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The Fool Proof Guide to How to Start a Conversation

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Whether you find yourself waiting alongside a stranger at the doctor’s office, or mingling with people at a party or event, it can be intimidating to strike up a conversation…even in adulthood.

The good news is there are habits and practices which make initiating a conversation easier. And, if you practice starting conversations using these tips, it will become less stressful and more comfortable over time.

1.Get comfortable. If you feel comfortable, it will help the other person feel comfortable, and trust your intentions. So if you are the type who feels a burst of anxiety before initiating a conversation, be conscious of that. Take several deep breaths, sit up confidently, and smile warmly. Remind yourself that the world is full of people and the one you’re talking to may or may not be interested in conversing, but in either case, that is no reflection on you.

2. You don’t need a pre-rehearsed pickup line.  A good rule of thumb for choosing an opening line is to adopt a friendly attitude–like you might display when talking to someone you already knew. Then, comment on something that you and the other person have in common.

If you know a little bit about the person, you might be able to identify a specific thing you have in common (such as being on the same team for a work project). But even strangers crossing paths at a bus stop have a few things in common.

Even just sitting on a bench together, you and a stranger are probably both experiencing weather (hot or cold), observing traffic (or lack there of), frequenting the same city, and perhaps are also checking your phones or devices as you wait. All of these things are topics that could prompt a brief, friendly question like–“The construction in this area is endless, isn’t it?”–to test the waters. Gauge whether you follow up with more conversation based on whether or not they respond warmly or whether they provide only a minimal answer and look down or away.

Keep in mind that the specific statement or question you choose to open with is less important than your friendly attitude, which is most often shown through your tone of voice and body language.

3. Try adding a question to your observation.

If you only offer an observation, there’s a chance the person you’re speaking will just nod or offer a “yeah” in agreement, without contributing anything to advance the conversation. To indicate that you are not simply offering a greeting, but are open to talking, then, you might want to tack on a question. If they have a child with them, for example, you might say, “What a well behaved kid. Do you have more?” Or, if you love the person’s sense of style, you might say, “That is a great hairstyle. Do you mind me asking where you get it cut?”

4. Be generally aware of current events. In 1960’s era sitcoms, fathers were often portrayed sitting at the breakfast table with their newspaper in hand. They didn’t just do this to look fatherly though. Reading the news is a habit working people often adopt to both better understand their world and to stay informed so they can participate in social discussions. It’s not necessary to set aside an hour to read dozens of stories, however. Often just scanning the top section of any popular news site (like this one!) will alert you to important local or world stories that have unfolded since the day before. Clicking on any significant stories, or even just scanning the headlines, can go a long way for helping you contribute to public conversations.

5. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. In situations where you are only interacting momentarily and likely won’t run into the person ever again, it’s customary to just offer a first name for the purpose of establishing familiarity. But, if the person you’re talking to is a co-worker or friend of a friend who you’re likely to encounter again, it’s appropriate to offer a slightly more developed introduction: “I’m so-and-so. I work in accounting.” When you do this, it’s likely the person will respond in kind by offering their name and role as well.

6. Keep the conversation going through small talk. If someone begins contributing to the conversation, use their comments as a springboard for a new question or comment. For example, if you said, “The construction in this area is endless, isn’t it?” and they replied, “Yes! Every day at 9:00, it’s a disaster at this intersection,” you might offer a follow-up question like these:

  • Do you ever drive it? Or do you always walk or ride the train/bus?
  • Do you work nearby? Sounds like you navigate this area a lot.
  • Is it just busy during rush hour, do you know? Or is it always busy?

If you said, “I’m so-and-so. I work in accounting,” and they replied, “I’m Kara. I work in sales,” you might offer a follow-up question like these:

  • That’s great! How long have you worked here?
  • Nice! How big is your team these days?
  • Oh really? Have you always been in sales or have you worked in other roles as well?

If you happen to get knee deep in small talk with an acquaintance you’re likely to see again, it may be well worth keeping the conversation going and even exchanging contact information at some point. For tips on how to maintain the conversation, click here.

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  1. Tonya M.

    This was a big help to me bc I usually freeze up in conversations and I don’t always know why. LOL.

    I think I need a social tutor. 😉

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