Have you ever felt anxious, embarrassed, or awkward in front of someone you barely know?
Have you ever made a joke but only got a few half-hearted laughs? Or maybe you tried to start a conversation but it fizzled out and you had to endure a few minutes of awkward silence.
If you’ve experienced any of these before, you know the importance of good conversation skills.
Learn to how to be a better conversationalist in this tutorial. First, we'll discuss the importance of good conversation skills. Then, we'll provide you with good conversation tips you can really use.
The Hidden Cost of Poor Conversation Skills
Bombing out after telling a joke and feeling uncomfortable in a group conversation are trivial compared to what you’re missing out elsewhere at work, in business, and in personal relationships.
1. Job Promotions
Promotions aren't given based on your skills alone. Your manager and the person they report to look for people who are “management material,” which is just corporate jargon for someone with people skills.
A 2018 study of 403 executives, managers, and junior staff by the Intelligence Unit of The Economist revealed that poor communications resulted in:
- delayed or failed projects (44% of respondents)
- low employee morale (31% of respondents)
- missed performance goals (25% of respondents)
- lost sales (18% of respondents)
3. Failed Corporate Changes
A Robert Half Management Resources survey shows that 46% of efforts to change a company’s policy or procedure fail due to lack of clear and frequent communications.
In an interview with Ed Szofer, CEO of SenecaGlobal, he mentioned how communication and soft skills are important, even in IT teams where technical know-how is the primary requirement.
Their programming skills and efficiency in deploying new technology may look good on paper. But if they don't take time to learn how to be a successful conversationalist at the workplace, they'll have a hard time teaching non-tech users to adapt the new technology they created.
Even the best programs with tons of features will be wasted if the developer who created it can't make other users understand and appreciate it.
Become a Better Conversationalist by Understanding the Basics
You can’t learn how to be better at conversation without first understanding the basics. So let’s go over the main components of striking a conversation, so you know what to do at every stage of the process.
1. How to Start a Conversation
What do you do when you’re at a networking event or a friend’s party? Do you just stand by the refreshments and wait for someone to approach you?
That’s mistake number one.
If you wait for someone to approach you, you’re either subtly communicating that you’re not eager to talk—or worse, that you’re uncomfortable in the situation and probably not fun to approach.
Just make the first move; you don’t even have to address someone in particular. Say “That speaker had some intriguing ideas…” or you can just stick with classics like, “Nice weather we've got today.”
Commenting on the weather, the event you’re in, or any common ground you may have with the people around you lets them know that you’re willing to chat. If someone responds, that’s confirmation they’re open to it as well.
If you don’t want to address a group in general, you can simply introduce yourself. A simple “Hi, I’m (Your Name), what brings you here?” can start a conversation.
Starting a conversation with a random person may feel forced or awkward at first. So if you want to practice, Ramit Sethi, Founder of I Will Teach You to be Rich, suggests starting conversations in low-stakes environments first, such as when taking to a barista or checkout clerk.
Does speaking in front of others intimidate you? This guide on overcoming fears of public speaking can help:
If the problem is that you lack the self-confidence to approach another person in a social situation, take a look at this tutorial on improving your self confidence:
2. How to Move the Conversation Along
Now that you’ve made the first move, the next step is to move the conversation along. There are lots of ways to do this but the easiest way by far is introducing yourself—if you haven’t already—and mentioning something interesting about what your work or hobbies.
In networking events, instead of saying “I’m a copywriter,” I say “I write marketing materials to sell courses and e-books. You wouldn’t believe some of the courses people are selling these days.”
How do you think people react when I use the second introduction?
They get curious. Questions like, “Oh yeah, like what?” or in some cases “Yeah, I saw an ad promoting XYZ course on my Facebook Feed,” either way the conversation is coming along.
This strategy works, even if you’re not in a creative field like me.
“I’m a nurse, you wouldn’t believe how many people (common injury you treat, common misconception about your job)…”
You can also try other common ways to get a conversation going, such as:
- “I missed the game last night, what’s the score?” (or “Who won?”)
- “What brought you to this event?”
- “I’m planning my upcoming (next major Holiday) vacation, is there any place you can recommend?”
- “Got any plans for the weekend? I need inspiration so I don’t end up in front of the couch with pizza and ice cream”
These questions are designed to get the conversation started, not to talk about serious, business, or emotional stuff. You’re just getting to know the person you’re talking to, use this part of the conversation to gauge how open they are and what topics they respond to.
Check out this guide for more information on starting and continuing conversations:
3. How to Exit the Conversation
Good or bad, at some point you'll need to leave a conversation you’re in. As rude as it seems, this is a crucial part of practicing how to be a good conversationalist. After all, you can’t practice what you’ve learned about starting conversations if you’re stuck talking to one person the whole event, right?
Exiting a conversation may prove harder if the person is oblivious, rude, or just chatty. That’s why some people just silently back away, while others make obvious excuses about having to go elsewhere.
There is, however, a graceful way to exit any conversation without coming off as rude or ruining whatever rapport you’ve established with the person you’re talking to.
Say, “And on that note…. I 've got to go (Place)/do (Action).” So, if you’re at a party, you can say “and on that note, I've got to look for my friend (Name),” to signal that you’re leaving the conversation, not necessarily because you’re not having fun but because you've got something else to do.
This strategy works wonders when you’re exiting a conversation with a chatty person, or someone oblivious to your subtle hints of walking away, or looking elsewhere while they’re talking. Remember, most people you talk to aren’t trying to monopolize your company; they probably got caught up in the topic.
4 Ways to Keep a Conversation Going
Sure, all conversations are made up of three consistent parts: beginning, middle, and the end. But it’s easier to start a conversation, than it is to maintain it.
People start conversations all the time, in parties, in networking events, in social media groups, and even on dating apps. The real struggle is in keeping the conversation going because it requires a delicate balance of asking questions and sharing information.
Too many questions and it starts to feel like an interrogation. Too much sharing of your own experiences and your conversation becomes one-sided.
Try the conversation tips below to help you avoid conversations that fizzle midway.
1. Fish for Topics
This is the easiest of all the strategies included here because it’s just a simple question and answer. When you’re in an event, casually mention what prompted you to go, and then ask the person you’re talking to for their reasons.
Use their answer as an opportunity to start another conversation. In a party, the person you’re talking to might say, “(Name) invited me”, so you can use that either to ask who that person is if you’re not familiar with them, or else mention how you know that person as well.
In a networking event or seminar, you might get responses like “I go hear every year to check….” Or “I’m interested in the speaker’s take on (event topic),” in which case you can proceed to discuss your views on the subject or the highlights of the previous event.
2. Ask Open Ended Questions
Like introductions, it’s hard to keep a conversation going when the person you’re talking to only gives short answers. The easiest way to avoid short responses is to use open-ended questions that encourage detailed answers because they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”
Celeste Headlee, Georgia Public Broadcasting host, suggests starting with open-ended questions using who, what, when, where, how, and why, as these question prompts people to describe things. The information they give you when answering your questions can then be used as a way to extend the topic, or branch out into a different conversation altogether.
- What was that like?
- How did that (specific experience) feel?
- When did you start (hobby, job, business, etc.)?
3. Know How to Respond Once the Ball Is in Your Court
You might’ve noticed that most of the strategies here rely on you to keep the conversation going. While that’s good, it’s also important to know how to notice and respond when the flow of dialogue is passed to you.
Sometimes, these dialogue volleys are so subtle you wouldn’t realize it unless you pay attention. You might think the person you’re chatting is rude, when in reality; they gave you so many conversation openings.
Let’s say someone asks what you do for a living, and you answered with your job description. In most cases, the person will also probe the specifics of your job. A graphic designer would be asked about the kind of designs they make, while programmers will be asked about the programs they create.
Instead of defaulting to the lazy response of “Different kinds of (Whatever your job output is),” you should view this as a signal that the conversation is in your court. Give specifics about what you do or what you like about your job. It’s your turn to say something interesting that the person you’re talking to can build upon to keep your conversation going.
It could be as simple as saying, “I develop iOS apps for companies that want app-versions of their website.”
This also applies when people ask, “What (music, food, vacation spots, books, etc.) do you like?” Because then you can share information about your hobbies and interests, giving the person you’re talking a chance to find common ground with you, leading to a more enjoyable conversation.
4. Deepen the Conversation
Don’t be afraid to venture into deeper topics, especially once you’ve covered the usual small talk topics.
How you deepen the conversation varies depending on what you’re talking about, the only consistent thing is you’re asking probing questions that drive the conversation on a more personal level. For instance, after asking someone what they do for work, you can deepen the conversation by asking that’s what they really want to do, or why they chose that career.
If your small talk started with the question, “Where are you from?” you can then deepen the conversation by asking the person what they like about their home town, or if they've got any plans of moving back in the future.
Sometimes, it’s hard to find the balance between innocent probing questions and what some would call nosy and intrusive questions. Even the example mentioned here about career choices can be considered intrusive if the person you’re talking to is going through difficult times with their career. Use your judgement or as they say, “feel the room.”
7 Easy-to-Practice Conversation Tips
Even if you've got solid conversation skills, you can still benefit from some good conversation tips. Here are seven tips to help you become a better conversationalist:
1. Don’t Dismiss People Based on First Impressions
You know how sometimes, you can immediately tell if a person is interesting or boring within a few seconds of meeting them?
First impressions are powerful, but they’re not always accurate.
While you’re thinking about potential ways to get out of the conversation, the person you’re talking to is starting to feel that your mind is wandering. They’re going to think you’re rude, and as a result pay little attention to you when you’re the one talking.
Be present. Make eye contact and ensure your feet are pointed in the person’s direction. While boredom is a real possibility, you can’t get to the point where the conversation gets interesting if you immediately dismiss the conversation and make no effort to connect in the first place.
2. Don’t Mind the Silences
There’s always going to be a lull in between topics. Sometimes, you’ll ask a question and the person you’re talking to will take a few minutes to respond.
Don’t worry, they’re just thinking of what to say or processing the ideas from your previous topic.
3. Don’t Make Everything About You
Good and confident conversationalists don’t hijack topics and make it about them. If someone’s telling a funny story about getting lost in a foreign city, don’t start talking about the time you got lost too.
Yes, you may have similar experiences and that commonality will make it easier to build rapport. But if you interject your story while they’re talking—or even as soon as they finish—the person might feel like you’re competing with them. It’s not about who’s more amazing, or who suffered more—as in the case with stories about failed relationships and job woes.
Let the person finish their story, and ask a few probing questions to get more details about their experience. Once you’ve exhausted the topic, then you can move on to sharing your own experience. You’ll have a better chance of building rapport this way because you gave the person a chance to fully share their experience without taking the limelight from them prematurely.
4. Be Aware of How Much You’re Talking
Good conversations are made with a healthy back and forth between all parties. A 50:50 split may be too much to ask between two people, but a 40:60 or 60:40 split is still okay. The right talking-listening ratio is hard to maintain in groups, so the best you can do is try not to dominate the conversation. If you can, get the other members of the group to participate by asking for their opinion.
So, what can you do after noticing that you’re dominating the conversation? Pose a question to give your conversation partner a chance to share what’s on their mind.
If it’s the other way around, then the onus is on you to start sharing your ideas and opinions. You can share something, even if you’re not asked a question. It’s just that some people don’t ask too many questions because it’s not in their personality or culture to do so.
5. Provide Positive Feedback Using Body Language
Smile, nod, and don’t cross your arms—these are all body languages that signal listening. Try not to glance at your phone while someone is talking to you.
You should also be attentive to other people’s body language. Glazed eyes, feet pointing in another direction, are frequent phone and time checks, are all signs of a disinterested person. Use these as a clue to steer the conversation into a more interesting topic.
6. Don’t Debate
You’re in a conversation, not a debate class. Don’t pick on comments or turn harmless exploratory topics into heated me versus you arguments.
It’s impossible for two or more people to always agree on a subject, so just treat the conversation as a way to share and discuss different ideas. There’s no need for someone to be declared winner for each topic.
Sometimes, it’s hard to do this when the person you’re talking to is opinionated or strong-willed. In this case, you can simply say, “Maybe you’re right” or “Let’s agree to disagree.” If these tactics don’t work, you can always exit the conversation amiably before it turns into a fight.
7. Let Go of the Details
Sometimes, people fuss about dates, locations, or names when telling a story. The person you’re talking to won’t care about the tiny details in your story. What they care about is you—what you’re like, what you've experienced, and what you've got in common.
Practice Our Conversation Tips to Become a Better Conversationalist
Conversations are hard, but you can get better with practice. Remember, good conversationalists are rewarded with better jobs, better relationships, and better company. So even if it makes you feel awkward or vulnerable at first, good conversational skills are worth practicing.
Practice starting conversations, and apply the conversation tips listed here to keep your conversation going. When you feel like it, gracefully exit a conversation and move on to another crowd. Before you know it, you’ll be a good conversationalist who doesn’t have to think twice about what to say or how to break the ice!
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2018. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.