The Art and Science of Making Conversation

The complete guide to making better conversation

The Art and Science of Making Conversation

How to get to the next level in both your personal and professional life

Don't we all want to be charming, witty conversationalists? You know the type ... the ones who work a room with ease. Think about the people you know who seem to bring out the best in you whenever you talk to them: You feel instantly comfortable conversing with them and feel truly listened to. They could be old friends or someone you've just met, but the conversation just seems to flow freely. Well, here's the good news: Having meaningful conversations is something that can be learned. With practice and a little bravery, we can all become better at it. Here's how.

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The Complete Guide
to Making Conversation

Initiating a Conversation with Strangers

Communications expert Dr. Carol Fleming recommends her three-part ARE Method (Anchor, Reveal, Encourage) to kick-off a conversation with confidence.

Anchor

This is the time to point out something that establishes a shared reality. The aim of the anchor is to lay a great foundation that politely segues into a more meaningful conversation. Keep it light and pleasant ("Nice turnout, huh?" or "It's beautiful out tonight, isn't it?")

Reveal

Now that you're both more comfortable, open up on your perspective. Disclose something about yourself that is related to the anchor you just mentioned. ("I was a little disappointed in last year's crowd," or "If the weather holds, I'm taking my bike out this weekend.")

Encourage

Invite them into the conversation by asking a follow-up question that's related to your revelation. You don't want to make it too complicated, they should be able to answer in a couple words. ("Were you here last year?" or "Any plans to take advantage of this weather?")

Avoid
Pitfalls with Acquaintances

The tricky part of kicking off a conversation with someone you know (but not all that well) is that it's often difficult to keep the details straight or you're unaware of what's changed since you've seen them last. The key here is to frame your questions carefully and stay neutral in order to keep your foot out of your mouth.

Instead of:

The last time I saw you, you were looking for a new job. (He could still be unemployed or stuck in a job he hates.)

Try:

What's the latest on the job search?

Instead of:

How long have two been together? (Perhaps they haven't defined their relationship yet.)

Try:

So, how did you two meet?

Instead of:

Have any kids yet? (They could not want kids or have trouble conceiving.)

Try:

Bring me up to date ... what's happening with you?

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Employ Active Listening

When talking with someone, especially someone you're not all that comfortable with, many people start thinking about what they want to say next while the other person is talking. But if you're too focused on what you should say next, you'll often miss opportunities to follow up on the quality talking points right in front of you. These could be areas of similarity between you and this person you've just met or lead-ins that your coworker or significant other provides which allows you an opportunity to engage. Either way, when you actively listen, you'll come off like someone who genuinely takes an interest in the other person. Plus, you'll be able to come up with more interesting and relevant responses.

Being Interested Makes You Interesting

You don't have to make people laugh or tell a great story to be considered interesting. Being a great conversationalist is about letting other people shine. Most people love to talk about themselves. In fact, Harvard's psychology department discovered that talking about yourself triggers the same pleasure sensation in the brain as digging into really delicious food. So ask an open-ended question about something that you notice about the other person. If you can give them a sincere compliment or give them positive feedback, you've made a great start. Besides, if you do all the talking, you'll likely get tired or run out of things to say.

Don't Let Silence Scare You

Your conversation doesn't have to constantly flow. A short interlude of quiet in an otherwise lively discussion doesn't mean that things have turned south. Don't rush in to fill the silence. You'll almost always regret what you say if you're only saying it to prevent some silence. The break can actually give each of you a chance to take a beat, refocus on another topic or segue into a natural way to wrap up.

How introverts can start a conversation

The Introvert's Opener

Walking into a room full of people (whether they're coworkers or complete strangers) can be intimidating, especially for introverts. An easy approach? Find a person or group on the outskirts and say something akin to "Man, these events can be so loud/intense ... mind if I join you over here where it's a little quieter?"

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