In this post we will take a look at what is in the way of your ability to develop good conversation skills. We’ll acknowledge where you are right now and simply pay attention to the negative habits that are keeping you stuck and resistant to change. To get the most out of this section you’ll need to read it, think about what you’ve read and then make some new choices for the future.
Even if you are a quiet person or you tend to be quiet when meeting new people this material can help you to become more comfortable and more expressive regardless of who you are talking to.
There are four keys to getting results with the material in this post.
1. Be Aware and Make a Choice
When it comes to personal change the first step is to become aware of what you are doing and why you do it. For example, let’s say you rarely approach people. Take an objective look at this behavior and you might notice that you do sometimes but not usually and only when you have a sense of purpose or good reason to. This revelation can then be applied to approach people more often and with less anxiety.
The second step is to choose to change. You don’t have to change, it’s entirely up to you. What is important is to notice you have a choice and to then decide what you want to do. Do you want to be more sociable? Do you want better conversation skills? Make a clear and definite choice to learn, grow and improve and it will drive all your behavior going forward.
2. Notice Which Negative Habits You Have
For all of the negative habits in this section I’d like you to read through the descriptions of how the habits manifest themselves and then ask yourself does this habit ever apply to you, a little or a lot? This is not about beating yourself up it’s about noticing the negative habits that are in place, this is not so much about skills, it’s about patterns of inertia that can convince you that your conversation skills are poor when in fact there are other factors which are more problematic.
You’ll also notice that some but not all of the habits apply to you, and some apply to a small degree while others are so prevalent in how you deal with people that it seems like that’s just the way it is and always has been. Even for habits bear in mind change is possible when you learn a new and better approach.
3. Set New Behavioral Goals
For each of the negative habits, identify if and to what extent it’s true for you and then choose, do you want to change or not? If you do, how do you want to be in this context going forward? If you don’t want to change, how are you going to handle living with this limitation for the rest of your life?
Once you set your mind on a new objective, once you decide to replace a negative habit with a positive habit you’ll gradually get used to behaving differently in those situations where you used to be apathetic and passive. At first it will take some determination and a conscious decision to be more proactive but after a while it will become a new habit, at that point it’ll start to seem “normal” and as if you’ve always been that way.
4. Aim for Step by Step Improvement
Please bear in mind, this book is not light entertainment. If you want results, if you want to quickly improve your conversation skills you need to participate, you need to read the material, think about how it applies to you and exert some effort and determination to practice and apply what you’ve learnt here out there in the real world. Do not expect instant success with no effort or you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, if you decide to improve surely but consistently through trial and error you will make steady progress. I guarantee it.
We’ll now look at the ten common negative habits people often display that can get in the way of developing great conversation skills. Some but not all of these habits will apply to you. As you read through this section pay attention to identify those patterns that determine how and even if you interact with people in your day to day life and that includes friends, family and meeting new people.
The 10 Negative Habits that Limit Conversation Skills
1. Negative Attitudes
There are a number of ways a negative attitude can cause problems for you when your intention to improve your conversation skills.
People are difficult to talk to
A lot of our opinions, attitudes and beliefs about people are the result of unconscious decisions about the way it is. A few bad experiences can easily be generalized to distort how we view all people not just those difficult few people we occasionally have to deal with. Without even noticing how it happened we assume and eventually believe that it’s better to avoid people whenever possible and that it’s better to keep your distance with those you talk to on a regular basis.
This is a negative attitude and not the way popular people look at the world. Instead they look for the good in people, enjoy meeting new people and know that, yes, occasionally they’ll bump into someone they don’t enjoy talking to. However they don’t write off everyone because they occasionally bump into some difficult people.
Do you assume most people are difficult to deal with? Do you avoid meeting new people because you worry about what they will think of you? Do you keep to yourself as a way of not dealing with the occasional but rare difficult individual?
Socializing is frivolous
Many people also have a negative attitude about socializing. They may regard it as frivolous or even pointless. You sometimes hear people making excuses about being tired or too busy to socialize when the real reason is unspoken. Few people will admit to their true fears and anxieties, many people prefer to stick to their closest friends over going out to meet new people simply because they hold in mind negative expectations of what will happen when they go to a venue to meet people.
Again, this can be unconscious as it often is with negative attitudes. You may not have even noticed but when you think about attending a party, a wedding or a large gathering of any kind you may be thinking about all the things that could go wrong. You might feel a knot in your stomach and imagine being stuck for words and standing alone in a crowd with no one to talk to you. You might even imagine feeling embarrassed and self-conscious. This is quite an achievement when you think about it, the event hasn’t even happened and already you are imagining the worst possible outcome and living that feared consequence as if it’s already happened. The thing is, it hasn’t happened, nothing bad has happened. All that has happened is that you have not taken charge of your thoughts and feelings.
Ever notice how you think about upcoming opportunities to socialize? Do you think about all that can go wrong? Does this fill you with dread? Do you tend to make excuses to avoid attending social events?
No time to meet people
There is one major difference between quiet people and talkative extroverts. Quiet people often make it a priority to have alone time and time spent on solo activities before everything else. In extreme cases they even fail to schedule time with friends and opportunities to meet new people. Instead they adopt the attitude that it will take care of itself, that they can tag along with friends who organize get togethers. However this rarely works because a pattern often emerges whereby the quiet person says no to offers to socialize with friends because of the priority given to solo activities. There may not be any time left in the schedule to say yes and to head out to meet up with friends and acquaintances.
In contrast, people with busy social lives and great conversation skills do things differently. They switch off the TV and internet and schedule several evenings a week to get out there to meet people, they are typically the first to say yes whenever the party invitations go out and they place a high priority on spending their free time with others. That’s not to say you should go to that extreme although it’s good to aim for more balance in how you spend your free time and to place more importance on scheduling time in your week to meet up with friends and family, and to visit new places and to explore new activities.
Do you fail to schedule time each week to meet people? Do you let the week slip by at home when you could be more proactive about getting out there to spend time with friends? If you’d like more balance between time alone and time with others how will you schedule that in the weeks and months ahead?
Socializing is careless spending
What you spend your leisure cash on reveals a lot about what is important to you, it reveals what you value and what gives you enjoyment. And it also represents another opportunity to build closer connections with friends and to get to know interesting new people.
Some people regard spending money on socializing as careless when they can eat, drink and stay entertained at home for less money but that misses the point. When you spend at a bar, cafe or restaurant you are paying for the environment and the meeting place not just the food and drink. You are socializing where there is the possibility of meeting new people and you’re making it a special occasion, in fact, you’re celebrating the friendships that give you support, companionship and enjoyment. The same applies when you spend money to play sport or to be active in any kind of social club. The real fun and benefit is the friendly environment and opportunity to meet friends and to make new friends. The expenses associated with the activity are incidental. Think about it, a few weeks later, after a great night out with friends, do you even remember what you ate and drank? Of course not but you do remember how much fun you had and you can’t wait to do it again.
Do you place a low value on spending money to socialize? Does it seem wasteful to eat out or even to go out for coffee when it’s much cheaper to do it yourself at home? Is it worth it to spend the money and go out a little more if it means you make new friends and get to have fun with the people already in your life?
2. Lack of Purpose
In the context of making conversation a lack of purpose can cause you to be indecisive about what to say and unable to take control of the interaction. There are a number of related issues we need to look at.
No objective when meeting people
Another common habit among people who avoid meeting people and dislike making small talk is the lack of a clearly defined goal for social interactions. This then gives rise to a number of related problems, you are more likely to be self-conscious and second guess what you should say next, you get stuck for words and you dread awkward silences, and you find it hard to pay close attention to what the other person is saying. None of this happens or at least happens in a major way when you know exactly what you want to achieve in the conversation: that singular focus changes everything.
Now, you don’t need to do this for every conversation however if you often find small talk stressful at one extreme or boring at the other it can be very helpful to have a clearly defined goal. Why? Because it allows you to focus on what you want to achieve and gives you a direction in which to drive the conversation, doing so keeps your mind busy and less likely to wander. It eases the problems of anxiety and not paying attention which can dominate when you lack a specific conversational goal.
Maybe in the past you’ve rarely considered having a conversation goal when you meet someone for the first time or when you need to chat with someone you don’t know that well. So what can serve as a conversation goal? It can be anything from something as simple as looking for what you have in common to something more involved like asking for opinions, perspectives or insights on local changes in your community that will affect everyone who lives there.
Do you tend to end up in situations where you don’t know what to talk about? Do you then randomly jump from one topic to another with no sense of direction? Instead make a point of having a goal for each conversation whether that be to establish and maintain rapport, discover commonality or to look for shared values and beliefs. When you do this, the conversation will have a direction and life of its own that you simply steer.
No common goals with people
If making conversation ever seems like an uphill battle it’s often because there’s a lack of cooperation, one person is competing with the other for air time or to win a debate. This can get out of hand very quickly and all it takes is a slight shift in perspective to turn it around.
Always look for what you have in common when you meet people and always be on the lookout for common goals, concerns or worries. When you share a passion or a problem with someone there is ample scope for a lively conversation as you put your minds together to find a solution.
The key is to look for emotional issues, strongly desired goals or highly charged problems. When you find those by listening carefully and pointing out your similar experiences and feelings about the issue it can create a deep connection with the other person. This can bring up intense feelings so if you want to maintain a more low key and relaxed interaction pay more attention to issues that have less emotional involvement.
Let’s say you travel to France every year and you meet someone who enjoys French cinema, you have a different but closely connected passion that could fan the flames for a great conversation. The key is to spot potential matches and to speak up to share your passions.
Do you often find conversations to be like a game of ping pong played against someone? Do you tend to have difficulties achieving deep rapport? If you do, aim instead to be on the same team as others by finding common interests you both enjoy or common problems to solve together.
No performance objectives
Another common and limiting habit is that of failing to establish performance objectives. When you are talking to someone you need to know moment to moment how you are doing. You need to constantly adjust your approach to feedback and this can only happen if you have objectives and ways of measuring progress towards or away from them.
Let’s say you are finding it difficult to talk to someone, there are awkward silences and all of a sudden the other person excuses himself and walks away. Were there warning signs? Of course there were and it shouldn’t have been a surprise that an abrupt conclusion to the conversation was imminent.
What could you do differently to avoid this happening in the future? First of all you need performance objectives or several related small goals that will contribute to ensuring a good conversation. This means dropping a “hope for the best” attitude and taking control of the situation.
Performance objectives would include the decision to give your complete attention to the other person when he is talking, the practice of revealing what you have in common every time the other person talks about a common interest and persistence in searching for common goals.
Do you usually have non-specific hopes for a conversation that can’t be defined? Do you often fail to stay on track and lose control of the purpose and direction of the interaction? Instead aim to take charge of the minor but related elements and the whole will take care of itself.
No long term outlook
Another negative habit is taking a short term outlook both when it comes to going out to meet people and when you are engaged in a conversation. When you procrastinate when it comes to meeting people weeks, months or even years pass by and then you wonder why you have a close circle of friends but you know very few people and you feel like you’re stuck in the rut of only doing the same few activities with the same few people.
It is much more helpful to take a long term outlook to ensure you have a happy and busy social life filled with people you enjoy talking to. This means saying yes more often and attending social functions because little by little you’ll meet great people and gradually build up a great network of good friends. If you don’t do this the inevitable happens, people move to a new neighborhood, others get promoted at work and have less free time, while some get overwhelmed by their busy family lives. The end result is the same, over the years, you’ll know fewer and fewer people to meet up with unless you are always looking forward and aiming to find great people to meet.
People with lots of good friends look to the future. They see social functions as the ideal opportunity to meet their friends and to make new friends not just for right now but for years to come. They view conversations as much more than small talk because of this perspective, each chat is part of a much bigger picture and a fun way to get to know more great people, people to enjoy getting to know over time.
Do you fail to look beyond the immediate conversation when you meet someone? Do you avoid social functions because it’s just one evening you’re missing? Instead see each conversation and each gathering as a way to meet great people you can enjoy getting to know for years to come.
3. Overlook Importance of Social Connections
Quiet, independent people sometimes overlook how important social connections are for general well being and happiness. This oversight has implications we need to consider.
Not looking for more friends
Let’s take a look now at another attitude that gets in the way of developing great conversation skills. This is the outlook that you already have enough friends so why put yourself out there to meet more people? This is the kind of apathy that can also infect your current friendships, before you know it you can get lazy about making time for good friends and fail to be completely present when you do meet them.
When it comes down to it the “have enough friends already” outlook misses one important distinction. The happiest times in your life tend to have one key factor in common – shared experiences with people you care about. Given that this is the case it makes sense to make happiness a priority and to do that by making a point of always making the effort to meet more like minded people and to deepen the friendships you already have by being a better listener, by sharing more of yourself and by not taking it all for granted.
Popular people already know that the happiest times in their lives typically involve their friends and family. They cultivate great friendships and make a point of getting to know new people. It’s a key part of how they live and how they plan their week by making time to be with people.
Do you ever think you have enough friends already? Do you take some of your friends for granted and fail to make the effort to see them? See that happiness in large part comes down to spending time with great people and aim to do more of that.
Meeting people is a low priority
A related issue is the decision to avoid meeting people. If you cram your schedule with work, domestic chores and solo activities you’ll never have enough the opportunity to enjoy time with friends and to get to know new people. You’ll be the one who is often saying no to social invitations and eventually people will stop asking you.
The reason this happens has nothing to do with not having enough time, it comes down to not making it a priority to spend time with people and a failure to appreciate how important time with good friends is for a happy life. The busyness argument is an excuse that is used to avoid facing up to the fact that you have fears and worries about getting to know people and you feel more comfortable avoiding the issue. The problem with this approach is that you become more isolated over time and it then becomes even harder to break out of your shell.
An attitude change is essential, unless you make it a priority to meet friends, friends of friends and new people each week it’ll rarely happen and only by chance. With less practice at making conversation whatever skills you have will decline and it becomes even more difficult to turn it around.
Do you fail to make it a priority to meet new people? Do you lose touch with friends because you don’t initiate contact? Could you start making happiness a priority by socializing more with people you enjoy being with?
Excessive alone time
Spending time alone is great for recharging and for finding the space to think, and for quiet people it’s essential because dealing with people all day at work and at home can be draining, time alone is the antidote to all of that. However even a good thing can go too far. If you spend too much time alone you’ll eventually feel detached from other people and from life. Being alone is a frame of mind that becomes comfortable and relatively stress free so even the prospect of socializing can seem like too much effort.
For this reason I encourage you to aim for balance. Notice how much alone time you need and at what point it becomes destructive and a barrier to living a full life. Excessive TV or internet usage can fall into this category too. If you are failing to have regular and in depth face to face conversations with people because you interact online you will never develop great conversation skills. There is no substitute for talking to people “offline” out there in the real world with all the complexities, issues and day to day realities that come with a face to face interaction.
Do you spend too much time alone? Could you have more balance between being alone and with others? Do you mistake online interactions with the depth, connection and challenges of talking to new people offline?
Procrastinating about meeting people
This is the final issue we need to address in this section. I am referring to a negative habit of putting things off when it comes to seeing friends or attending social events. When we live like this we don’t even notice our avoidance tendencies because we are still saying yes to opportunities to meet people but we simply procrastinate and make it someday but someday often never comes.
Instead we think we are socially active and a good friend but we’re just too busy right now. This again is a case of not appreciating how important human interaction is for your ongoing happiness. Spending time with people who like you and care about you is essential for your well being while meeting like minded people keeps you connected to all the joy, variety and wonder of life. Life is richer, brighter and more colorful with great people to share the journey.
However at times apathy, laziness and subtle fears about talking to people can cause us to get into the habit of putting off social engagements, rescheduling them until the other person can’t make it or making up excuses for not turning up. The best way to deal with this is by being honest with yourself, if you want to go to a social event make a definite commitment to your friends and aim to never let them down. Don’t let social fears get in the way of enjoying the happiness and connection you have with people you enjoy talking to. The same applies to going to new places and visiting new venues – if you want to go then do it but don’t procrastinate and pretend you really will go but not today.
Do you put off meeting up with friends? Do you lose touch with people because you are always too busy to meet? Do you avoid or postpone new experiences because of having to deal with people? If you do, could you face the fear and go anyway instead of hiding behind the fear with procrastination?
4. Conversation Fear
Perhaps the most common reason given for avoiding people is what I like to call conversation fear. Quiet people use this excuse all the time not realizing that apparently confident people also have fears to deal with, the only difference being that more socially active people build confidence and learn to control fear through practice, trial and error, and by sheer determination.
Sensitive to criticism
Of all the fears that stop people speaking up fear of criticism is probably the most prevalent. We fear criticism so we conclude it’s better not to say anything but unfortunately when you don’t speak up you may be criticized or ignored for not speaking. So you see a certain level of criticism is unavoidable, the key is to decide how you handle it because you cannot completely avoid people who will voice critical opinions of you and your viewpoint. Remember, what others say may be right or they may be wrong so don’t automatically see all criticism as valid and worth responding to with a justification.
Are you overly sensitive to criticism? Do you realize that everyone has to deal with criticism? Remember to ask yourself: is this criticism valid or invalid?
Fear of rejection
Everyone can relate to the fear of rejection. Yes, even those confident and successful people you admire secretly worry about rejection. It’s not a concern that’s exclusive to quieter people so regard this fear as a normal characteristic we all share as part of our basic nature.
A better way to look at meeting people is to look for matches, that is to look for people you have something in common with instead of wanting to be liked by everyone. This one shift in attitude takes a lot of pressure off and allows you to accept that there will be matches and non-matches and it’s all perfectly normal, and as you improve your conversation skills you’ll have more matches, even so, never expect 100%.
Do you fear rejection like everyone does? Could you focus on finding matches instead? Could you approach someone (who also fears rejection) and be good company?
Poor selection of social events
Poor event selection is a way of setting yourself up for failure before you even open your mouth to introduce yourself. If you habitually go to social gatherings where you know no one and you have little or no interest in the activity your starting point is likely to be one of boredom, disinterest and an obvious lack of connection with whoever you meet. Even very skilled conversationalists will find such an environment to be challenging. Again, be kind to yourself and choose more carefully when you have a choice of where to go and who to socialize with. Pursue your passions, go to events with your kind of people and you’ll be starting with your best foot forward and an eagerness to talk to like minded people about common interests.
Do you often go to events you have little interest in? Could you make a point of choosing events you’d enjoy attending and trust you’ll meet like minded people with shared interests? Could you see social gatherings in a positive light when you take charge of what to attend and who to meet?
Poor selection of people
This final issue is the matter of choosing the wrong targets. If you randomly approach and talk to anyone at a social event you’ll get random and often poor results when it comes to getting a good conversation flowing. Many people will do this when they feel nervous and rush to talk to someone, to talk to anyone, rather than feel self-conscious standing there alone in a crowded room.
It’s far better to take a moment to scan the room, look at who is available and choose the most likely best match to talk to. i.e. someone who looks happy, friendly, relaxed and of a similar background to you. When you become more selective about who to talk to your success rate will improve dramatically and over time as your skills improve you’ll have a wider range of people you can confidently approach. The key is to take charge of the situation rather than hoping for the best and acting out of fear and nervousness.
Remember, very few people feel completely comfortable approaching people they don’t know so don’t regard nerves as a sign you are ineffective or failing. It’s perfectly natural to feel some excitement, just turn that into movement before you get stuck to the spot and caught up in over analysis of the situation. If you delay you’ll find so many reasons not to approach someone that fear will take over, you’ll revert to talking to whoever is nearby and end up forcing a conversation that has no future with someone who is a mismatch for you.
Do you often avoid approaching people and hope no one notices how awkward you feel? Do you know it’s perfectly normal to have nerves, even for socially active people? Could you make a point of choosing good potential matches and focus on only approaching those people?
(In part 2 of this post we’ll take a look at 6 more negative habits that get in the way of developing great conversation skills.) You can read part 2 here: