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I often had trouble making conversations and ran into awkward silence a lot. When I made friends with socially savvy people, I learned powerful tricks that got my conversations going.
1. Ask open-ended questions to keep the conversation going
Close-ended questions are the ones the answer is only yes or no.
Examples of close-ended questions:
- How are you today?
- Was work good?
- Was the weather nice?
Open-ended questions, on the other hand, make for longer answers.
Examples of open-ended questions:
- What have you been up to today?
- What did you do at work today?
- What’s your ideal kind of weather?
Close-ended questions aren’t always bad! But if you have a hard time getting a conversation going, you want to make sure that you get in an open-ended question every once in a while.
“But David, if I ask someone what they did at work, they might only say “the usual”.
Right! Most often when we ask a question like that, people just think we’re being polite. (It could also be that they’re busy or don’t want to talk. Read my guide here on how to know if someone wants to talk to you.)
To show that we actually want to continue the conversation, we need to…
2. Make it a habit to ask follow-up questions
To show that you actually care about the answer to your questions, ask follow-up questions. Many conversations that die out after a while do it because we don’t come off as sincere and interested enough.
- “What have you been up to today?”
- “Work, mainly”
- Follow up: “How do you like work?”
- “Well. I think it’s…” (Your friend is more motivated to give a longer answer as you’ve asked a follow-up question, and this keeps the conversation going)
“But David, I don’t want to come off as an interrogator and ask questions all the time”
In between the questions, you want to share a little bit about yourself as well. I have a trick to get this balance right, called the IFR-method:
3. Share a little bit about yourself using the IFR-method to get a balanced conversation
IFR stands for
- Inquire – Ask a sincere question
- Follow-up – Ask a follow-up question
- Relate – Share something about you, to break up the questions and get a balanced conversation
- You inquire: What’s your ideal kind of weather?
- Your friend: Hmm, I think around 65 so I don’t sweat
- You follow-up: So then living here in LA must be way too warm for you?
- Your friend: Yeah, I use the AC a lot!
- You Relate: I like it when it’s hot but only on holidays. On workdays, I like it cool so I can think better.
Now, you can repeat by inquiring again:
- Do you get drowsy by heat?
- (And after they’ve replied you can follow up, relate, inquire…)
See how the IFR-method creates this nice balance in the conversation?
“But David, how do I come up with these questions in the first place?”
For this, I imagine a timeline…
4. Imagine a timeline to come up with questions more easily
To get a conversation going, visualize a timeline. Your goal is to fill out the blanks of that timeline. The middle is “now”, and here’s where it’s natural to start the conversation. So you start talking about the very moment you’re in, then work your way out on the timeline.
A natural conversation is like a ripple going further away from the current moment, both into the past and the future. It starts off with banal comments about how the dinner is nice and can end up about dreams or childhood.
Questions about the very moment you’re in
- How do you like the salmon rolls?
- Do you know the name of this song?
Questions about the close future
- What are you working with / studying […] How do you like that?
- What are you going to do during your visit here in…
- How was your trip here?
Questions further into the future
- What are your plans when it comes to…
- Is work busy or do you get any time off? Do you have any plans for your next vacation?
- Where are you originally from? How come you moved?
- What do you do when you’re not working?
If you’re wondering about what to say next, explore the timeline of the other person going from the present and out.
When you strike up a conversation with someone, start off by filling out the blanks of the very moment you’re in.
By imagining a visual timeline of someone’s present moment, day, past, and future, you’ll be able to come up with questions more easily.
Related: How to be more interesting to talk to.
Avoid asking too many questions in a row
I’ve stacked these questions as a list for your reference. But you don’t want to conduct interviews.
In between these questions, you share relevant things about yourself, and the conversation might take off in any direction far away from the timeline. Perhaps you talk for several minutes about the salmon rolls.
5. Be genuinely interested
Don’t ask for the sake of asking questions – ask to get to know someone!
Here’s how to get a conversation going: By showing genuine interest in people. When you do, they’ll be much more motivated to share and to ask sincere questions about you, too.
6. Find mutual interests to talk about
To get a conversation going past the small talk, you sooner or later need to find a mutual interest to talk about.
That’s why I ask questions or mention things I think people might be interested in. What do you think the person you talk about might be interested in?
Literature, health, technology, arts? Luckily, we can often make assumptions of what someone might be interested in and mention something about that.
If you read a lot, you could say “I just finished this book Shantaram. Do you read a lot?”
If you don’t get a positive response – try asking about something else or mentioning something else at a later time. “I finally got around to see blade runner. Are you into sci-fi?”
Ask questions about what you think someone might be interested in. Always be on the look-out for mutual interests.
Why are mutual interests so powerful to get a conversation going? Because when you find one, you’ll get that special connection that you only get with people you share interests with. And now, the conversation leaves the painful small-talk and instead you can talk about something you both really enjoy.
7. Direct your body and face toward them and keep eye contact
If you feel uncomfortable around people, it’s intuitive to look away or face away from the one you’re talking to. The problem is that people take that for disinterest – and they don’t dare to invest in the conversation.
Make sure to do the following, to really signal that you’re listening.
- Face the person
- Keep eye contact as long as the person is talking
- Give feedback like nods and hmm’s
8. Use the FORD-rule
Talk about Family, occupation, recreation, and dreams.
To me, family, occupation, and recreation is part of small-talk. The really interesting conversations are about passions, interests, and dreams! But you need to make small-talk before people get comfortable to get there.
9. Avoid coming on too strong
Whenever someone’s being too eager to talk, they come off as a bit needy and in return, people are more reluctant to talk to them. I’ve been guilty of this mistake myself. But you don’t want to go in the opposite direction and be standoffish.
What I do is to be as proactive as I usually am (Like I’ve talked about in this guide), but I don’t stress it. If it’s a colleague at work or someone you’ll meet repeatedly, no need to push it! You can ask the questions you want to ask over several days and weeks of time.
Never come off as if you’re pushing getting to know someone. Be warm and approachable, but also okay with letting socializing take its time.
10. Be okay with silence
Silence is a natural part of conversations. The silence is only awkward if you panic and make it awkward.
A friend who’s super socially savvy taught me this:
When there’s an awkward silence, that doesn’t mean that it’s only you who need to come up with something to say. The other person probably feels the same pressure. Practice being okay with silence at times. If you continue the conversation in a relaxed manner, rather than stress out something to say, you’ll help the other person to relax, too.