How important is it to know how to start a conversation? Do a web search on the topic, ask friends or colleagues, and you will find out that most people have little idea how to do it, and are in fact petrified by the idea, mainly because they don’t want to face the kind of social rejection that is a possibility when trying to start a conversation.
Nonetheless, we are dealing with essential communication skills, ones that have the potential to make the difference in your life, both socially and professionally.
Try to keep in mind how often you have been standoffish in a crowd, how often you have given the false impression that you’re uninterested in getting to know others, until one person dares to approach you and start a conversation. Ten minutes later you can’t shut up, and you have a new friend or two.
We offer the following four steps to help you be that more daring person who will approach others and start a conversation that will continue on its own momentum.
Step 1: Use inviting body language
Body language can be natural, incidental or deliberate, but in any case, it is often the easiest language to read and understand. Before saying anything verbally, you have the opportunity to break the ice with body language to gives others the visual indication that you’re a friendly, inviting person.
This kind of body language includes simple things like an appropriate smile, and not closing yourself off with crossed arms or the low rumble of a scowl. Another way to seem more friendly when trying to start a conversation includes modulating your tone of voice and the pace at which you speak; a relaxed, self-confident voice is far more inviting than speaking quickly as though in a nervous panic, releasing a bored sigh, or saying your initial hello in a dull, disinterested tone.
That being said, people often appear standoffish; your job is to figure out whether or not they actually mean it. You may find out the hard way that they do mean it, or you could unlock another person’s shyness by challenging their seemingly defiant body language.
Step 2: Open with an open-ended question
We’ll never know how many potentially great conversations began with the question “How are you?” because they were dead from that moment on, typically brought to a quick end with the answer “Fine.” They die for a very simple reason: They started on the wrong foot. Questions that are very familiar to us elicit our most common responses. They make no demands on us to pause long enough to think about an answer; instead, we respond like a reflex. If you doubt us, ask yourself how many times you’ve been asked a question like “how are you?” and actually considered it?
Thus, at this step, your aim should be to pose a question that elicits a response longer than one or two words. What you ask may depend to some degree on your level of familiarity with the person you’re talking to -- something to keep in mind while reading the following examples:
"What was the best part of your weekend?" beats “Did you have a good weekend?”
“What are your experiences living in this area?” beats “How long have you lived around here?”
“Tell me about your wife and your family” beats “Are you married?”
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Step 3: Reword their answer into a new question
Good storytellers are not the same as good conversationalists. Storytellers monopolize a conversation, which can be either good or bad, while good conversationalists listen to others when they speak and ask the right questions when the opportunity arises.
To that end, you can keep this conversation rolling not by changing the subject or asking a new follow-up question. Rather, do so by rewording their answer into a new question, even if you know that you’re not really saying anything new. It won’t appear that way; instead, you give the impression that you’re listening, that you empathize and that you have a general rapport with this person -- all key aspects of a good conversationalist. By doing so, you preempt the inclination to respond with unsolicited advice or a one-up story (things that can kill a conversation quickly), and you will allow the other person to delve deeper into the topic.
Step 4: Pass on control of the conversation
Up until now, you have attempted to steer and control the conversation without appearing overeager. At this point, you should have positioned the other person as the primary talker in the conversation and yourself as the listener. The wider benefit of this positioning is fairly simple: That person will more likely recall the conversation as an enjoyable one if they did more of the talking.
Human Nature 101 teaches us that, whether we’re fully aware of it or not, we are our own favorite topic. Coming in at a close second is whatever other topic we happen to be discussing at the moment.
Thus, provided you have them talking, you shouldn’t have to work so hard to maintain the flow of conversation.