How do I get better at holding conversation?
March 5, 2009 3:00 PM   Subscribe

So. How do I get better at holding conversation?

So I'm not very good at holding a one-on-one conversation. Face-to-face, online, on the phone, whatever. This isn't always the case but I run into awkward silences with everyone (acquaintances, dates, family, my closest friends) often enough that I'd really like to try and do something about it. Sometimes I can talk and talk for hours but more often than not I can't think of anything to say. I'll start a conversation with a friend, get as far as "hi, how are you, what's new?" and then realize I can't think of anything to talk about. I'll kind of panic and start to wonder why I started the conversation at all, say something mundane about the new Bob Dylan album or something, and the conversation soon dissolves into awkard silence. I tend to assume it's a failure on my part.

I've got some self-esteem, depression & anxiety issues that probably have something to do it but I've come a long, long way with all that in the past few years. I'm a pretty quiet and reserved person by nature but I'm not particularly socially awkward or anything. I'll note this isn't as much of an issue for me in group situations (even just three or four people, whether I know them all or not) or in public (seminar groups at university, etc).

SO I'd like to know if you all have any tips for carrying a decent conversation or any recommendations for measures I might take to address the problem.
posted by tealsocks to Human Relations (23 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Talk less. Ask questions more.
posted by padraigin at 3:03 PM on March 5, 2009 [5 favorites]

Ask something about them that shows you were listening the last time you talked. It takes the pressure off you to do the talking and shows that you're a considerate person. "So, how's that art class going?" "Did you decide to keep that stray puppy you found?" Shifting the focus to the friend may also let you relax and listen to them, which lets you follow up more naturally.
posted by *s at 3:09 PM on March 5, 2009

Practice. Plus what padraigin said. When you find yourself out of things to say, ask a question.
posted by lekvar at 3:09 PM on March 5, 2009

Practice? I have a feeling you're here, on the internet, asking this question in hopes that there is some way you can fix this alone or on the internet. But that's not the case. The only way to up your game in social situations is to BE in social situations.

Practice, practice, practice. You _will_ fail. Everyone does. Don't take it too hard. Move on to the next interaction and learn from the failures.

If you need serious recommendations for forcing yourself into social situations, try Toastmasters or
posted by phrakture at 3:12 PM on March 5, 2009

To reiterate what padraigin said in a more verbose fashion:
People LOVE talking about themselves. In general, they tolerate hearing others talk about themselves. Use that. Stop talking about your self, and what you did, and how you do this and that. Reverse it and ask them.

"I went to the store today and bought some kumquats. They were gross. I hated it"
"I went to the store today and bought some kumquats. Have you ever had one?"
posted by phrakture at 3:20 PM on March 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
2. Apply what you learn.

Which is essentially what most of the answers above are saying. Be genuinely more interested in learning about the other party than you are about telling them about yourself. People will think you are a great conversationalist without you actually saying much at all.
posted by COD at 3:29 PM on March 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Encouraging the other person to talk about themselves *is* a good idea, unless they happen to be another person like yourself who perhaps isn't very good at that either. You do need to be able to say interesting things about yourself, too. Often that comes down to making an effort to *do* more interesting things, so that you have something to talk about. For myself anyway, I find if I quickly run out of things to talk about, it's because I haven't been doing much worthy of bringing up in conversation.
posted by FishBike at 3:37 PM on March 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Read the newspaper. Staying up-to-date on what is happening in the world will give you things to talk about, and will help you keep up when others focus on current events. Be the person who knows what is going on. Get good at explaining things. Magazines and the web also play their part. If you're into film or music or any other art, perhaps the person on the other end of the conversation is too? Be versatile in your interests and don't write off another person's opinion if it isn't completely in line with yours—try to find common ground.

As others have said, ask questions and actually listen to what people have to say. Try to encourage and engage them. Build on what they say—when you hear them mention something you're particularly interested in, feel free to go with that tangent, within reason. You want to keep the conversation interesting not only to them, but also yourself. Also, notice when they do this and let them; unless you're trying to accomplish something specific with the conversation, it doesn't have to stay on a given topic. Nonlinear conversations can be some of the best. When both people are too receptive to the trajectory of the discussion, they may wind up talking about things that neither of them remotely care about. Snoozefests ensue.

Really though, there are no rules that work with all people. With that said, if you genuinely want to talk to someone and you listen attentively while trying to find common ground, you're usually on the right track.
posted by defenestration at 4:06 PM on March 5, 2009

Seconding How to Win Friends and Influence People. Title sounds like a how-to-be-evil manual, but it's a well-respected classic for good reason.

Cliffs: Get people to talk about themselves and they'll think your the greatest conversationalist in history.
posted by coolguymichael at 4:11 PM on March 5, 2009

Talk less. Ask questions more.

Perfect advice.

People also like hearing about you, so always try to have an answer to the question "what's new with you?"

It doesn't have to be anything special. "Oh, I'm studying a lot" or "I've been really getting into the Daily Show." Try to avoid negative subjects or even negative words.

Ideally your conversation partner will pick up on the subject and ask you a few questions.

However, conversation is an art, and younger folks (say, up to age 25) often don't do it very well. So if you're encountering awkward silences, it's not all your fault.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:17 PM on March 5, 2009

Make a conscious effort to smile when you converse with someone. People are more at ease when they think you're enjoying their company.
posted by baphomet at 4:22 PM on March 5, 2009

Another vote for the "let them talk" school of thought.

In particular, I've found a great conversation topic is to ask people how they're feeling about this-or-that. It shows a level of interest in their lives that goes beyond the superficial, and can often be very endearing as a result. Plus, it generates interesting responses that can be quite revealing and insightful for you to hear, and help impart a deeper, more complex understanding of the person you are chatting with.

So, for example, saying things like "are you feeling satisfied with your current job?" or "your sister just got married? How do you feel about her husband?" can be great, because people love to offer complex analysis on topics that are very personal to them, but often don't have a chance to talk much about with other people. Not saying you have to get super psychological about it, but just showing you're capable of understanding the idea that people think about things other than movies or music or the weather is always appreciated.
posted by filibuster at 4:31 PM on March 5, 2009

You know what's awesome? Riding the eleveator. I am on the 14th floor of my building and I have perfected the art of making small take based on random things - the weather, the book the person is holding, something about their appearance, something about my appearance, etc., etc. I just can't stand the awkward silence for 14 floors and I find that 95% of the time the other people on the elevator are happy enough to chat.

Obviously that is not all (or even most) of holding on an actual conversation but it's great practice for those moments in conversation that come up even with good friends when you realize the conversation pause has gone on too long and you think, oh shit, I have to say something but what!?
posted by shaun uh at 4:56 PM on March 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I could have written this question a few years ago. It's hard and a little stressful to think of good things to say on the spot, especially if you have the tendency (as I do) to immediately rule out saying things because they sound stupid or you're afraid the other person will find them offensive. Sorry if these things are super basic and obvious, but here are some things I've realized:

1. People are not as judgmental as I used to think. Often, they'll be trying to think of something to say as well, and so they'll recognize when you're trying to break the ice and they'll be more understanding that you haven't gotten into deep, soul-searching, amazing conversation yet.

2. Good back-up topics for when my brain fails me: the weather (it sounds corny, but just saying "It's supposed to be beautiful this weekend" can lead to a conversation about weekend plans and hobbies and whatnot), recent news items ("I can't believe celebrity x did that crazy thing, can you imagine?" or "I just heard that Congress is going to do y, isn't that nuts?"), or general things I know about them ("Aunt Mary, what are you planning to grow in your garden this year?"). I try to brainstorm these up ahead of time and have a mental list so that I'm not fumbling for things during the conversation.

3. Once you get started on a conversation topic, two things keep it rolling: you can ask the other person about something they bring up ("You're going skiing this weekend? Do you go often?") and also share something about yourself ("I've never been skiing before.") You can alternate these to get the conversation rolling.

4. I've realized that in order for people to open up to me, I need to open myself up to them a little - otherwise there's nothing that they can latch onto for a conversation. It shouldn't be anything too detailed, but for example, in a conversational setting (and NOT if this is just a neighborly "hello i'm out the door on my way to work and just acknowledging your presence" type of deal), if they ask how your weekend was, you can say "Great! I found a new jogging trail near my house" instead of just "Great!" For basic "how are you" type questions like this, I've found that it's easier if I think of one line things to say ahead of time, so that I'm not put on the spot. Super bonus points if these one-liners are funny. Another example: they say "Nasty weather out there, huh?" you can share something about yourself by saying "Actually, I'm from southern California so I love actually getting to see weather changes."

5. I've found it easier if I think of people as super fascinating creatures that I must learn about for a project and really try to figure out what makes them tick... what makes them say this, why would they think this way, what makes them do that instead of this. So each person is like a little puzzle, and you can try to solve a little bit of that puzzle by asking indirect questions during a conversation.

6. Practice, practice, practice! It will get easier. I've realized that if I have one conversation that doesn't go very well, a) it doesn't mean I'm a bad person b) it doesn't mean that my next conversation with someone else is doomed to failure and c) it doesn't mean that conversations with this first person won't be good on another day.
posted by be11e at 5:26 PM on March 5, 2009 [16 favorites]

Knowing a graceful, non-awkward way to END a conversation always helps me to start one. It's like a safety net knowing I'll be able to leave the moment before things get awkward. Even if it's just "well, it's been great chatting with you Bob" it is enough of a social cue that the other person can pick up on, and let you go without there being any weird "um, so.... huh. Guess I'll catch you around or something?"s.
posted by np312 at 5:58 PM on March 5, 2009

I'm sure I'm repeating but it's good to ask questions that could have many possibilities for follow-up.

E.g. "Hey, I'm hungry - you know, the other day I made these amazing muffins. Do you like to bake or cook?"

(If yes: "Oh really? What's the best dessert you've tried lately? What's in that? Who gave you the recipe?")
(If no: "Oh, really? So what restaurants do you like? Are you usually adventurous with new cuisines? Wow, I'd love to try a chimichanga!")

You probably won't even need these follow-up questions because they'll be off on some tangent about their Aunt Marian's pecan brownies. And then you can use what they've said to start your own story about Grandma Tealsocks' phenomenal cookies, etc. etc. Don't feel foolish about asking for details - it shows people you're paying attention.

I find it's also helpful to ask questions that require speculation on their part and can't be easily shut down.

If you say "Did you see any of the Oscar-nominated movies?" they could say "No" and you've lost the thread. But, if you say "Wow, it's almost the summer! What will you do with all that time outdoors?" you've opened the door so wide for stories about sports, their cottage, their travel plans, their dog, their vacation days, family activities, etc.

Good luck :)
posted by cranberrymonger at 6:37 PM on March 5, 2009

One thing that often works to create camaraderie is to try and turn small talk into something slightly more personal. For example, in a conversation about the weather, you might say something like, "Isn't it funny how gray skies can really affect your mood?"

With an observation like this, you're accomplishing two things. First, you're extending yourself a little by offering the (slightly) personal information that you sometimes feel sad, thus inviting the other person to do the same and, hopefully, creating some intimacy. Second, you've moved from a boring conversation about weather to more interesting territory -- mood and weather, places you'd rather be in the winter, whether it's worth moving somewhere just because of the weather, etc., etc., etc.

Try this with traffic ("I always get a crazy urge to honk like a crazy person") or Bob Dylan ("The first time I heard him I was ...") or whatever. It may sound lame, but it often works. The trick is to put yourself out there just a little bit, so that your conversation partner gets an idea of who you are beyond superficialities.
posted by miriam at 6:51 PM on March 5, 2009

Read "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. It will help.
posted by bananafish at 7:51 PM on March 5, 2009

When I first read the question, I just thought "conversation is a two-way street, so what's stopping these other people from chipping in to the dialogue as well?" But if the only common link seems to be you, than it might not just what you talk about, but how you talk about it.

Do the conversations usually end with them saying the last word, and maybe assuming you'll continue the thread, but don't? Maybe they then assume you're not interested in a talk? Are they often the ones who break up the long silences by desperately conjuring up more topics to discuss?

As for coming up with your own things to talk about, don't censor yourself too much by thinking what might lead to a good conversation, and what'll be a roadblock. Like with the Oscar example, maybe they haven't seen any of them, but maybe you have, or one of you saw a movie recently that you'd like to bring up. Or maybe one of you don't like movies at all and have some other interest instead you can talk about.

Don't be paralyzed by awkward silence. Just keep chipping away (but not with obvious desperation), whether it about family life, work, sports, or some other common link, and eventually you should find something that breaks the door open and gets you both lost in a lengthy casual chat.

Or maybe you bring up an interested thread you recently read on Metafilter.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:53 PM on March 5, 2009

I think it's good to stress the importance of a good ending. The graceful exit is what makes people great at small talk. Maybe what you're dissatisfied with is not the conversation itself, but the way it falls apart near the end. Or the way you tried to keep it going when it was obvious the other person wanted to end it. Or vice versa.

This is, by the way, one of the pillars that those "seduction classes" lean on. They will teach you to indicate clearly to a person of interest that you will not cling to them. One of their basic approaches consists of approaching a women and saying something like: "Hey, I'm engaged in a discussion with my friends, and I need some quick advice". This says: "I have a life. I will not bother you for the rest of this evening/week/life."

So how to end a conversation? The best writing advice I ever got was: "end with a climax". I think this goes for a conversation too. It's also good to mark the end of a conversation - both for your sake and that of your partner.

Like you're talking, blah, blah, blah, and someone says something like, "Yeah, that will be the day". There's an ending right there. Generally, there'll be a short laugh or a chuckle to go with that. This is a good moment to end the conversation. Now you can say something like: "Indeed. Well, anyway, better get on with the job." Something to make it clear that you understand that the conversation is over. Then nod friendly, and move away from the other person decisively.

It will take some time to finesse. You'll probably barge out of conversations a bit too soon, or a tad late or whatever. Don't sweat it. You'll learn how to do it right. You'll learn how to spot cues, how to get a feel for when conversations start to sag, or when people are starting to look for an exit.

Seems I'm rambling myself now, so better get on with the job, eh?
posted by NekulturnY at 3:45 AM on March 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

I find the theory of "people love to talk about themselves" is not always true, and can sometimes backfire in a conversational setting. If you are bombarding people with questions, you can come off as a snoop or a detective. And the more savvy will see through this feigned inquisitiveness. Some people, like myself, don't really like to talk about themselves, and would rather learn about others. I think a healthy mix of questions and revelations is more effective. Based upon the other party, you need to gauge the appropriate ratio of questions and answers.

Regarding the 'love to talk' theory: "When I was with Gladstone, I thought he was the most fascinating man in the world. When I was with Disraeli, I thought I was the most fascinating woman in the world. (A young woman who was escorted on different occasions by the two great 19th-century British Prime Ministers)"

And, from the 48 Laws of Power: "Open-hearted gestures of honesty and generosity bring down the guard of even the most suspicious people." So, don't be afraid to open up to people and reveal some intimate things about yourself in conversation. If you are reserved, talk about it. If you are a horrible cook, tell people about it. Share it with people, and you will be amazed and how other will drop their guard and 'conversate' more openly.

One more thing, and I will stop. Read the Sunday NYTimes, or Wired, or Ask.Mefi. It will give you plenty of ammunition to fire off in the course of conversation.
posted by jasondigitized at 7:33 AM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

A conversation is like a friendly tennis game, with the ball being lobbed back and forth between the players. You'll learn to use "fillers" to keep the ball going, expressions like "Really?" or "You did?" or "What luck!" As many people have mentioned above, people do like to talk about themselves. I'm an extroverted person who has learned how to draw out the more reserved people, like you, by smiling at them, looking into their eyes (but not staring, of course), and showing genuine interest in whatever they have to say. Focus on the other person, not yourself, not your fear of awkward silences. Stop obsessing over trying to find a topic of conversation. I know, I know, " This is easy to say but hard to do," you're thinking. You can start by practicing everywhere----with store clerks, in the elevators, with family members, before class starts with other students, and so on. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
Also, remember: Not every silence is awkward. A comfortable silence often falls between friends who know each other well enough that they have no need to fill up every minute with talk. Don't be afraid of silence.
posted by ragtimepiano at 11:23 PM on March 6, 2009

Asking questions is important, but make sure you ask about things you feel well versed enough in to talk about. If someone mentions a hobby or interest of theirs that you have no interest in/ability to chat about, maybe don't ask a question about that.
posted by plungerjoke at 12:39 AM on March 9, 2009

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