There she is! There she is! Walking toward me! What do I say?
No, no, no, no . . . The CEO just got on the elevator with me! Be clever and don’t be weird . . .
Ugh . . . here comes Aunt Terri . . . Quick, think of something to talk about before she starts showing me pictures of her little rat dogs. . .
We’ve all been there—not knowing what to say during a social situation. And in this mindlessly digital age, in-person exchanges are rarer (and harder) than ever.
At the biological, psychological and spiritual levels, we’re starving for human connection. In fact, every cell in the human body is wired for in-person communication—we just don’t know how to do it anymore. Throw in an (un)healthy dose of pandemic isolation, divisive politics and economic catastrophes, and in-person conversations can be downright scary.
If starting a conversation feels awkward or even terrifying to you, you’re not alone. Most of us have chosen isolation over connection. Texting and emailing can feel safer and just plain easier, and finding folks who know how to start a conversation is becoming harder.
How to Start a Conversation Naturally
Point blank, we have to connect with real people through real conversations. Our lives depend on it. Thankfully, it’s a skill we can all practice.
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A quick caveat: The following tips are for in-person conversations with real-life human beings. You can apply some of them to text and email and the internets, but I’m more concerned with helping you connect with people face-to-face.
1. Don’t overthink it.
We spend so much time in our own heads. We obsess over how we look, how we’re standing, how we’re moving, whether our laugh is too loud or too quiet, and whether anyone noticed we forgot to pluck our crazy eyebrows.
The good news is that most people are thinking about themselves and not you. The even better news is that if someone is going to judge you on your eyebrows, you don’t want to spend time with them anyway. Win-win.
2. Make eye contact.
Having a conversation isn’t just a verbal process—it’s largely a bodily experience too. When you’re getting ready to talk to someone, whether it’s at a birthday party or a family reunion or a first date, start by facing the person and gently looking that person in the eye (a quick moment will do—no need to overdo it).
But be aware that eye contact can be perceived as aggressive or disrespectful in some cultures. So keep cultural context in perspective here while also understanding that nonaggressive eye contact or a friendly smile can go a long way in connecting two or more people.
3. Pay attention to body language and tone.
As I said above, human connection isn’t just about what you say—it’s also how you say it. Body movement and behavior is a language. Pay attention to your tone of voice, facial expressions, hand motions and body placement as you gear up to start a conversation. Is your stance friendly or intimidating? Are you smiling (if yes, is your smile creepy or normal)? Are you mumbling (this is my annoying insecurity default) or talking too loudly?
We often have default social anxiety responses or insecurity responses. But remember to be yourself. You’re worth talking to.
Also, notice the other person’s body language and listen to their tone to get a read on the situation. Are they in a hurry? Are they turned away from you and actively trying not to engage with you? Foot placement is another huge indicator of whether someone is open and receptive to you. If their feet are pointed toward you, they’re interested in continuing the conversation. If they’re turned away, it’s a subtle, subconscious cue that it’s time to move on.
4. Introduce yourself.
Okay, so once you’re in position, how do you actually make the first move? Sometimes the best opener is to introduce yourself. It’s a natural way to go first, and it gives the other person a nonthreatening way to respond.
Example: Hi, I’m John! Nice to meet you.
Pro tip: If all your fears come true and a silence of doom follows, you can follow up with an encouraging nudge, such as, And you are . . .?
5. Don’t be afraid of silence.
Silence often feels like the end of the world—or a massive rejection. We’ve been programmed to fill every social space with movement, noise and repeated attempts to engage. But silence isn’t bad. In fact, if we would all just slow down a bit, we’d find that gaps in conversations can draw us together.
Let interactions breathe. Breathe through silence and choose to not let it feel like a rejection. It’s probably not.
6. Find common ground.
Once you get the ball rolling, start asking questions that will help you find something in common with this person—whether it’s work or your alma mater or your hobbies. When you strike gold, you’ve now got a new topic you can explore to deepen your conversation. You might even make a new friend.
Examples: How do you know so-and-so (the host of your gathering)?
How long have you worked here/lived here/gone to church here?
What’s that book you’re reading?
My family and I love to hike too. Are there any trails you recommend?
7. Make the other person the star of the show.
This is the big one—so pay close attention here. Engaging someone in conversation is a great way to love people. It’s a way to be hospitable. It’s a way to honor other people while boosting our own mood. (No, I’m not exaggerating!) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and author, wrote, “The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them.” I think he’s on to something.
In graduate school, I actually took classes on listening. Like how to listen—really listen—and not just wait for the other person to take a breath so I could blast into the conversation with my thoughts and opinions.
Few things help someone else feel appreciated, known and loved like true listening.
In your conversations with others, picture yourself holding up a spotlight and shining it on the other person, showing that you care about the details of their lives. In short—be interested, not interesting.
Pro tip: Take opportunities to turn the conversation back on the other person with open-ended and follow-up questions (see the next two points).
8. Ask open-ended questions.
Yes-no questions are dead-end conversation starters. Push yourself to ask open-ended questions, inviting the other person to take you to places you might not expect.
Pro tip: Questions that begin with what or how usually generate open-ended answers.
Examples: What’s your story?
What’s a typical day at work like for you?
How did you become so passionate about [topic/job/hobby]?
Those may be the coolest shoes I’ve ever seen. What do you love about them?
9. Ask follow-up questions.
So many conversations are like a game of Ping-Pong—you’re hitting a ball of questions and stories back and forth without any real engagement. Instead of waiting for your turn to speak, ask follow-up questions that will help you get to know the other person better—especially when you notice that someone is excited about a certain topic.
Examples: Tell me more about that!
Wow! What was that like?
What was your favorite part about that vacation you just took?
Why are they your favorite band?
10. Try these go-to check-ins.
Okay, this advice is for people you actually know, not complete strangers (unless you’re an otherworldly conversation wizard who can make friends on the spot). Just because we see friends, family and coworkers often doesn’t mean we’re connected to them. We might feel lonely in a crowded room. But you can turn all that on its head by starting a good conversation.
Example: High, Low, Kudo, Schmudo
This is a great one to use with your kids—maybe on the ride home from school or around the dinner table:
- High: Share the best part of your day/week.
- Low: Share the worst part of your day/week.
- Kudo: Give a shout-out to someone who made your day/week.
- Schmudo: Share something silly (or something that made you laugh) that happened to you recently.
Example: Rose, Thorn, Bud
If you’re the earthy, granola type, try the Rose, Thorn, Bud check-in—with your spouse, a group of friends, or maybe even an acquaintance you’d like to get to know better.
- Rose: What good things are going on in your life right now?
- Thorn: What difficulties are you facing?
- Bud: What’s one thing you’re looking forward to?
11. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
We can easily psych ourselves out and make this a way bigger deal than it needs to be. The goal of a conversation isn’t to get a five-star review—you’re just trying to connect with another human being. And 99.9% of the time, people will appreciate the effort you’re making to get to know them—even if it’s unexpected or even slightly awkward.
And like I mentioned earlier, most people are busy worrying about themselves. You can provide a much-needed gift by smiling, listening, relaxing your body position, being confident, asking them questions, and being genuinely interested in their answers.
I don’t know about you, but I want to slide into the end of my life with no tread left on the tires. I want to have no conversation left unsaid.
Go all in. Put down your digital distraction boxes and have fun!
Wondering How to Make Small Talk? Use these Conversation Starters.
Every week I help people learn how to improve their relationships and move past the pain of trauma and anxiety on The Dr. John Delony Show. If you’d like to learn more about how to connect with other humans, listen to some of the live callers I coach on the show. No matter what’s holding you back, you can move forward—and you’ll learn how others have before you. I promise you’ll learn something unexpected, get some laughs, and find it much, much easier to connect. Tune in today.
Use these 20 questions to turn any date, road trip or family dinner into a weird and hilarious time for connection.Get the Questions