If you are anything like me, you dread starting a conversation. There’s always the possibility of making a fool out of yourself or worse, someone walks out on you.
The thing that gnaws and torments you is the thought you’re not good at conversation. You overthink about what the other person is thinking about you. You blame your mind for not thinking fast enough. You wish the ground would swallow you whole and end you with the embarrassment.
Is this an introvert problem? Do extroverts have similar problems?
Am I born this way? Does my mind always have to fail me when I need it the most? These are some questions that have always plagued my mind when I needed to spark conversation.
You don’t have to fear to start or keep a conversation going. Contrary to popular belief, no one was born a great conversationalist. It is something we learn and become great at.
There’s a need to perfect conversation as it plays an integral role in building us socially. You need to be good at conversation, to have good friends, to connect with people, to get a job, or even a spouse.
I once used to loathe conversation, but I’ve become accustomed to it. It’s something that took me a while to learn and master and I want to help you become a great conversationalist too.
Let us Dive in…
STEPS TO HELP YOU HOLD A CONVERSATION AND KEEP IT GOING
1. You’re not being judged (The Spotlight effect)
Back in the day, I used to be a spoken word artiste. You’re probably laughing at the mere thought… I wasn’t the best, but I’d make appearances in open mic sessions with the help of a little ‘grandpa’s cough medicine’. In short, while a little intoxicated.
I’d go up to the stage with my well written and rehearsed poems to only feel a huge lump in my throat that hindered words. I would look at the crowd and for some strange reason, everyone always seemed to yawn.
I’d always in my mind question what the audience was thinking about me. Do they know I’m a little tipsy? is my fly open? They think I suck, do they? These thoughts would deter me from giving my best. I would hurriedly read through what I’ve written and run off into the night.
I thought I wasn’t cut for this and I became less of a spoken word artiste. The organizers however always used to call me and assign me a spot. I once sat with one organizer and asked her why they still thought I was a good fit. She told me something eye-opening. She said, “Don’t beat yourself up, the audience Loves you. You need to believe in yourself”. I was shocked. How was that even possible? She added, “… You seem to overestimate what people think about you, they want good poems and that’s what you give them”.
I soon realized that all this while I was being a barrier to myself. It was the Spotlight effect weighing in on me. In a 2000 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Tom Gilovich and colleagues found that college students overestimated the percentage of people who noticed the Barry Manilow shirt they were wearing.
Students wearing the Manilow T-shirt estimated that 50% of people noticed them. They were shocked to discover that only 25% of people did.
Even if you have some fear, it’s good to know that your mind makes it big of a deal than it is. Inspiring, right? Everyone has that Spotlight effect. Acknowledging that the mind can blow things out of proportion can be very calming.
2. Develop a ton of Interests (The Iceberg Effect)
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who knows everything about anything? Well, this has been the story of my life. I always seem to strike a conversation with people knowledgeable at everything. Is my circle of friends made up of geniuses? Nope, just ordinary folk.
How is it then that they are so good at conversation? How are they able to relate to any topic thrown at them? They have diversified their interests. They don’t know everything but have a well-rounded knowledge of things they are interested in.
I have a lot of things I’m interested in and can speak about. Some of this without batting an eyelid are:
- Programming Languages
- Graphic Design
- Wire Wrapping
- Candle Making
- Photo Manipulation
These are just but some things I have an interest in and a little well rounded knowledge about. I have found that even when I get into a conversation I do not know of, I get curious and ask questions. This keeps the conversation going and I get to learn a thing or two.
I want you to picture the iceberg. It comprises two components, the tip, and the submerged part. The tip is only but a small fragment that makes up for what lies underneath. It’s the tip we see, while the part underneath may be bigger than it.
In a social setup, the tip of the iceberg is that person who has no trouble with conversation and giving an opinion. The part below the surface is someone deep, listens to podcasts, and reads some interesting articles. But who gets the most recognition?
It is good to have an interest in something but its way better if interest is diversified. This way you get to be an interesting person as you’ll relate more with people. Try learning something new today. Don’t keep it to yourself though. Share it with the world and you’ll be amazed at how great a conversationalist you’ll become.
3. Listen beyond People’s Words
Ever heard of the Adage, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it? Well, there’s an enormous truth to these sentiments. The way you say words conveys a certain feeling attached to it.
If you can get beneath the surface of the words people say and touch them on an empathetic level, you’ll set yourself apart.
Knowing the feelings behind someone’s words will help you respond accordingly. It gives you a clue into the mood they are in. With this knowledge, you can be able to be in the same wavelength of mood.
Some emotional cues that you may pick up when you’re having a conversation are:-
- Are they excited?
- Are they sad?
- Are they indifferent?
When you respond to an emotional cue with an empathetic statement, you rapidly build rapport with anyone. For further literature on Empathetic statements, read the book “The Like Switch “.
Let’s look at an example.
“I will work tomorrow,”.
Imagine this statement being said by these two people…
Person 1: Has been home after being laid off during a pandemic
Person 2: Has been on a whole month vacation.
The statement is the same, but the feeling conveyed by the two is different. The response to the two would be:-
To person 1: “It must feel great going back to work after several months, huh?
To Person 2: “You must have a ton of emails to respond to, huh?
The key take here is thus to be an avid listener. To pick up even the slightest of non-verbal and verbal communication and use it as a cue., We have two ears and one mouth for a reason. You guessed it right to listen more than we speak.
4. Always have something to talk about (Quick Scan)
I’m not a big fan of the news, I find them depressing. My Dad always tells me to watch the news because one day the news might save me from the apocalypse. I always find his sentiments hilarious, but the truth is news can save you a conversation.
The beauty of the world we’re living in today is the fact that there’s a big array of resources to garner topics of conversation. You can check out blogs on medium, Google, YouTube, Quora, podcasts, etcetera.
It’s always a good habit to check out a few articles before going out. This becomes the basis and foundation for starting conversations. The rule of thumb is to keep topics light, don’t lead with the awful tragic stories.
Always have a small script planned out to start a conversation. Something like…”I saw this story on HubSpot that talked about…”
This will allow you to weigh how your story will be received.
The next time you’re going out, make sure you read or listen to a podcast. You don’t have to be a fan of the news, stay informed, stay woke, who knows? you might save yourself from a conversational catastrophe.
5. Think around the topic (Spokes Method)
I’m not a soccer fan, but most of my friends are. They talk about sports 99% of the time and I used to be mute most of the time. I became an avid listener and picked up some sports jargon along with their conversation.
With time I realized that I could even start a conversation about soccer, isn’t that amazing. So how is this all possible for someone who knows nothing about soccer?
Have you ever looked closely at a bicycle tire? It is a marvel, the way the spokes radiate from the hub, from a central place. Now let’s picture the hub as the conversational topic and the spokes as related topics that can be introduced.
You need not be an expert at a topic, you just need to know your way around the topic. If, for example, you find yourself in a conversation about soccer you could bring topics such as-
- The world cup
- Champions League
- Local Teams
You could even go a notch deeper into the person you’re having a conversation with by asking some questions such as-
- “Do you play for any Local team?”
- “What is your favorite position in soccer?”
- “When is the next world cup tournament?”
- “Where will the world cup be hosted next?”
People love talking about themselves, get on their good side. Ask them a personal question that they’ll enjoy talking about. Something like…”I know little about soccer, what do you like most about it?”. This not only ignites an ember in them to talk about soccer, but it also makes them feel good about themselves.
The best part about the spokes method is, it’s a win-win. A win for you because you get to have a great engaging conversation without the awkward silences. A win for them because they get to feel like they dominated the conversation.
The key take here is to avoid self-editing yourself. You don’t have to be perfect if you feel it’s good enough for conversation, don’t bite your tongue, speak.
6. Stop Socially Hesitating (Quick win)
Why does the mind go blank when you need it the most? This is a challenge for most people and the solution might be a quick fix, don’t hesitate.
What happens when we hesitate? Our overthinking part of the brain takes over, we snap, we edit our thoughts. We minimize our importance and we find ourselves stuck in our minds. Crazy, right?
We discredit ourselves and we even badmouth ourselves. We end up saying things like…”Why am I so dumb?”
So how then can we condition ourselves for a win? Stop overthinking and take action. When we stop overthinking we learn more and grow faster.
There are two ways we can put this into play:-
- When someone new joins a group, introduce yourself and bring them up to speed
- Be curious about who they are. You can do this by asking open-ended questions such as…”Where did you grow up?”
This leads to engaging conversation and builds your confidence. You can’t think yourself into confidence, but taking action leads to confidence building.
7. Take Silence Breaks
Silence is a natural part of the conversation, there’s no harm in it. Trying so hard to fill gaps within a conversation may come across as anxiety.
Moments of silence in a conversation help you bond with the other person. Silence makes the conversation have more meaning. It gives you time to think and arrange your thoughts. It’s very possible that the person you’re having a conversation with needs a break too.
Being comfortable with silence is refreshing and invigorating. You need not talk all the time.
8. Be Relaxed
There’s always a feeling of anxiety when meeting new people. The possibility of not thinking or not having things to say is high.
You’ll probably want to end the conversation and run away quickly. Don’t. By staying a little longer, you’re teaching your mind that nothing bad happens. You become more relaxed and your mind lets you process information and build a conversation.
The funny part about the first meetings is, the other person is as equally nervous as you are. They too might experience anxiety and it helps if one of you is relaxed. It makes the other person relaxed too.
There’s a funny trick I used to stay calm whenever I had to meet someone new. I’d eat an orange and squeeze the peelings and rub the zest into my hands. It would end up as an icebreaker in conversation as most people would start by asking me…”You must love oranges, huh?.” You should try it sometime, hoping you’re not allergic to oranges though.
9. You’re not responsible for talking every time
An integral part of any friendship is being able to be comfortable around each other amidst silence. You might feel that you’re responsible for always having something to say. The person you’re having a conversation with probably thinks it’s their responsibility too.
They are thinking of what to say, they aren’t waiting for you to talk. Showing calmness and being okay with it helps both of you to be calm.
10. People want to learn about you too
The biggest misconception about conversations; people always want to talk about themselves. They also want to get to know you too, your interests, your likes, and dislikes, your taste, the whole hog.
You need to strike a balance with the other person. If they offer deep explanations about something, offer a deep explanation too. If they give little information, don’t exceed yours too. Find common ground. This way, you get to bond and reveal things about yourselves.
The key take is to keep things interesting by being at the same pace.
11. Check on body language
Did you know that 70-80% of communication is Non-Verbal? We are always communicating even when we’re not saying anything. If there’s one thing we’re unable to fake it’s our body language.
Have you ever noticed that the people who smile more are popular than those who don’t? Subconsciously they are warmer and inviting. When having a conversation we can check out on some of these cues to determine how well our conversations are going.
You might notice someone lean forward towards you and that’s a sign that they are interested in what you’re saying. If they lean away, it might mean that they are not in agreement with you.
It is not always a bad thing if someone doesn’t agree with you, it shows that they are human. Observing Non-Verbal communication cues can help you steer the conversation in the right direction.
For more information about non-verbal communication, check out Types of Non-Verbal Communication.
12. You won’t speak forever
Sorry to burst your bubble, the truth is you can’t speak forever. The conversation has to end at some point. You won’t always have to connect with someone on so many levels.
There’s more than meets the eye when having a conversation with someone. It depends on the mood they are in, how you feel, the environment you’re in.
The lifespan of a conversation should not worry you. You shouldn’t feel like a failure for having short conversations. The more conversations you have, the better a conversationalist you’ll become.
The key thing to remember is that small talk is a conversation. Don’t beat yourself up.
No one is born perfect, we all have our fair share of imperfections. We are not born knowing how to spark conversations or how to keep them going. These are skills we learn and pick up as we grow.
The greatest barrier to our conversational success lies in us not having faith in ourselves. By letting our minds get the best of us, we become shattered. We overthink and we end up biting our tongues mute.
We cannot at any one time imagine we’ll ever run out of topics to talk about. We are very diverse and have different experiences altogether. The world is a little better than it used to be these days, and learning something new is easy nowadays.
Whenever you have a conversation, make the best use of it. Attend conferences and seminars, go to parties. Speak to yourself in the mirror sometimes, it helps you in building confidence.
And if there’s one thing I can stress so much, don’t hesitate. Learn to take action, to begin conversations and keep them going. This way you’ll find yourself become great with each new conversation.
Don’t be afraid to express yourself. Speak up, say whatever’s in your mind. The only thing that can ruin you while expressing yourself is trying so hard to impress someone. You are unique in your special way. Someone once told me…”You can’t please everyone, you’re not biryani”. I came to realize that he was right. As much as Biryani is an international delicacy some people can’t even stand its sight.
Rome was not built in a day. As magnificent as it looks, it took a lot of years and hard work. Learn a new skill, gain new interests, and grow one conversation at a time.
Do you have any problems having a conversation? Have you been struggling to find the right words for conversation? Is there anything you feel you can improve on? We hope that the knowledge we’ve shared with you will go a long way to help you become great at conversation. Don’t be afraid to try starting conversations and while you’re at it share it with the world.