Some Popular Overall Approaches For Making Conversation

There are articles on this site that cover making conversation on a more micro or small-scale level. Some of those are about how to start conversations and their building blocks. There's also an article that talks about some bigger picture ideas.

This article is going to look at things at a medium, in-between level. There are general approaches to making conversation you can use. You may have seen them covered elsewhere. Having a general approach can be very helpful because:

That said, no general approach to making conversation is going to give you a foolproof equation to get along with everyone you meet. It's never that simple. However, using one is a lot better than going in completely unprepared. Also, there's nothing saying you can't have a couple of approaches ready to go, and if one doesn't work, you can try another. You can also switch up broad approaches within a single conversation as it evolves. You don't have to rigidly try to apply only one strategy to every person or situation. Here they are:

Be curious about other people and make it your goal to find out what's fascinating and unique about them

This is the most popular general approach you'll hear people mention. It comes up again and again in all kinds of places. The idea here is that you're primarily going to be a question asker and a listener and focus the discussion on the other person. Your "mission" in the conversation is to discover what makes them interesting.

The underlying assumption about why this approach works is that everyone's favorite subject is themselves, and they'll like someone who takes a genuine interest in them and the things they have to say. People also tend to feel good about a conversation where they're provided a space to talk about aspects of themselves that they're proud of and passionate about (e.g., they get to excitedly tell someone how much they pushed themselves by traveling around South America on a tiny budget). Another line you'll hear often in regards to this strategy is that you'll be way more successful taking an interest in other people than you will by trying to get them interested in you.

A benefit of this approach is that it predisposes you to adopt a positive, friendly frame of mind. Its basic premise implies that everyone is worth talking to if you dig past any surface preconceptions you may have of them. And since you're likely to actually find something interesting, it ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. This can be useful for people whose default setting is to be a little negative about others. A second upside is that it takes the pressure off you to try to win everyone over by being super-colorful and entertaining.

When applying this approach you don't want to literally be interviewing the other person or talking about them the entire time. You can still bring up things about yourself and share your own opinions when it's relevant to do so. However, the general focus of the conversation is on them.

Talk in terms of the other person's interests

This approach is pretty similar to the one above, in that you're mainly listening and the conversation is based around them and the things they like discussing. The assumptions about why it works are the same as well. I almost lumped them together under one heading.

They're not exactly the same though. The approach above is more general, and is about finding people's good traits, whatever they may be. This one is more about specifically trying to find out what someone is interested in talking about, and centering the conversation around that. You take an interest in their interest and ask questions about it, or you listen and let them tell you about it. They may want to talk about a hobby of theirs, or maybe they'll want to tell someone about their up-and-down relationship with their sister. Whatever it is, go with it.

I think both of these listening/other person-centric approaches can work extremely well. However, at the same time I think their effectiveness can be a bit over-hyped. That's not to say they're useless. They're just the not perfect, one-size-fits-all strategies they're sometimes portrayed as. I talk about their limitations more in this article:

Listening And Being Interested In People Isn't A Conversation Cure-All

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Try to hit on a topic you both naturally want to talk about

It's very easy to think of things to say when you're chatting about something you're naturally interested in. Like if someone loves movies, something as simple as the name "Martin Scorcese" may cause a dozen thoughts and opinions and possible conversation topics to appear in their head. Likewise, if you're talking to someone, and you both really want to discuss the same topic, the conversation will tend to flow very effortlessly. Everything you say to each other will inspire a bunch of new points you could possibly bring up. Odds are higher you'll also connect with and like them, because they're into the same things that you are. This approach is about trying to get that type of conversation going.

To start off with this method you first have to find out if there are any subjects you both want to chat about. You can do this by asking them about their interests - "So what kind of things do you do for fun?", "Do you cook much?", etc. You could also make statements about topics that are interesting to you, and hope they spark a discussion, e.g., "Wow, you should have seen the game last night." The general getting-to-know-you small talk that often starts a conversation often serves this purpose of scouting for some common ground.

Figure out what topics you have an easy, enjoyable time talking about, and then try to steer the conversation in that direction

Again, this approach has a lot in common with the one before it. Here the emphasis is a little less on fishing around for a mutually interesting topic, and more on starting with what you want to discuss and trying to mold the conversation around your comfort zone. Though for it to work you either need, a) for the other person to want to discuss the topic as well, or b) to find someone who doesn't mind listening to you go on about it (perhaps they're using one of the first two approaches).

This is considered more of a selfish strategy, since you're attempting to direct the discussion to things you want to discuss. It's generally thought of as better form to focus on the other person. However, I still mention it because it is a general strategy that may help someone organize their thoughts and simplify how they approach an interaction. I also think in reasonable doses it's perfectly fine to try to talk about the things you're passionate about. You just have to be sensitive to other people and take care not to bore them or monopolize the air space.

Try to make the other person interested in and impressed by you

This could take a number of forms, such as:

This strategy definitely has a more negative connotation. There's more of a downside if you try to apply it and it doesn't hit the mark. You can be seen as insecure and trying too hard, or as someone who's self-absorbed and full of themselves. It also flies in the face of the "It's better to be interested in other people than try to get them to be into you" concept inherent in the approaches mentioned earlier.

The ideal is that it's fine to show our good points, but they should come up naturally, not because we're trying to shoehorn them into the interaction. Again, the reason I bring it up at all is that it's still a game plan some people employ. I'm also going to be honest and say we all slip into this strategy from time to time, whether we're conscious of it or not, especially when we're talking to someone we really do want to impress or win over. I think in very careful moderation it's okay, and that there's nothing too wrong with trying to put your best foot forward or call attention to your strengths. Of course, you have to be subtle and cautious in how you do it.