Art of beginning and feeding a conversation
April 15, 2021 8:22 AM   Subscribe

I need ideas for starting, extending, deepening, and sometimes salvaging a conversation.

The art of conversation. Sometimes it is easy to begin with strangers, then I can be good at asking questions, it is always easier to dig into others, than talk about myself.
But telling stories about me (I have a lot) they often seem to fall flat, I feel like I get a dull stare. I need openings, starters, the weather? .......but it is sometimes hard to follow that up, if it doesn't seem received.
Or worse, when faced with anger, I lose my focus fast, I get flustered, confused, noise, I call it, that loud stuff in my head, that gets in the way. I lose my track, I mumble, my eyes go out of focus, I feel suddenly stupid, vulnerable, make a bad answer. I scramble for my direction.
It seems that if I were to keep eye contact, slow myself down a bit, be more present, concentrate on the words without the panic, I could keep focus.
posted by ebesan to Human Relations (8 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Theodore Zeldin writes about this topic. His work is so beautiful. If you google him you'll find his books, but also other initiatives to teach people how to have deeper conversations.
posted by EllaEm at 8:26 AM on April 15, 2021

You may want to read this previous discussion on the Green.

> But telling stories about me (I have a lot) they often seem to fall flat, I feel like I get a dull stare

That's been my experience, as well. Maybe I'm overly cynical, but I've found that people generally are not interested in hearing what you have to say. They are far more interested in talking about themselves. So perhaps it's not you, it's them.
posted by alex1965 at 8:55 AM on April 15, 2021 [6 favorites]

My regular go-to when conversations begin to stall a bit is "What are you reading these days?" usually followed by "What do you like about that?"

Most everyone is reading something these days, online or otherwise. This can go into authors, genres, interests and other things. If you get the sense that the other person's not a reader, movies and shows are another good one. Picking up the cues (subtle or otherwise) that the other person's not really interested in a conversation can also be useful.
posted by jquinby at 8:57 AM on April 15, 2021

Hmm--it feels like you have a lot of stories about yourself that you want to share and you have a need for making connections that way; have you considered a memoir writing class like this? I can't say if that would directly translate to skills in telling your stories in conversation, but the process of doing that writing might help you focus on the best ways to tell all the stories you have.
posted by foxfirefey at 9:15 AM on April 15, 2021

Focusing on the bit about telling stories about yourself, I have some suggestions:
- Keep it short (3 sentences?)
- Begin your story with the exciting ending. That is what gets them hooked.
- Keep them engaged with a steady stream of interesting tidbits. It also gives a chance for them to ask, "Ooh, how/why did that happen?" so it is more of a back-and-forth, not a monologue.
- Leave out irrelevant details. I have friends who get hung up on when exactly it happened, was it raining that day, was it morning or evening, and who else was around exactly? It honestly just sounds like they are interrogating themselves to recall a memory, and I'm like... what's your point?! JUST GET TO IT!

Is it possible that you are self-conscious about your stories, thinking they are not very cool, so your delivery itself is also flat? I made a conscious decision to stop apologizing about my "boring" hobbies, and saying the same thing with different tone/enthusiasm level really helps. "Oh, I knit." (kinda glum) vs. "Oh, I love to knit!" (excited tone) makes a world of difference. Even if they don't care at all about knitting, often times they will ask a follow-up question just because I seem so excited to share more.
posted by tinydancer at 9:48 AM on April 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Got this great tip from Brian MacDonald’s book Invisible Ink: deliver the whole story in your first sentence before you go back and unpack what happened. He gives an example of someone who starts a story by going “I got FIRED today!” And immediately the audience is like, “what!!?? We need to know the details.” As opposed to starting with the details (“so I get into work, I start chatting with Thelma, something seems weird though today...”)

Ever since I read that have divided people’s anecdotes into ones that “tell em what you’re gonna tell em” and ones that don’t. The ones that don’t tend to make me go “where is this going?”
posted by johngoren at 9:51 AM on April 15, 2021 [12 favorites]

I don't remember where I read this, but I once read something that the easiest way to get someone to talk is to ask what they do, and when they respond, say "oh, that sounds hard". Because, like alex1965 said, people want to talk about themselves, but they also want to do so in a way that makes them feel good about themselves. Everyone thinks what they do is hard and unappreciated, so to have someone sound like they appreciate the difficulty is validating, and that builds trust. They can be open with you.

I do remember where I read this, it was Tom Junod in Esquire magazine who suggested pausing before answering. Long enough to take a deep breath. In addition to slowing you down so that you can compose your thoughts before responding, it also signals to that you're not impatient to step in and dominate the conversation.

There's an old sales exercise that my old job (I worked with a lot of salespeople) used to have us practice all the time. Ask a predetermined number of questions of the other person before saying anything declarative yourself. It's a bit hokey, but a good way to practice getting a conversation started, especially if the other person isn't doing much to help the conversation.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:14 AM on April 15, 2021

Best answer: One thing that strikes me about your question is that it seems to be all over the place. Like, responding to anger is a very different problem to carrying on conversations. You jump from the abstract to the concrete and from topic to topic.

I'm not dissing you!

Just, your brain seems a very busy place, with thoughts tumbling all over each other. So unless you're just temporarily very stressed out, maybe that's part of the problem. If your thoughts are always a bit noisy like that it may be difficult for you to put your words into a steady conversational flow. To build a story up to a climax for your listeners. To stay with a topic till its natural end. That kind of thing.

I'm not sure about what advice to give, except maybe it's an inner voice issue rather than an external conversational one.

As for the anger, someone's anger almost always flusters other people. Nobody is at their conversational best when faced with aggression. Your reactions sound very understandable to me!

The only thing that ever helped me (I too panic in the face of other people's grar!) is to mentally separate which of this is their issue and which of it is mine. I pretend to be looking at the situation from outside and think "wow". When people pour an emotion like anger all over you, it is very easy to adopt their unhappiness and have it suddenly become your problem. But this is also a choice you don't have to make. You could also choose to think "wow, coworker is really mad right now. But it doesn't have anything to do with me. The anger is something he is bringing into our conversation."

Just because someone wants to pass their bad feelings on to you doesn't mean you have to take them.

If you start mentally taking a step back and evaluating the situation when people are mad at you, there will be a pause - you will be too busy to talk because you're thinking. That's okay. If they're like "WHY ARE YOU NOT ANSWERING ME" you can say "I'm sorry, I'm just processing what you're saying. I understand that you're really upset/mad/annoyed."

You don't need to have a smooth answer when you're flustered! You're allowed to have no answer. What can they do, be more mad at you?

But ultimately, the key is to take a step away mentally. Pretend you're hovering at ceiling level and watching and analysing yourself and the other person.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:26 PM on April 15, 2021

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