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:

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:

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:

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:

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?

Generally know how to keep conversations going

These articles should help:

Some Popular Overall Approaches For Making Conversation
Ways To Deal With Awkward Silences In Conversations
How To Think Of Things To Say When Making Conversation