This post is an extract from my book Conversation Ignition – Simple Conversation Starters that Get People Talking available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
How to Start a Great Conversation
We’ve gone through a few icebreakers already, but the more you have available, the less likely you are to be stuck when getting a conversation going. There are a number of verbal examples here, along with several other types of tips that can coach you to conversing successfully.
How Do I Say It?
You say it in more ways than just words, is the short answer. Your nonverbal communication such as leaning just slightly toward the other person once in a while can display that you’re intently listening. Make it subtle – you don’t want to scare them, or lose your balance! Seriously, less is more, but if you’re maintaining good eye contact and smiling frequently, all of these nonverbal signals indicate to the other party that you’re involved and a great listener.
Your energy should be good, your enthusiasm evident and authentic. If you’re tired, avoid yawning if possible, lest you should come across as bored with the conversation. Keep the volume of your voice clearly audible, but not too loud. Depending upon the surroundings in which you find yourself, you may need to adjust the volume of your speech. Do your best to speak in modulated tones, avoiding any tendency towards a monotone.
One way to become more comfortable with the sound of your own voice is to record some “mock” conversations – if you have a friend who is willing to do this with you, that’s great. If you are alone you can play both roles. For the majority of people, it’s amazing how differently we sound “in our head” to ourselves as opposed to listening as objectively as possible to a recording. Listening to such recordings can go a long way in helping you grow accustomed to the fluidity of your voice and keeping it pleasantly modulated.
Another good idea is to record yourself on a video camera, and watch as well as listen to the playback. Make sure you’re staying engaged in the conversation, smiling, looking sincerely interested. For the video recording, it’s best if you have a partner to practice with. If you know any aspiring actors, they are always willing to be recorded, so that’s a good place to start when seeking a partner for this exercise. If your partner is a bit camera shy, however, they can simply hold and operate the camera and you can look directly at them as you give your answers. You are most interested in how you are coming across, after all, so that method works well, too.
Persistence vs. Exiting the Conversation
When you happen to find yourself in conversation with someone who gives little or no reaction, although walking away may be your first instinct, do your best to persist and see if you can turn the situation around. Everyone has challenging days from time to time, and if you are able to avoid taking their reluctance to participate personally, you’ll feel better, whether they jump in or not. In other words, their silence or reticence to chat very much could have to do with something that happened to them today, or recently in their personal life – no reflection upon you whatsoever. So don’t “bail” too soon.
Here are some ways you might try adapting to and/or turning this scenario around…
If you’ve tried about three ice breakers and have gotten no response other than perhaps a polite smile, why not try saying, “How was your day?”(or week, or weekend, as the case may be). Sometimes that simple question alone can give someone permission to release a reservoir of thoughts and feelings, so be prepared. If you still gain no real participation from them, then you could try a lighthearted comment about something, such as a movie you’ve recently seen and really enjoyed. Then follow that up with, “Have you seen any films or TV shows that you really enjoyed lately?”
Another attempt you may choose to loosen them up might be along the lines of telling a funny anecdote or joke, if you know some really good ones. If they laugh and become engaged, you could always ask, “What’s the funniest story you’ve heard lately,” or “What’s the most amusing thing that happened to you recently?” If they still refuse to jump in, then it’s perfectly fine to excuse yourself with a phrase such as, “Great meeting you,” (or “seeing you”, if you’ve met before) and just add, “Take care,” as you nod politely, smile and move on.
Creative Use of Questions
There’s a fine line between asking too many questions, and not asking enough. This is just another one of those skills that improve with practice.
Tonality and vocal modulation when asking questions is important, too. You don’t want to sound like you’re interrogating someone! Just be polite, take an interest, seek their opinion and get to know them. Remember – to be more interesting, be more interested.
What follows are some examples of questions that you may like to play with, or use them to inspire you to create some of your own.
Types of Conversational Questions
Geographic: If it’s true, you can start by saying, “I just moved here recently, and one of my favorite things about this place is ________________” or “I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve always loved…” – whatever is applicable to you. Then you can easily lead into, “How long have you lived here?” and when they answer, if it feels comfortable, you could ask them some of their favorite features of the city/area. “What restaurants do you recommend?” or “Where are some of the best places to go dancing?” are other ways of getting them engaged.
Sometimes starting out with one of your own recommendations or favorite “hot spots” or local events, etc., proves to be a good icebreaker which opens the door to ask them to reciprocate and offer their own recommendations, if they have some. If not, for instance if they’re brand new in town, or just visiting, you can then ask, “Oh! Well, what kinds of (events/food, etc.) do you enjoy? I’ll be glad to share some of my “5 Star” recommendations. That can keep the conversation going. Politely persist – it often pays off!
Family and Friends: Again, it’s often good to start out with a brief statement about yourself, so you don’t come across as an “inquisitor.” Something simple like, “My family loves coming to visit me here. They all live ____________ (fill in the blank) and really enjoy ______________ about this city.” That can easily segue into, “Do you have family here in town or close by?” If they simply respond, “No,” then you can go on with, “I see. Do you get to visit them often, then?” hopefully prompting them to talk about their family, where those folks are located. If it’s still “no dice” then you could try, “I have made some amazing friends here. How about you?”
If you have children, you can always start with, “I have two great kids – they amaze me with some of the crazy things they say. Do you have children?” Don’t pull out the pictures of your kids right away – if they seem truly interested, or are a parent themselves, then showing off your pics is a natural way to break the ice. The same technique works if you’re an animal lover and find another kindred spirit. For some people, their pets are like their kids. The main thing to remember is that when you get a positive response to a question, such as their eyes lighting up, their energy level increasing, more smiling – stick with that topic for a while. Be that excellent interested listener and put them and yourself at ease.
Career: This one can seem old and worn out at times. A good case has been made by others who write about the art of conversation that “What someone does for a living is not who they are.” That’s true; however, most people, providing they really love their work, are more than happy to talk at least for a little while about their career path.
Though it’s a bit trite, once they’ve told you what they do for a living, you can keep the steam going in the conversation by saying, “That sounds interesting! What are some of your favorite aspects of your job?” or maybe, “Wow, I’ll bet that’s challenging! How long have you done that?” These questions can lead to getting their “back story” on what their degree was in, what position they took first, etc. Then you can trade your own stories as well, so think about them and some of the more interesting aspects of your own career, so that you can talk about them easily.
Entertainment: This is a safe topic of conversation. “I went to this great concert the other night and heard ________________.” Give them a moment to respond, but if they don’t, you can ask, “What kinds of music do you enjoy most?” Then try to find some common ground about great concert experiences, why you both love certain groups or music genres, and so on. It’s been pointed out already, but deserves repeating because you can get quite a lot of mileage out of the topic of entertainment, and very rarely offend anyone’s belief systems!
You can keep the conversational ball in the air, so to speak, by asking similar questions such as, “What’s the best movie you saw recently?” (or the worst one), or “What’s your favorite film of all time?” Almost everyone has at least one favorite movie. Then you can say, “What do you like most about it?” The same type of questions cross apply to television shows, radio talk shows, books – you name it!
Sports: You want to make sure that the person is at least a little enthusiastic about sports before you just “wax poetic” about how awesome the Knicks are! One way to avoid going down a dead end is just to say, “Are you into sports at all?” If so, they’ll very likely mention their favorite sport or team, and then you can add information about your own sports fan status. If you love to play sports rather than just observe them, talk about that, what position you play or played, and ask, “Do you play any sports?” if they say no, you could try, “Were you ever into sports when you were a kid? Which ones?” If it happens that you’re having the conversation during the Olympics, or just before or after, that will automatically give you more conversation fuel.
News: Local news is usually less controversial than national or international, but if you dive into this topic, it’s best to open with something you are comfortable discussing which is unlikely to make waves. Again, politics is a good topic to avoid as a rule; but when a big election is going on, it’s a common road to go down. In that case, discussing the more intriguing points of debates is certainly acceptable, and sometimes very enlightening. It just depends upon the person, and the venue in which you are talking. If you’re really into politics, then talk on! Do try to get the other party to check in with their opinions, so you don’t overstay your welcome on the subject.
A good rule of thumb is to remember not to monopolize the conversation, but also to be sure to insert your own opinions and comments when you’re asking questions and listening to their responses. Be an active listener – as you perfect this skill, you’ll find that it helps you move onto various topics with ease. Practice and persist – you’ll succeed!