Some Bigger Picture Thoughts On How To Make Conversation
If you've read some other articles in this section you know it tackles making conversation at different scales. On the micro level I talk about ways to start them or handle awkward silences, for example. At a 'middle' level I go over some broad approaches you can use for talking to people. This article will give some more abstract, general thoughts on the subject.
You really, really just have to practice making conversation a lot to get better at it
If someone is having trouble making conversation then they do need to be given some advice about basic principles and guidelines they can follow, perhaps with some example lines or topics to try. I cover that in other articles. However, I've found a problem is that as much as someone tries to prepare for a conversation ahead of time, a lot it tends to go out the window once they're talking to someone in real life and they have to think on their feet. When you're trying to listen to someone, or come up with what to say next, it's hard to simultaneously refer back to the master plan in your head. And beyond the first few relatively easy-to-predict exchanges, a conversation can quickly go in any number of directions. It's totally impractical to try to come in with some grand flowchart that covers every possibility.
Once you've got some general concepts to get you started, the only real way to get the hang of applying the ideas is to practice them a ton. There's no shortcut to doing this. You have to get used to reacting in the moment. You have to give your mind enough experience that it can put some initially difficult sub-skills on autopilot, so you can free up more mental resources.
Feeling comfortable is a big factor in conversing well
- They may generally be shy and anxious.
- They may be uneasy talking to certain types of people.
- They may feel inhibited about starting conversations in the first place.
- They may be uncomfortable with certain topics, such as talking about themselves.
- They may think they're boring and have nothing worthwhile to contribute.
- They get intimidated and freeze up in large groups.
- They may feel awkward conversing in certain styles, like being loud and goofy.
Dealing with these issues requires a combination of facing your fears and getting used to them, and handling any counterproductive beliefs that make these situations out to be more risky than they are.
One core conversation skill is being able to get inside the head of other people
In other words, using empathy skills. Ideally a conversation isn't just two people talking for the sake of talking, but that they both find the exchange interesting and enjoyable. The flip side is that you want to avoid the discussion becoming awkward or tense or embarrassing for the other person. To do that you've got to be able to put yourself in the other person's shoes, and think about the following:
- What do they want to get out of this conversation? Do they want to have a brief, casual chat? Do they want to have a stimulating discussion of deep ideas? Do they just want to joke around? Do they want someone to happily listen to them talk about something they're enthusiastic about? Do they want support as they vent about something that's been bothering them?
- What topics would they be interested in talking about, and be able to contribute to? What would bore them or leave them with nothing to say? (e.g., choosing not to talk about baseball with someone who knows nothing about the sport).
- Are there any topics I should avoid, things that may upset them, or make them feel uncomfortable? (e.g., talking about relationships around someone you know is embarrassed about having not dated much).
- What seems to be this person's overall conversation style? Are they more of a reserved listener type? Are they chatty and talkative? Are they polite or blunt?
We can't be flawless mind readers, especially with people we don't know well or have just met, but as the conversation goes on we can often pick up the gist of what the other person is like and get a general answer to these questions. Acting on that information allows you to steer the conversation in a direction that will be more rewarding for both of you.
This is not to say you have to turn into a soulless manipulator or spineless people pleaser, and always takes the conversation in the direction the other person wants it to go. It's more that if you have this information you can make better decisions. You may pick up on what the other person prefers, and decide the best conversation may come out of going against that. For example, you may realize the other person wants to complain about something minor, and you think the best course of action is to change the subject and then start joking around to cheer them up.
Put the good of the conversation ahead of your personal preferences for it
There will be times when you're talking to someone and it's pretty clear what needs to happen for the conversation to go well, but that clashes with how you'd like it go. Maybe you're dying to tell everyone about a bit of trivia you learned the other day, but the only way to bring it up would be to force into an inappropriate spot. The higher priority is the health of the conversation itself. This idea especially applies in group discussions where you may have something to say in mind, and within two sentences the topic can move on to something entirely different. It's better to adapt and move forward rather than think, "But I had such a good point prepared in my head. Hm, maybe I can clumsily pull the discussion back to the previous subject."
Not every conversation needs to follow the same template
Reading some advice on making conversation, you can get the impression that every time you talk to someone it's as if you've just introduced yourself to a stranger at a party, and must follow the formula for that particular situation. Like first you must make small talk, then you have to try to get to know them better, and eventually maneuver the discussion into deeper territory. The goal might be to get to know them on a core level and really connect with them as a fellow human. Some advice implies you should always try to make a conversation go as long as possible too.
An approach like that definitely has its place, but conversations can take many forms. Sometimes we just run into an acquaintance on the elevator or in line at the campus cafeteria and have a quick "what have you been up to?" exchange. We don't always have to drive towards deeper, more meaningful material every time. Sometimes we mainly want to joke around with people on a fluffy, superficial level, or talk about impersonal subjects like movies. Many people have buddies or acquaintances they've never 'connected' with that all deeply, but still enjoy their company for other reasons.
There are outside factors that determine how a conversation is likely to go before it begins
When it comes to social interactions I think a saying that applies is "The outcome of a battle is decided before it even starts". When you start talking to someone, your conversation skills will play a role in how well the interaction goes, but many of the factors that determine how it will turn out are already in place. Some of them are:
- Whether the other person or people are in the mood to talk, or if they're busy, distracted, or stressed about something else.
- How much you have in common with the other person. If you're not that similar to them (and your differences aren't that interesting to each other either) the conversation may be dead in the water before it begins.
- The impression the other person has of you, whether they're seeing you for the first time, or from your previous dealings. This will determine how willing they'll be to talk to you, the attitude they'll have when you're speaking with them, topics they'll want to discuss or avoid, etc. For example, if you're in your mid-forties and are talking to a 22-year-old co-worker, they're probably going to have a different kind of conversation with you compared to if they were chatting to someone their own age.
- Whether you're off-putting or intimidating to the other person in some way. Things like being very good-looking, having a higher social status, or having a certain reputation can intimidate people. Things like giving off a bad attitude, being really awkward, and poor dressing and grooming habits will put people off you. When people are intimidated or put off by someone they tend to be more tongue-tied or reluctant to engage with them.
Not every conversation can go perfectly, and you can't make everyone like you
I've read my share of advice on making conversation and in a lot of it is this implicit message that the ideal is to be able to talk to anyone at any time. I think if you're a good conversationalist you can get along with all sorts of people, but realistically you can't win them all. Sometimes you're going to talk to someone and it's just going to be awkward and stilted, or you won't have much to say to each other. Maybe it's because of you, maybe them, maybe the circumstances, or some combination of the three. There's no need to be hard on yourself if you can't have a sparkling conversation with every last person you meet. This is especially true if you just want to be somewhat better at talking to people than you are now, but don't feel any need to be a social kung fu master.
How you present something is as important as what you talk about
Someone who's naturally funny, insightful, or a good story teller can take the same basic topic or premise as someone else and, as if they're running it through a filter, make it more engaging. It's not always about having the right, magic topics to bring up. Someone who's a good conversationalist can work with all kinds of material.
If the conversation is going well overall, you can get away with slacking on some of the smaller technical details
As long as everyone involved is happy with the interaction there aren't many hard-and-fast little rules you always have to follow. For example, all else being equal it's better to make good eye contact with people while you're talking to them. But if your other conversation skills are solid, making so-so eye contact isn't going to totally ruin things. Making artful segues are another area you can slack on a bit. Just going ..."Oh yeah..." or "...Oh, I just remembered..." is usually an acceptable way to change topics as long as you're not being completely random.
Connecting vs. Distancing in conversation
This one is a bit more abstract. When you're talking to someone the things you say, and the intent behind him, can function to help you connect with the other person, and bring you closer to them, or they can push you apart. For example, say you're talking to someone about a particular movie, and they make an insightful observation, but also get a minor plot detail wrong while they're making it. A more connecting response would be to ignore the mistake, since it's not relevant to the overall point, and their more general goal of wanting to get rapport with you by talking about films you both appreciate.
A more distancing response would be to correct them, and from the reasoning of, "This person is stupid. I'll show I'm better and separate from them by pointing out their error." It's all about the intent, since someone could point out their mistake in a friendly way as well. Without always realizing they do it, some people approach conversations with a more distancing mentality. They may have a bad habit of needing to one-up everyone. They could have a false sense of being better than the people they're talking to. Of course, if you realize you tend to do this, try to put yourself in a more connecting, less competitive mentality.