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How to Start (And Continue) a Conversation With Anyone

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The truth of being in business is that it’s as much about who you know as what you know.

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Learn how to have better conversations. Image source: Envato Elements

You might be an expert coder who has come up with a software idea that will shake up the world, but unless you can connect with people who need your software, your idea is worthless.

You might be a design ninja, but unless you know people who need a new logo or a new website, you’ll struggle to make money from your skills.

Whether you’re a freelancer, a business owner, an entrepreneur, a creative professional, or you’re looking to change career paths, knowing the right people will be a massive help in getting to where you want to be.

The internet has broken down many of the barriers that used to exist. You can now connect with almost anyone from the comfort of your office, whether that’s through email or using social networks. Even so, meeting people face-to-face almost always creates a more powerful bond and a stronger relationship than connecting online.

Attending networking events is one of the quickest ways to meet new people and grow your network. The trouble is, unless you’re a natural social butterfly, meeting people at networking events can be stressful.

Most of us feel some anxiety or worry when we’re meeting new people. That’s normal. By reading this article, you’ll learn how to act confidently in the midst of your feelings of fear. Around 5% of the population feel extreme anxiety in social situations. If you’re one of the 15 million Americans who suffer from social anxiety disorder, know that you’re not alone. What you learn in this article will help, but you may also benefit from seeking professional medical support.

Conversation is an art. Some people are more well-versed in this art than others, but whatever your current skills, you can develop them further through practice.

A simple way to improve your social skills, and your confidence, is by learning simple tactics for starting and continuing conversations. As someone who is naturally shy, I’ve found learning these tactics incredibly helpful in navigating networking events. I’ve still got a long way to go before I reach conversational mastery. Will you join me on the journey?

Step 1: Know That Confidence Comes with Practice

You may think: “I need to learn how to feel confident in myself before I attend a networking event.”

If you wait for confidence to descend from on high before you go out into the world to talk to people, then chances are, you’ll be waiting a long time. Instead, you can embrace the following two truths:

1. Feeling Fear is Normal

Everyone feels some level of fear in social situations. You can use this knowledge to your advantage in a couple ways.

First, instead of pushing your fears away, you can acknowledge them, and accept their help. Feeling a small amount of fear gives you an energy that you wouldn’t otherwise have. You can even learn to enjoy your fear, as people do when they ride a rollercoaster.

Second, know that when you go into a room of people, most people there are just like you in their hopes and fears. They’re hoping to find someone to talk to. They’re hoping the people they meet will like them. They’re hoping to have interesting conversations, and to make friends. As such, when you approach someone to start a conversation, you’re helping them, because they want someone to talk to as much as you do.

2. Confidence Comes From Taking Action

James Clear tells the story of how his high school basketball team struggled to win a single game. Their coach helped them find their flow with these words: “Confidence is just displayed ability.” Clear reflects:

Up until that time I had just assumed that sometimes you were confident, sometimes you weren’t, and that was that. But this was a totally different way of thinking about it.

If you could display your ability to do something — whether that was making a free throw, solving a math problem, or selling a candy bar — then you would naturally become confident in your ability to do it again…

“As it turns out, my coach wasn’t just tossing out an unproven idea. There is now a body of research that shows just how right this approach can be.”

Don’t worry about not feeling confident. Your feelings of fear are normal. You won’t gain confidence by sitting at home, waiting for confident feelings to arise. You’ll grow in confidence by putting the skills you learn from this article into practice. 

Practising the art of conversation will make you confident in your conversational abilities. Adopting this mindset will mean you can get started at starting conversations and growing your network, even though you don’t feel confident about doing so.

Step 2: Learn Simple Scripts for Starting Conversations

You can attend networking events and stand around waiting until someone approaches you and starts a conversation. But as you learned in the previous step, you’ll only grow in confidence through practice. Begin by stepping out of your comfort zone and approaching someone new.

What should you say? Business coach Ramit Sethi has developed some helpful scripts for starting conversations. You can use any of these to get a conversation going.

  • Hi, nice to meet you, I’m [your name].
  • What brought you here?
  • How do you know X? [X is the name of the host or the organiser]

All of these will get a conversation started. How do you keep things going from there?

Step 3: Show a Keen Interest In Your Conversation Partner

Dale Carnegie, author of the business classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, shared a secret for being welcome anywhere: develop a genuine interest in other people. Expanding on this concept, he wrote:

If you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.

Remember that the people you are talking to are a hundred times more interested in themselves and their wants and problems than they are in you.

To really get your conversation partner talking, your aim is to discover what Don Gabor calls their Hot Buttons. Hot Buttons are the subjects a person is really interested in. Each of us, no matter how shy we are, has our own hot buttons, and once they’re pressed, we’re happy to talk and talk and talk. As Gabor explains in How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends:

Hot buttons can be work, a new job, a hobby, a career goal, an upcoming trip, a sporting activity, a personal dedication to a social cause… [They] can be a lifelong interest, a passing fancy or a current fascination — whatever turns you on! It’s important to find other people’s hot buttons as soon as possible because these strong interests are extremely fertile areas for sustained conversation.

Often, conversation partners will drop hints about their hot buttons into the conversation. They’ll mention a project they’re working on or something they do in their spare time in passing. It’s your job to notice this and find out more.

Sometimes, it can be tricky to pick up on hot buttons. In this case, it can be helpful to ask specific questions. Questions that can help you discover the hot buttons of your conversation partner include:

  • What do you like to do in your time off?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • How do you like to relax?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • Have you started any new projects recently?

Note: Some hot buttons can prove so hot they’re a little too fiery! In most networking contexts religion, politics and personal tragedy are topics best left alone. If you touch on them, you risk being burned.

Step 4: Prevent the Conversation from Stalling

Many people make the mistake of talking too much. They dominate the conversation, and forget to take the time to listen to their conversation partner. If this is you, you probably don’t need this step, and you’ll benefit most from implementing step 3.

That said, for some of us (myself included) the main struggle is knowing what to say to prevent the conversation from hitting an impasse. It’s awkward to stand around, staring into your drink, waiting for your conversation partner to say something. You’ve tried taking a keen interest in them, but asking too many questions comes across as an interrogation. With that in mind, what can you do when the conversation stalls?

The best approach is to take preventative action before you hit the wall. There are a couple of strategies you can use for this.

  1. Active listening: Give your full attention to what the other person is saying, and when they’ve finished, reflect back what they’ve said. Once you’ve reflected back, you can inject your own opinion on what they said. This strategy is helpful, because it gives you something to say. Also, when you reflect back, you create a bouncing board from which your conversation partner can continue.
  2. Selective Self-Disclosure: This is a strategy I learned from Gael and Stuart Lindenfield’s book, Confident Networking. To use this strategy you “gently drop” personal information into the conversation. Typically, you should drop your own hot buttons into the conversation. When you know you’ve got a networking event or party coming up, it’s a good idea to make a mental list of your hot buttons that you’re willing to reveal. Conversation is a two-way street, and disclosing information about yourself gives your conversation partner the opportunity to take the hot-seat and ask you questions.

What about if you hit a dead end? You’ve got two options. One is to loop back to when the conversation was hot. Think back to a hot button that was dropped into the conversation that you failed to follow up on, and go back to it. “So you mentioned […]. Tell me more about that.”

It’s also possible that the conversation has reached it’s natural end point. If that’s the case, it’s time to make a graceful exit.

Step 5: Draw the Conversation to a Close

Networking isn’t speed dating. You can have in-depth, meaningful and lengthy conversations with the people you meet. That said, the more people you meet, the more you’re expanding your network.

What should you do when you want to exit a conversation so you can move on to meet someone else?

Ramit Sethi has a helpful script for this, which is:

  • It was great to meet you, thanks for chatting.

Sethi points out that your body language and tone of voice should also signal that it’s the end of the conversation.

If you want to be particularly graceful, before you make your exit, you can summarise what you’ve learned from your chat. Asking for the other person’s business card, or offering your own card, also makes a nice close and demonstrates that you’ve appreciated the conversation.

For particularly enthusiastic conversation partners, you may have to give a reason for exiting the conversation. This could be:

  • I’d like to talk to [name of person] before she leaves.
  • I’ve set myself a target of meeting five new people today.
  • I’m going to head to the buffet to pick up some food.
  • I’ve just realized it’s 7.30. I need to go and make a call.

Alternatively, you could introduce your conversation partner to someone else you know in the room before making your graceful exit.

Now you’re a free agent again, it’s back to step 2 to start a new conversation. Keep practicing, and your confidence will grow and grow.

Want to review what you’ve learned from this article? We’ve put together a handy, downloadable cheat sheet of scripts and strategies.

What Are Your Conversation Tips?

Conversation is something we all take part in, every day. I’d love to hear about how you make the most of conversations, and what you do to be a confident communicator.

  • What strategies do you use for overcoming your nerves in social situations?
  • How do you start conversations?
  • What questions do use to find out about your conversation partner?
  • What do you do when a conversation hits the wall?
  • What are your top tips for a graceful exit?

Please go ahead and share your strategies on the Envato forum.


Graphic Credit: Talking designed by Hedie Assadi Joulaee from the Noun Project.

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2014. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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