Making Conversation With Someone Who Is Only Giving You Short Answers
It's hard to talk with someone who's mostly giving you one or two-word replies. It puts too much pressure on you to keep the interaction going, and if you have trouble thinking of things to say yourself, the conversation may stall out before long. Here are some tips to possibly turn things around.
(Note that this article is about in-person conversations where the other person isn't saying much. If you're getting short replies to your texts, some of the ideas here may apply, but the situation isn't exactly the same.)
First, accept the conversation may just not work out
Take the pressure off yourself. It's a misconception that if your social skills are good enough you can make every interaction go well. If an exchange peters out it's not necessarily because you're a social failure. A successful conversation requires input from everyone in it, and the other person may just not be able to do their share to keep it going at the moment. They may be feeling really shy and nervous. They may be upset and distracted and not up to talking with anyone. They may not be interested in chatting with you in particular, for whatever reason.
Sometimes you can get past these barriers, but not always. You can't totally control how other people think and act. No matter how much you try to put them at ease, a shy person you're speaking to might not have the ability to hold a conversation with you at this point in their life. There's no way to "make" everyone want to chat with you enthusiastically and have a lot to say.
If you've made a few attempts to get someone to open up, and the conversation still isn't going anywhere, then politely wrap it up. No one wins if you resentfully feel like you're pulling teeth, and they wish you'd give them some space.
Try asking more open-ended questions
Someone may be giving short replies because you're asking closed-ended questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no". An open-ended question requires them to give a more fleshed out reply. For example, instead of asking if they had a good vacation, ask them what the highlight of it was. If someone really isn't feeling talkative they can still respond to the most thought-provoking question with a few words, but at least you gave them the opportunity to say more.
Ask for more details about their short answer
For example, if you asked them if they've had a fun vacation, and they said "yes" with no further elaboration, you could follow up with, "Awesome. What was the funnest thing you did?" Be cautious with this approach, as you can fall into an interviewer/interrogator dynamic where you keep asking follow-up questions to try to extract more information ("How was your vacation?", "Good", "What was good about it?", "It was relaxing", "What did you do to relax?", "Uh... read by the lake", "What did you read?"). If you've asked for more details a few times and they haven't given a longer answer, don't keep peppering them with questions on the same topic.
Give them more time to come up with a response
Sometimes you can accidentally force someone into giving seemingly short responses. They give a quick initial reply to your question, then before they have time to expand on it, you say something yourself. If someone says their vacation was good, and you allow them a beat or two to think, they may tell you more about it on their own. By not replying right away you're implicitly saying, "Go on..." This tactic requires you to be okay with moments of silence. Like the rest of these suggestions, this may not work either. If the other person isn't saying much because they're feeling shy and on the spot, creating a quiet moment may make them feel more uncomfortable.
Try changing the subject
Your conversation partner may not be saying a lot because they don't know much about the current topic or don't feel like talking about it. Maybe it doesn't interest them, they already speak about it enough for their tastes, or they think it's inappropriate to go into with you. If you change the subject they may be more chatty. Think about what you were just discussing and see if you can conclude anything that may help you shift to a better topic (e.g., if you've just met them and started asking overly personal questions, try talking about something more general and surface level).
Do more of the speaking for a while, which may give them some time to get comfortable with you
Some people feel tongue tied at the start of conversations because they haven't had time to warm up to whomever they're chatting with, and to generally switch their brain into Talking Mode. If you take over and do more of the speaking at first, you may give them time to get used to you. All the things you say may also inspire them to come up with their own contribution. To go back to the vacation example, you could ask them how theirs was, then give a longer spiel about a similar trip you took last year.
If you're still developing as a conversationalist yourself you may not be able to come up with a mini-speech like this. Even if you can, don't feel you have to hold court for the next ten minutes. Like I said earlier, both parties have to do their part to keep a conversation going. Carrying most of the weight initially is fine, but after that you're not obligated to do all the work.
Possibly adjust your non-verbal communication to make them feel more comfortable
Your tone of voice and body language may be making them feel uneasy or backed into a corner. For example, someone may start talking to a fellow party guest and think they're being outgoing and friendly, when they're unintentionally standing too close, and giving off hyper, overwhelming energy. There are lots of ways your non-verbals may send the wrong signal. This article can't get into all of them, but a few common ones are:
- Too forward, eager, and energetic (e.g., standing too close, talking too fast, making intense eye contact, using overly animated gestures, touching too much)
- Too nervous and uncomfortable, which may set off the other person's own anxiety (e.g., not making much eye contact, shaky voice, stricken facial expression, fidgeting).
- Too indifferent or unfriendly, like you're going through the motions (e.g., flat tone of voice, unexpressive face, bored or uninterested expression, crossed arms, scanning around the room for something more interesting)
If you suspect your non-verbals could be better, try to change them to be more mellow. For example:
- If your non-verbals are too forward: Physically step back, don't lean forward or touch them so much, tone down your mannerisms and eye contact, speak in a slower, more-relaxed way.
- If your non-verbals are anxious: I know changing your body language is easier said than done when you're nervous, but do your best. Even getting halfway there is better than nothing. Try to adopt a more relaxed vibe and not fidget. Try to keep a calm expression on your face and look the other person in the eye a bit more. (This section of the site has a lot of articles on dealing with anxiety).
- If your non-verbals seem disinterested: Make engaged eye contact and smile. Try to be more expressive with your face, tone of voice, and mannerisms. Learn toward the person and give them your attention.
If someone seems skeptical or guarded, one trick that can work is to match their body language, but with a more friendly, mellow version. So if they're leaning away from you with their arms crossed, do the same, but while smiling and continuing to chat pleasantly. Doing so sends the unconscious signal, "You're not sure about me yet. I get it. See, my arms are crossed too. I don't totally know what to make of you either. I'm going to hold back and not push it." After a few minutes they may feel acknowledged and start to relax. Mirroring tricks like this aren't magic though, and if someone really isn't in the mood talk no amount of semi-gimmicky rapport building tactics is going to change that.