Getting Past The First Few Minutes Of One-On-One Conversation
There are good and bad sides to the first few minutes of conversation. In the Good column is the fact that they're fairly predictable and simple to plan out. It's also pretty easy to get practice at them. If you go to a big party or networking event it wouldn't be unusual to start chatting to a dozen or more people.
On the downside, if you're going to have trouble in a conversation it's likely going to be in those first couple of minutes. Usually if you can get past that point the rest is easier. There are two reasons for this: First, if someone doesn't feel like talking to you, or you don't have much to say to each other, that's typically going to come out in the opening minutes. They won't give you much to work with, or you'll both struggle to find something to talk about. (If that happens it's not necessarily a reflection on you, as it's impossible for every conversation you start to be a success.) Secondly, we're usually feeling at our most nervous and on the spot when we're first talking to someone, and the anxiety can cause us, or them, to stall out.
Here are my thoughts on navigating those first few minutes:
Accept that any conversation you start may peter out soon after it begins
I find this takes some of the nervousness and pressure away. Every time you talk to someone know there's a chance they may be preoccupied, have nothing in common with you, be too shy to think of anything to say themselves, and so on. Also accept that sometimes you just won't be on your game and unable to think of enough to say to do your part to keep the conversation moving. That this can happen is a totally normal, common aspect of trying to talk to new people. There's always going to be an element of it that's not under your control.
Have a plan for gracefully getting out of conversations when they fizzle
This also cuts down on the fear and uncertainty. Rather than panicking and blaming yourself when a conversation isn't getting off the ground, you can keep your cool and a find a way to smoothly end the conversation. Some examples:
- If you're stuck with them somewhere, like you're in an elevator, sitting beside them in class, or on a train, you can end the conversation by just not saying anything new. People sometimes have a quick exchange, are satisfied with it, then stop speaking. Just act as if that's what you were going for all along.
- You could use an excuse to leave. At a party you could imply you were just on your way somewhere and have to get back to that. If you started talking to a co-worker in the break room, you could pretend you only meant to chat to them for a moment, before having to look something up on your phone, or return a text.
- If you're in a more mingling-focused setting you can wait for a pause, and then transition to a wrapping-up phrase like, "It was nice meeting you..." or, "Anyway, enjoy your night..." There are other options, like seeing if the two of you can join a group discussion rather than trying to talk on your own. Again, how awkward this all will seem depends on your demeanor. Even if a conversation stalls out, you can project a comfortable, assured vibe.
- What if you're in a situation where you can't escape and are expected to keep a conversation going? Usually if we've just started talking to someone there's a way to quickly get out of it, but if that's not an option you'll have to power through any awkwardness and try to keep the interaction alive. The articles I link to at the end of this article offer advice about that.
Ask routine getting-to-know-you questions until you hit on something you both want to talk about
A rough goal of making conversation is to connect with people by talking about something you're both interested in. Sometimes you can dive into a mutually interesting topic right away. For example:
- You see a guest at a party is wearing a T-shirt of your favorite band. You comment on it and get into a discussion about seeing them on tour, and then into music in general.
- You hear someone at your part-time job travelled to Morocco last year. You're thinking of going yourself, and ask them a bunch of questions about it. They're happy to answer, and you eventually start talking about where else you'd each like to visit.
- You're at a gaming convention, automatically have some something big in common with everyone there, and can start conversations by asking any number of questions related to the hobby.
If that's the case the opening minutes of conversation are usually not a problem. However, if you don't have something to talk about right away, the standard protocol is to ask each other everyday getting-to-know-you questions such as:
- "What do you do for work?"
- "What are taking in school?"
- "What kind of stuff do you do for fun?"
- "Have you been able to get away and travel this summer/winter?"
- "Are you from here?" / "How long have you lived in the area?"
- "Do you have any kids?", "How old are they?/How many?/Girls or boys?"
- (In more religious areas) "Where do you go to church?"
- "How do you know Martin?" / "You went to the same school as Martin, do you know Shawn and Alexa?"
Sometimes we'll be happy to talk about this stuff. However, asking and answering these small talk questions can also feel rote and uninspired. As I explain more in this article, their main purpose is to cast around for a subject that's more engaging for each of you. Their predictability also gives each person a low-effort cushioning period so their nerves and on-the-spot feelings can dissipate.
So play along. Here's what you can do to help speed up the process of moving past them:
- When someone asks you a question, give them a meaty enough response, even if the topic is something you've been asked about a million times and find dull to talk about. Like, if they ask you about your job, don't just say, "I'm an interior designer." If they know about the field they may have more to say, but otherwise you'll leave them hanging. Instead, go into a tad more detail about what you do and what's unique about it. If you like your job, say why. If you don't, bring up the neat thing you'd rather be doing. There are lots of options. Either way, give them plenty of "jumping off points" so they'll have an easier time coming up with a follow up question that takes the conversation in a more original direction. Or if you really don't want to answer a question, have a way to change the subject and keep the momentum going.
- As soon as the other person mentions anything semi-interesting, grab onto that and use it to move away from the routine exchange. Like if you ask them what they do for fun, and they say they like watching movies, ask them about which ones they've seen recently and what they thought of them, or make a comment on a good film you've seen yourself.
It shouldn't be long before you hit on a more interesting subject, and you shouldn't have as much trouble talking to them after that. And if you don't find anything to say to each other, that's a sign this particular conversation may not be destined to work out, and you can gracefully wrap it up.
Be willing to take the lead
Conversations sometimes die right away because each person is unsure how to act and is waiting for the other to step up direct where the exchange goes. If you're shyer this may not be something you'll be comfortable with initially, but it can come with more practice and experience. What do I mean by directing?
- Being the first to ask a getting-to-know-you question, and therefore getting to pick one you think will work best (e.g., asking about hobbies, since you have a feeling they'll have some of the same ones as you).
- Being willing to politely change the subject if you're on a topic that doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
- Saying something to kick start the exchange if it's petering out. For example, asking them about their family after talking about your jobs didn't lead to much.
- Generally asking questions and making statements that take the discussion in that ever-important mutually interesting direction (e.g., You ask someone about their summer and they mention working a part-time job, attending a wedding, and visiting Europe. You've got a lot to say about traveling, so you ask them about their trip, or mention the time you went to Spain). It's selfish to always steer conversations to only what you want to talk about, but it's fine to do this occasionally, and if helps get an interaction off the ground.
- Doing most of the talking, until they get more comfortable (again, this is a more advanced skill). For example, you ask them about their career and they don't say much and you get a sense they're feeling on the spot. Rather than barrage them more with questions, you bring up your own job, and tell a quick, funny story about something that have happened to you at work.
Generally know how to keep conversations going
These articles should help: