Imagine yourself at a friend’s wedding. You meet a friend of a friend of a friend.
Now, how do you get past the initial introductions?
Let’s think of another scene – a job interview… When you’re expected to outshine the competition through talking, it’s a recipe for the heebie-jeebies!
Let’s face it.
Whether you’re an introvert, an extrovert, or an ambivert – we’ve all been there.
When the pressure is too much, we find ourselves struggling with what to say. We’ve all experienced being at a loss for words.
Most of the time, these situations are deemed awkward, nerve-wracking, or embarrassing. And it’s perfectly normal to feel that way.
Normally, this is caused mostly because you’re thrown into a conversation before common ground has been found.
It’s difficult to keep the interaction going naturally because we are not confident about what to talk and not to talk about.
The good news is that there are techniques that you can utilize for these exact moments. Add a little social psychology to a person-centered approach and you have the perfect formula for mastering conversation making!
Here are the golden nuggets to help you talk about anything with anyone and improve your interpersonal communication skills:
“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words. ” – Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen
Conversation is a two-way street. You have to listen as much as you talk.
When you’re confronted with dead moments, try not to always fill it with chatter about yourself. You can never go wrong when you “listen first, talk second”.
When you and the one you’re talking to take turns to actually listen to each other, things will flow more naturally. You’ll also have more time to observe and read people.
To improve your listenings skills, it can be helpful to figure out what gets in the way of effective listening.
One common problem is thinking of what we are going to say in reply while they are still talking.
We do this because the average speech rates are between 125 and 175 words, whereas we can process between 400 to 800 words a minute, so we believe that we can use that extra time to think about other things, like what we’re going to say.
In fact, one study conducted by Faye Doell (2003) showed that there are two different types of listening: “listening to understand” and “listening to respond”. Those who “listen to understand” have greater success in their interpersonal relationships than others.
Focusing on someone’s message is also a great way to shift your attention if you’re feeling self-conscious as well.
According to the great psychologist Carl Rogers, the key to good listening is to refrain from making judgments and to provide a safe environment for speakers.
By listening in a non-judgmental manner, we’re showing that we care about what they’re saying, which allows them to feel comfortable and open up.
It definitely takes practice, but here are some tips to become a better listener:
– Put yourself in the shoes of the speaker. Think about what they’re saying from their perspective.
– Avoid making assumptions or judgments.
– Pay attention to their feelings as they’re talking.
– Talk to them back in their own words (empathetic reflection).
– Look into their eyes as they’re speaking.
– Acknowledge that you’re listening by nodding or saying “uh-huh” or “yep”.
– If possible, summarize their comments if given a chance so you can better understand.
– Focus on fully taking in the message that someone is trying to get across.
2. Don’t be judgemental
“Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” – Carl Jung
When you’re quick to judge people and situations, you hinder the natural process of communication.
The next time you find yourself talking to someone, step back and truthfully assess your beliefs when interacting.
An open mind is needed to improve your communication skills.
Many of us make snap judgments when we communicate with others, according to author Judith Johnson. This is a form of positional thinking – right/wrong, good/bad, desirable/undesirable.
But when we treat people like this, we are either accepting or rejecting someone or something they said.
These judgments can severely damage our conversations and the ability to develop a rapport with others.
But these snap judgments aren’t exactly easy to stop. Spend 5 minutes analyzing the chatter in your mind and I bet that there are constant judgments and assumptions. It’s how we largely communicate with the world.
However, a better way to communicate is to cultivate an attitude of curiosity to understand why people act the way they do.
As we mentioned above, try to just take in the message without harboring preconceived judgments. Ask questions to understand more. Keep an open mind.
It will make the person you’re talking with much more comfortable. After all, nobody likes a know-it-all.
3. Be empathetic
Try to put yourself in the shoes of the speaker. People love to be seen and heard so when you empathize with them, they will feel comfortable in your presence.
When empathic listening becomes a habit, you’ll be able to better understand people’s struggles and why they do what they do.
It’s simply the ability to engage with someone on their level. It allows there to be a safe space where they can share anything without fear of being criticized.
In turn, it will make the conversation flow naturally.
With empathic listening, the conversation becomes all about the other person. You put yourself in their shoes an understand what they’re saying from their perspective.
It’s a technique regularly adopted by therapists and psychologists to help their clients. It allows the speaker to feel safe, valued and understood.
Here’s how to practice empathic listening in conversation:
1) Take the time: You need to be patient and let the reader spill their message. Don’t rush them or interrupt them.
2) Offer empathy: True empathy means listening and understanding where your conversational; partner is coming from. It means leaving your own stories and experiences at the door.
3) Use open-ended, empathic or dangling questions: Use questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer. This allows the speaker to go deeper into what they’re speaking about. You could ask things like, “How did you feel about that” or “What is your next step”.
Remember, the key here is to listen to them in a non-judgmental fashion, put yourself in their shoes and ask follow-up questions. You’ll get to know them better and as Stephen Covey says, you’ll give them “psychological air”.
“Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.” – Stephen Covey
4. Watch for nonverbal cues
Communication also includes the body language so take note of your companion’s nonverbal cues.
Whatever you’re feeling inside, try to refocus your attention. It is important to notice how the other person is feeling based on that person’s body language.
For example, if you think that the person is uncomfortable with where the conversation is heading, change the topic. This is particularly common when the talk is about politics, religion, and sex.
Not everyone enjoys a heavy subject, some people would rather keep things light. What is important is that you learn how to gauge the impact of what you’re saying.
This can be done by reading the other person’s bodily cues such as posture, eye contact, and hand movements.
It’s also important to watch out for your body language and what you’re communicating. Sometimes we forget to watch our body and we communicate unintended messages.
These tips will help you adjust your body language so you can make a great first impression:
Have an open posture: It’s important to feel relaxed, but don’t slouch. Don’t close yourself off with folded arms or with your hands on your hips.
Use a firm handshake: However, don’t get too carried away and cause pain to the other person. Hold it firmly but don’t go further.
Main eye contact: Whether they’re speaking or you are, make sure to hold the other person’s gaze for a few seconds at a time. This will show that you’re engaged and sincere.
Smile when appropriate: Smiling gets the positive vibes going and will make you appear nice and trustworthy.
Avoid touching your face: People who touch their face can appear dishonest.
5. Try to put your best foot forward
A lot of people give the old cliche advice “just be yourself” but research suggests that you’d be better off putting some effort into being warm and open. According to a study:
“In sum, positive self-presentation facilitates more accurate impressions, indicating that putting one’s best self forward helps reveal one’s true self.”
A key technique to make a better impression is to smile.
Another tip to make a good first impression is to talk slow, according to FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke.
“When individuals speak slowly and clearly, they tend to sound more credible than those who speak quickly.”
6. Encourage people to talk about themselves
We’ve mentioned this already, but the main question people have when it comes to making conversation is, “what do I talk about?”
But that’s the wrong question to ask.
Instead, you should ask questions to get people to talk about themselves.
“Self-disclosure is extra rewarding…People were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves.” – Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir
FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke says that the number one strategy he keeps at the forefront of his mind when he talks to anyone is non-judgmental validation.
“Seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them. People do not want to be judged in any thought or opinion that they have or in any action that they take. It doesn’t mean you agree with someone. Validation is taking the time to understand what their needs, wants, dreams and aspirations are.”
7. What topics should you speak about?
Richard Wiseman ran a study that looked into what topics work best on a first date. He found that the most successful topic leading to the best impression was travel.
According to researcher Dan Ariely, when in doubt, you should go for something personally revealing, such as how many relationships have they had?
But perhaps the most consistent conclusion that comes from research is to ask for someone’s advice on something.
This is a great way to get someone talking and if they’re giving advice, they’ll feel like they’re being helpful and you might pump up their ego, too.
“When you ask for advice, people do not think less of you, they actually think you’re smarter. By asking someone to share his or her personal wisdom, advice seekers stroke the advisor’s ego and can gain valuable insights.”
So, when you think of something to talk about, ask for some advice on something you know they’ll be able to answer.
8. Don’t assume people will agree with you
According to research on social psychology, most of us engage in the “assumed similarity bias.” It refers to the mental shortcut that leads us to the unconscious assumption that others share the same or similar values, thoughts, and beliefs.
The next time you have a conversation, do not conclude that just because you like a particular person, then the person you’re talking to have the same views about that same person.
Additionally, do not force people to accept, or “like” your opinions. Because everyone has the right to their own. You can’t force someone to agree with you.
Debates can make for a fun conversation, but when you first meet someone, it can also cause you to start off on the wrong foot and end up with it in your mouth.
If you want to develop rapport and a strong connection with others, take a step back and get to know people’s beliefs before making controversial statements.
9. Learn from each interaction
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Stephen Covey
Every person is unique in terms of experiences and perspectives. The person you’re talking to may have been to places and done things that you haven’t yet or will never do.
People can give you a new outlook on life or add to your existing ones. Do not waste time and show that you’re interested in them.
According to Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. in Psychology Today:
“They will only open up if you show that you’re interested. You can expand your knowledge of other regions, cultures, and nations, ultimately making you a more interesting conversationalist as well.”
It only takes a listening ear and interest for you to expand your knowledge of other regions, cultures, and nations. Armed with this new information, you can become a more interesting conversationalist as well.
Also, focusing on the message allows you to be a better conversationalist as well. It turns your attention to the information, rather than focusing on how awkward you feel, or what you’re going to say next.
Just taking in what is actually said and responding to it will make your conversations 10 times better.
10. Be well-read and well-informed
You cannot share what you don’t know. If you do, people will stay away from you.
If you want to know a variety of topics for a good conversation starter, start reading or familiarizing yourself with what is happening today.
Current events are absolutely the best way to have enough topics to bring up in any conversation.
Of course, you don’t have to be expert with what you’re talking about.
Just let the person know that you have a little bit of knowledge about it. It will prompt the person to share what he or she knows. That’s a conversation right there!
Even knowing what the number one box office hit or the top song in MTV is better than knowing nothing, don’t you think?
However, keep in mind that you want to be a know-it-all!
Harriet Swain in The Guardian explains the key difference:
“Being well-informed is not the same as being a know-all. The former is about being able to ask intelligent questions in seminars, engage in debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and realise that two of your tutors are having an affair. The latter is about passing on information on all of these subjects to everyone you know, even if you are not entirely sure the information is true.”
11. Don’t overshare
Do you believe in the adage below?
” Sometimes, the biggest secrets you can only tell a stranger.” – Michelle Hookin
They say it’s easier to tell a stranger your secrets because you will never see them again.
Many people find that this initial phase provokes anxiety. In an effort to skip over the “let’s get to know each other” period, they reveal problems with bodily functions or strange phobias. They hope that sharing private details will quickly take the relationship to the next level.
Well, here’s a fact. The world has changed.
With cheap flights, the stranger you’ve shared your secret with might be crossing your path again a month after. Who knows?
And don’t get me started with the power of social media. Surely, you’re not a stranger to seeing how quickly personal secrets can spread on the internet.
Nobody wants their secrets to go viral, right?
Clinical psychologist Dr. Suzana E. Flores in Mic offers some great questions to ask yourself before sharing personal details about yourself (in regards to social media use).
She says to ask yourself “What purpose does it serve” and “what will happen if you don’t post about the topic at hand?”
This enables to question what need you’re trying to fulfill, and then you can reassess whether you really need to share it.
12. Step out of your comfort zone
Becoming a good conversationalist is a skill. You can definitely learn it.
So when you think that you often find yourself getting nervous around strangers, force yourself to learn how to talk to people.
According to Yale neuroscientist Daeyeol Lee, the best way to learn is to enter new and novel environments:
“Perhaps the most important insight from our study is that the function of the brain as well as the nature of learning is not ‘fixed’ but adapts according to the stability of the environment… When you enter a more novel and volatile environment, this might enhance the tendency for the brain to absorb more information.”
Now there’s no need to go big at once. Start taking small steps like offering your input during meetings.
And remember: Know that’s okay to feel anxious or nervous when you’re talking to someone new.
Everybody does from time to time. It’s completely normal.
What you don’t want to do is to get anxious about your anxiety. As soon as you start asking yourself “Why do I feel like this” or “Why am I so awkward”, you might make your nervousness or anxiousness worse.
The biggest problem people have is never the nerves themselves, but the desire to get rid of them.
And the best way to get over those nerves when you’re meeting new people is to prove to yourself that you can hold conversations despite those pesky nerves.
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass… It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” ― Vivian Greene
13. Ask open-ended questions
The fastest and easiest way to make people talk is to ask open-ended questions. Those that are answerable with yes or no are not really recommended especially if you haven’t found any common ground yet with the person.
Because communication is a two-way process, it is better if you shift the focus from yourself to the other person through asking. If you don’t know, open questions begin with who, what, where, when, and how.
The next time you find yourself struggling what to talk about, just put a “what” or “how” in front of your thought. Another tip is to say “tell me more” to keep the conversation open and interesting.
Open-ended questions require a person to reflect and think. Answers won’t be facts, but personal feelings or opinions about a subject.
The great thing about open-ended questions is that you’re giving air time to the person you’re having a conversation with.
If you’re only asking close-ended questions (questions with only yes or no answers) then the control remains with you. And that’s not really a conversation – more like an interrogation or interview.
According to FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke, a great question to ask us is about challenges.
“What kind of challenges did you have at work this week? What kind of challenges do you have with running?”
There are plenty of ways you can use “challenges” to start a conversation. It gets people to share what their priorities in life are at that point in time.
14. Don’t try to impress
“Instead of you trying to impress others, why don’t you strive to become the one that people would love to positively impress?” – Edmond Mbiaka
Most people believe that a good conversation means making a great impression.
In reality, this isn’t really the case. Sometimes, you don’t need to be meaningful for people to be interested in you. Just say whatever it is that you want to say.
At the end of the day, what matters is that you are real to yourself.
And anyway, the easiest way to become interesting is to be interested.
“Curiosity leads to the accumulation of new experiences or viewpoints with which to view the world,” explains Moses Namkung, a quant analyst at Google. This gives you plenty to talk about and new ways to connect with others.
And as we’ve mentioned above, you’ll undoubtedly make a better impression if you focus on actively listening to others, than talking about how great you are.
15. Rephrase what’s been said
One thing that can stop a conversation going on is when you can’t relate to the topic they’re talking about. If you have little knowledge only about the subject, it can make you feel awkward.
A good technique when you’re confronted with this situation is to rephrase what the other person has said. In other words, you are clarifying their words.
If you do this, it will show that you’re interested in and listening to what they’re saying. As such, they may also become eager to tell you more because of your interest.
How are some tips to paraphrase:
- Make sure you don’t correct others when you paraphrase what they said. Instead of “I believe what you meant to say was…” say “If I’m hearing you right, you conveyed that…?” –
- Paraphrase as a question: “So you’re saying that?” This gives them the opportunity to correct you.
- – Put the ownership of the paraphrase on you: “If I’m hearing you right” or “If I understand you correctly…”.
- Use mirroring: Repeat the last 1-3 words they said as a question.
16. Talk about food
If all else fails, have a conversation about food. It might sound funny but it’s a great conversation starter.
Heck, even people who are fasting can tell you a thing or two!
17. Don’t be a “know-it-all”
Having a breadth of knowledge can make it easier to converse with different types of people. However, it is not necessary.
So don’t try too hard to know everything or else you’ll be known as a know-it-all. These people have a tendency to dominate conversations which can result in a backlash.
According to FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke, it’s important to suspend your ego when you’re talking with others. This means avoiding any behaviors that would be considered one-upmanship:
“Individuals practicing good ego suspension would continue to encourage the other individual to talk about his or her story, neglecting their own need to share what they think is a great story… Those individuals who allow others to continue talking without taking their own turn are generally regarded as the best conversationalists.”
How to talk to people? Here are some words to ponder…
For a conversation to happen, there is really no need to overthink. Because a good conversation is not made up of words alone.
At the very heart of communication, it is truly about connecting with the other person.
Now if you’re an introvert and you’re looking for new career choices, check out my new article on 15 jobs for people who hate people.