how to start a conversation

Introverts aren’t the other people who wonder how to start a conversation. Even talkative, confident entrepreneurs are sometimes “at a loss for words” when confronted with new social situations.

You can engage others by smiling and saying “Hi.” Smiling is the first step to attracting people and carrying on a conversation. Few people will be inclined to start a conversation with a grumpy or angry person, so put yourself in a good mood if you're not in one already.

How to Start a Conversation: Small Talk

Making small talk at an event or party can be bothersome or intimidating, depending on your social skills, but you can learn how to do it. Ask a question about the event or the location.

If you're attending a seminar or other event, ask someone what they thought of the last speaker or presentation. Their answer will lead to other subjects you can talk about, and you won't have to search very far for common ground – it's right in front of you.  

Asking for help-or asking someone if they need help- is another way to start a conversation.

Ask Open-Ended Questions  

When you ask questions, make sure they’re open-ended. An open-ended question might be “How did you find out about this band?” or “Where do you live?” The person will give you information that you can use to propel the conversation forward by answering these questions.

Asking a question like “Do you like this conference?” can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” and may not lead to a full-fledged conversation, especially if the person is shy.   

Some open-ended questions include:

  • What’s the best thing about where you live?
  • What is your dream vacation?
  • How do you spend your days off work?
  • What is the funniest thing your pet does?
  • Where did you go to high school (or college)?

The FORD Technique

Most times there are awkward silences between strangers it’s because they don’t know how to start a conversation, not because they are shy or dislike each other on sight!

Use the FORD technique to initiate a conversation with anyone. FORD stands for Family, Occupation, Recreation, Dreams. If you tend to get tongue-tied when meeting strangers, using this method will help you come up with ideas, so there’s no fear of saying something awkward in a pinch.

When you have a few free minutes, come up with a few questions in each of the four FORD categories that you can use on anyone. Commit them to memory, and you won’t need to struggle for something to say the next time you meet a stranger.

Keeping a journal or blog is another way to find a variety of topics to talk about with other people. Observe and write about everything you experience each day – from the Thai food, you ate at a new restaurant downtown to the flowers in your neighbors’ garden. The more you experience, the more you’ll have to offer in a conversation.

Listening

how to start a conversation

Face the speaker and look at them in a relaxed, open way. (Maintaining eye contact doesn’t mean staring.) Listen carefully and try to visualize what the person is saying. You want to be present in the conversation, and prevent your mind from wandering. The extra step of picturing what the person is saying will help you stay focused.

You’ll also need to block outside distractions like music or other conversations. Wait for the speaker to pause naturally; don’t interrupt when he or she is in the middle of talking. Interruptions send the message that your opinion is more important than what the speaker thinks.      

When you follow these tips, you’ll genuinely listen to what the other person is saying instead of waiting for your chance to speak. You’ll usually respond with a statement, and occasionally with a question.

Effective Listening

Put yourself in the speaker’s emotional state, feel sad when they feel sad, happy when they are expressing joy, and show it in your facial expression. Being empathetic is one of the best ways to connect with a person.

If the speaker continues to talk for a while, let him know you are still listening by interjecting short sentences like “I can understand that,” or nodding your head in agreement.

You’ll also need to pay attention to the person’s tone of voice and body posture. Their words are only part of the message. Someone can use positive words to describe a subject, but use a sad or angry tone of voice.

At the end of the conversation, summarize what has been said. Summarizing helps in business and important conversations, but it is a nice touch to use even after informal conversations.

What to Do if You’re Anxious or Shy

If you know you’re going to be at a party or in a social situation, concentrate on the positive things that can come out of it. You could meet a new friend with common interests, or have short conversations with a lot of fascinating people. Shyness, like extroversion, starts in your mind, so focus on positive outcomes.

People who are shy or nervous because they're self-conscious need to remember that most people are self-absorbed. They are lost in their thoughts and actions and aren't staring at your socks or your hair or anything that may be making you self-conscious.

Fear Not

Don't be afraid to start a conversation because you think people are examining you and looking for faults. They will probably be happy to talk with you – about their interests.  

You can start out by using the FORD method outlined above or simply compliment the person on something they're wearing – a shirt, a ring, a hat, or a jacket. Don't choose any item randomly; compliment something you actually notice.

When you compliment someone, you'll hear the warmth in their voice as they thank you, and this will make it easier to continue the conversation.

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Finding Common Ground

how to start a conversation
Ask questions about general subjects – except religion and politics, for obvious reasons! Entertainment – (music, TV, movies, books) and sports are passions most people share. Other subjects most people like are travel, food, pets, and shopping. You’ll probably find common ground in one of these subjects, and if you don’t, the person’s answers will eventually lead you to one that does.

As the conversation continues, the other person will start asking about your life and interests. Be forthcoming and pleasant, and you may make a new friend, or at the very least, have a polite, one-time conversation.

When you speak with anyone new, there’s always the chance that there will be a pause or lull in the conversation when one or both of you has run out of things to say. If this happens, return to a subject you discussed previously, such as the person’s favorite movie. You could ask them if they saw it at a theatre or watched it online, and continue the conversation from there.

Focus on the Other Person

Ask a person for recommendations. (Do you know of a good Mexican restaurant in this part of town?” or “What app do you recommend for scheduling meetings?”) People will be flattered that you asked for their advice, and you may strike up a full conversation.  

While talking to someone, lean forward and keep your arms by your side (Don’t cross your arms in front of your chest. This signals boredom or anger.)  

Nod your head occasionally while the other person talks to show continued interest. (Don't overdo it and imitate a bobblehead doll.)  

Smile when you’re being introduced to someone, and shake hands firmly.

Be aware of your eye contact, or lack of it, as you talk. If you look to the side or at the floor, people may think you’re bored and leave the meeting with a bad impression of you.

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Practicing Conversational Skills

You’ll get better at how to start a conversation as you practice with more people in many different situations. Remember that people who seem gregarious and confident got that way by being around lots of people. They are practicing their conversation skills daily.

If you are a retail clerk, salesperson, nurse or have another job that requires interaction with other people, it obviously will be much easier to learn conversational skills. You have to converse as part of your job. Even though the conversations may not be fun or tell you much about the other person’s interests.

Meet Other People

how to start a conversation

People who spend a lot of time alone during the workday (computer analysts, accountants, writers), will need to find a hobby.  It could be a volunteer work that will put them around people, so they can practice their conversational skills.  

Traveling provides a great opportunity to meet new people and practice conversational skills. Ask for directions on how to get to an airport terminal, airline counter, or restaurant at the airport. You can also talk to the person next to you as you sit at the gate waiting to board the flight.   

Conversing with other travelers is less frustrating than talking to people at work or school functions. If you're shy or nervous, the pressure is off because you'll never see the people again. You won't be self-conscious about seeming awkward or saying the wrong thing. As a result, you're less apt to be nervous or stumble over your words.

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