into dark alleys when you're talking to a grump. Nobody likes to talk to a whiny, crabby person. But sometimes you gotta. Maybe you feel obligated. Maybe she’s your mother or your monster-in-law. Chin up! You can dump that urge to smash the phone to smithereens. A handful of great conversation topics can turn a whine-fest into a winning conversation, one you both can enjoy.

My favorite crabby person isn’t my mom. It’s her best friend from small-kid time. Ruth links me to Mom, who passed on years ago. I feel a connection, and I love hearing stories about their school days and summer days. Ruth’s the only one who remembers the day my mom crashed her bike into a tree.

But these treasured conversation topics are a chore to squeeze out of Ruth. Oh, she has all her marbles, but she uses them to complain. So when I call, she blasts me with the same old conversation topics: her blindness, lousy food at the nursing home, her daughter who doesn’t visit enough, and .… You get the picture.

We live five thousand miles apart, talk about once a month, and THIS is how she wants to use our time? Apparently. But it’s not what I want to hear. And it makes me not want to call. Can you relate?

Strategy #1: Use The Big River Conversation Skill

A conversation is like a river. Great conversation has an easy flow to it; it’s not a flood that drowns you in words or smothers you in misery. Use this flow to your advantage. I call this The Big River Conversation Skill. Another name for it is bridging. Here’s how it goes:

First of all, don’t fight the Big River because fighting will tire you out. In other words, don’t change the conversation topic (although that works sometimes). Go with the flow. That means you keep the topic going. If the whining is about food, keep talking about food. But redirect the conversation into a different, more pleasant, channel.

Here’s what happened with Ruth:

Ruth: “The food here has no seasoning at all. It’s mushy, too. I don’t know where they got the cook. Probably off the street.”

Me: “Oh, I don’t like meals like that either.” [Notice that I didn't argue with her or disagree.] “I love food that’s well spiced. I don’t know what I like better—Mexican, Italian, or Thai. What about you? What kind of ethnic food do you like, Ruth?”

Ruth: “The first ethnic food I ever had was egg fu yung and egg rolls. It’s pretty good, so I guess I’d say Chinese.”

I’m thinking, “Hooray. We’re out of the big river of crabby words.”

It wasn’t a good open-ended conversation starter that she could get her false teeth into, but it was good enough to distract her from carping about the cook and his mush. The flow of conversation topics drifted happily on and on (with a little guidance from my side). We talked about unforgettable restaurant experiences and our favorite dishes.

You could ask for cooking tips. Or use this question from my e-book of conversation questions, “Do You Squeeze the Toothpaste in the Middle? Playful Questions for Dates and Mates":

“Pretend that you get to eat only one food for the rest of your life. Whatever you choose will contain all the nutrients you need. What food is least likely to bore you to an early death? How many ways would you prepare it?”

Here’s another great conversation topic from my e-book: kitchen disasters. I said, “Ruth, did I tell you about the time I turned toasted bagels into flaming charcoal briquettes?” She laughed.

Strategy #2: Plan Great Conversation Topics in Advance

Before you dial that crabby, whiny number, think! What do you usually talk about (or just put up with)? Write down some great conversation topics you can jump into. Be patient. It might take some practice.

Strategy #3: Reinforce the Behavior You Like

Humans respond to behavior reinforcement, just as dogs do. Just be consistent. When you successfully change the conversation, by all means say, “I just love hearing about …” [whatever it was—her school days, her wisdom, etc.]. Reinforce the conversation topics you like, and you’re likely to get more of them. If your talk buddy is in the room with you, reward her with a big smile or even chocolate.

When there's a lull in the conversation, you'll always know what to say. Download your free copy of “15 Sure-Fire Conversation Questions for Dates, Parties, and Hanging Out With Friends.” You’ll also get my newsletter with useful conversation tips, humor, and anecdotes.

Author's Bio: 

Go to http://queenofconversation.com/15-sure-fire-conversation-questions-for-d...

Tracey E. Bennett is the author of "Do You Squeeze the Toothpaste in the Middle? Playful Questions for Dates & Mates," available at http://QueenOfConversation.com