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You know the feeling.
It’s your lunch break, and you can’t think of anything to say to the coworker in the break room.
The seating arrangement at a friend’s wedding reception sticks you at a table with total strangers and everything that comes out of your mouth sounds ridiculous.
You’re on a first date and you’re tongue-tied.
If you’re anything like me (i.e. an introvert), then you probably have sweaty palms just reading that list. Making conversation can be one of the most intimidating parts of “socializing”, which, alas, is a necessary evil in the world of adulthood.
But the good news is, regardless of how awkward you may feel in situations like the above, you are not the first person to be uncomfortable making conversation. In fact, this is something that many people find difficult.
A good strategy for making quality conversation is remembering the 4 W’s.
The 4 Ws of Making Conversation
Who: Find out who you’re talking to. I don’t mean finding out their name (although that’s a good place to start). I mean finding out about the person. If it’s someone you already know, think back to the last time you spoke with them and follow up on your last conversation together. (“How’s your dog doing after his surgery?”)
If it’s a stranger, even better—you’re less likely to run out of “getting to know you” questions. Some examples of Who questions include:
- What do you do for a living?
- How long have you been doing that?
- Do you like it?
- How long have you been married?
- Where did you go to school?
When you make conversation using “getting to know you” questions such as these, the person you’re speaking with will more than likely ask you the same things. You may even find out you have some things in common!
What: What are you doing? Use the event to fuel your conversation. If you’re eating Mexican food, ask about the person’s favorite dishes. If you’re ice skating, ask when they learned to skate. If you’re at a training event for work, ask how long they’ve been doing their job.
If you’re in an elevator, ask the person where they’re headed. In short, using the current activity is an easy way to come up with conversation topics. After all, you’re both there—and that means you already have something in common.
When: What is the time-context of your conversation? When you are having your conversation can determine the type of conversation you have and the things you discuss. Is it early morning? Ask if they hit any rush hour traffic, if they’re a coffee drinker, or what they have on their schedule for the day.
When questions can also center around other things taking place at the time of your conversation. Is it close to a holiday? Ask how they plan to celebrate. If it’s the start of a new year, ask what sort of resolutions they may have made. Is there construction going on outside the building? Ask how it’s affecting their day. When questions can provide fodder for fantastic conversations.
Where: Where is your conversation taking place? The location of your conversation is always a good starting point when making small talk. “How long of a drive is it for you?” is a good question to ask that can also open up a discussion about where the person is from. “Have you been here before?” is another great conversation starter that can prompt further discussion. Commenting your observations or opinions (tactfully, of course) can also help move your conversation along.
For example, “Those flowers are beautiful. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that before.” Statements such as these naturally invite a reciprocating opinion from the person you’re speaking with, and this is a great way to converse.
The Fifth ‘W’
“But there are usually 5 W’s!” you may be thinking right now. And you’re right; typically “Why” is the fifth and final ‘W’ on a list.
However, when making conversation, the fifth ‘W’ is often not appropriate for the casual level of conversation you are making. Unless you know a person well, asking “why” can come across as prying or being too nosy.
Use your best judgment, and remember to respect the privacy of the people you are speaking with.
A Few Final Tips
When you’re having a conversation, make sure that you are prepared to give your own answer to any question that you ask another person. If you would be uncomfortable answering the question yourself, then it probably isn’t a safe conversation topic.
And finally, breathe. You will go home and run the conversation on repeat in your mind, analyzing everything that you said and did, but the person that you spoke with will not. In fact, they’ll probably be thinking about their part in the conversation—not yours!
Remember that you are your own worst critic, and anything you say that you feel was silly or awkward probably wasn’t as big of a deal to the other person as it is to you. And, of course, practice makes perfect. So remember your 4 W’s and get to chatting!