There are days where I can have conversations with a wall. On others, I’d rather not interact with anyone the entire day. On the whole though, I feel I don’t need to pretend the washing machine is on fire in order to get out of a conversation. I don’t have problems meeting people, going on stage or striking up conversations with strangers.
A friend asked me a while ago about how to become more at ease in communicating with people. He wanted to know how to steer a conversation, relay stories and keep a conversation going. What you’re about to read is the reply I typed out to him.
Why I Talk With Strangers
I usually have conversations for fun. Or to make new friends. Or to get inspired. I rarely have a specific goal for a specific conversation, so I’ll just go wherever it takes me. I like to have conversations because I enjoy being witty and a conversation is a great opportunity for that. It might not be a flattering character trait to feature, but it is what it is. Most people seem to enjoy it. Others, to my great delight, pay me back in kind.
What to Talk About
Holding a conversation and moving it along are often matters of practice. It helps if you like listening to the sound of your own voice. There a number of general pointers, ideas and quick fixes that can make it easier to get into the flow of things and keep them there.
Topics that many people are okay with traditionally include family, occupation, recreation and dreams (‘FORD’ topics). Think of it less like a form to be filled out than about understanding what motivates them. Maybe they do the things they do to create a safe future for their kids. Maybe they do these things for fun. Maybe they do them because they feel they have to. Everyone is different. Finding out what makes people tick is fun and ‘FORD’ topics are a non-confrontational way to go about it.
Take an interest in other people. Is there something you would like to know about them? Ask! I like to pick unusual angles to avoid interactions that feel scripted, rehearsed or repeated. It’s harder because it requires some intuition and tact. I tend to have the former, not so much of the latter. Try to find out what kind of person they are. Ask questions!
I probably go over board with this every now and then and end up interviewing people. Depending on the person and circumstances, the reactions fall anywhere between amused and exhausted.
Tell them what you think about them, especially if it’s something positive. On a few occasions, picking something negative can also work, as long as it’s considerate and appropriate for the person you are speaking with. In general though, you want to make people feel good for talking to you, so appreciative comments or appropriate compliments tend to work a lot better.
Talking about something you don’t care about will show. Pick a topic you have strong feelings about. People will feel the energy radiating from you when you really get into sharing something you care about. Whether it’s personal misfortune or limitations, if you share something that also makes you look a little bad (or that you can’t do so well), people have an easier time relating. They’re also less likely to perceive you talking about yourself as boring or negative if you do so in a self-effacing manner.
People love stories. If you can tell one well, they’ll enjoy talking to you. Think about what’s interesting in your life to others. I could add ‘do interesting things,’ but from what I’ve seen, it’s more about realizing that there is a lot going on in most people’s lives that would be utterly fascinating to others. Whether those are experiences from your business, tales from your home country or experiences you made traveling: anything that doesn’t exist in other people’s lives is inherently fascinating. Pick something others don’t know about. That has the added advantage of making it less likely that they’ll call you out if whatever you say doesn’t make any sense.
My friend Almog from Unstagnate is a great story teller. His advice? Focus on key moments, and describe emotional and/or scenic details to be evocative and suck people in.
How to Deal With Silence
Sometimes a conversation stops, and sometimes that seems awkward. There are plenty of little tricks you could learn for this, but I prefer an attitude and mindset change over just creating lots of small tricks.
If the conversation dies, that’s not your fault. It takes at least two for that to happen… so don’t feel like you have to be one to fix that. It’s not a big deal, silence happens. It’s good for reflection. Don’t be worried about breaks in a conversation. Being comfortable with silences can be preferable to being a non-stop talking smiley emoticon.
You can always go back to the above – is there something else you want to know about them? Is there maybe something they want to know about you? What are other questions have they asked? Maybe you can expand on a previous answer. Otherwise, feel free to move on and end the conversation.
How to End a Conversation
Potentially the most anxiety-inducing part of having a conversation can be extracting yourself from it.
In conversations with strangers, segueing into a ‘it was nice to meet you’ is, in general, something others pick up on and go along with. Sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes it’s Segway-on-gravel. When I get stressed out about it, it’s usually because I mentally linger on uncomfortable moments. On the other hand, if my attention gets drawn to something else, I simply forget about them.
Basic needs are relatable to every human being, whether you have to go to the restroom or get yourself something to drink. The downside, of course, is that then you actually have to do that, which is how I end up being a lot more drunk at the networking event than I had originally planned.
Another way to go about this is to mention the time you have in advance: sure, we can talk about this on the phone; I have about fifteen minutes before I have to head out.
Things That Help
Like everything else, it gets a lot easier with practice. Practice is the part that feels uncomfortable. In the beginning, you might have to force yourself (again, like everything else). If it’s pleasant, you’re cruising, not practicing. Over time, as you expand your comfort zone, you’ll notice what used to be an effort, comes naturally.
Smiling works wonders for everything. I’m not a fan of faking it. However, you can change your circumstances to be more likely to smile: less stress, more sleep, do things you like, follow your dreams. Anything that puts you in a better mood or that will make you more relaxed makes it easier to smile.
I think accepting yourself the way you are and without conditions is a big part of developing the necessary self-confidence to leave your comfort zone and put yourself at risk of rejection. This holds true just as much for talking with strangers as it does feeling at ease in a rural bus stop in Uganda.
Become aware of how small the consequences are when you mess up. Don’t worry about sounding creepy, awkward, weird, strange… most strangers you talk to won’t remember the conversation a week later.
As long as you have good intentions, there’s nothing to worry about. How much have you thought about the people you met at the last social event you attended since you met them? People overestimate how much others think about them and thus also overthink their interactions with them.
There’s little to fear. If something went wrong in your eyes, give it an ‘oh well’ and try to have your attention captured by something else.
How to Recover
Having a conversation can be a taxing experience. You are following another person’s train of thought, processing what is said (and what is left unsaid), reading their body language to gauge interest, and picking up on cues to make your own contributions. A lot of this happens subconsciously, but it still requires mental energy.
Talking can be draining, especially if you’re leaning towards introversion and require solitude to recharge your batteries. I need a lot of alone time, especially to recover from interactions with others. It doesn’t matter if it’s close family members or people who I’ve just run into. Social interactions take a significant toll, and if they’re not followed or preceded by alone time, the effect on me is similar to sleep deprivation.
It’s completely okay, and in my eyes even necessary, to take time off from interactions with others. Whether you spend the weekend with a book for company or keep your calendar free of non-essential meetings for a week, avoiding contact for the purpose of avoiding contact can be liberating and makes your other interactions more enjoyable and less stressful.
I’m not sure if this look inside my head makes me seem like the most well-adjusted person. Or maybe ‘adjusted’ is exactly what it is. Maybe talking is like playing the piano. In the beginning, you force yourself, and with more and more practice, it starts to become ‘natural’. However, knowing quite a few people who struggle with these things, I figured it might be helpful to have the uncensored version of what goes on inside the head of someone who’s made up their mind to talk to people regardless.