The Complete Guide on How to Keep a Conversation Going
By David Morin and Viktor Sander
A team of Scientists from Boston wanted to understand what really happens when two strangers meet, and they made a surprising discovery about the initial conversation between two people.
Their discovery can help us become better at starting conversations with people we just met. Small talk, which I used to see as something quite pointless, turned out to be more important than they first thought.
While we small talk about things that in themselves doesn’t really mean much, really important stuff happens subconsciously. We need to make seemingly random conversation while we subconsciously create a picture of the other person. And we need that picture of the other person before we can feel relaxed to move onto more interesting conversation.
The scientists said that the best way to describe small talk is like a “bonding ritual”.
They also found that exactly what we talk about isn’t that important. And here’s where most people make their first mistake - they are too picky with what they should say. That causes them to censor themselves too hard, and then they become self aware and can’t come up with anything to say at all.
So - trying to come up with a good opener or something smart to say will mess up your conversations. Instead, start off with really simple small talk subjects. That will make both of you more relaxed and you'll be able to get a good start to your conversation. That will make you feel more self confident when talking to people, too. (Read the chapter on how to be more self confident when making conversation here.)
I want to show you 6 questions that I almost always use when I've just met someone. They are universal, so I can always fire them off, they always get a conversation going, and since I know them by heart I never need to worry that I won’t know what to say when I meet someone.
And now I can look back and think..
...Why didn’t I just memorize these questions ten years earlier..?
Then I would have been so much more comfortable meeting people, because my biggest fear in conversations had always been to run out of things to say.
Later, I'll talk about how to start a conversation at places where you’re not explicitly meant to socialize, say, if you end up next to someone at the train or in a lunch queue. But first, I'll cover what I do when I’m somewhere where it’s expected to socialize, like at a party or when I meet friends of friends.
Here's a conversation script:
How I start a conversation when it's expected to socialize, such as at a party:
Curiosity is key to a great conversation
So, I start off by saying:
And they reply “Good” and present themselves. (Remember: Only use the name "David" if your name is in fact "David".)
They start to explain that to me. There are loads of ways they might know people. The trick is to be able to ask follow-up questions on whatever they are telling you. Here are some examples:
(I know that this might sound mechanic or canned. It's all about showing a genuine interest in the person you're talking to. You have to really want to get to know the person you're talking to, and that will take some time before you do. Before it feels natural to you to be curious about others, it's wise to memorize a few questions like the one's I'm using here.)
My universal questions:
These are questions you can have in the back of your head and fire off whenever you feel uncertain how to start a conversation.
You aren't supposed to fire all these questions off at once. Make sure to spend roughly the same amount of time talking. That means that you will spend a lot of time answering the other person's questions and sharing bits and pieces about yourself.
If someone gets the feeling that you know a lot more about them than they know about you, they will start feeling uncomfortable.
People have a lot of things to say about where they live or where they come from, so I usually ask more on this subject.
We might talk for several minutes about where we live and how that is.
Some say that you shouldn’t talk about work when you're at a social event, and that's part true: It sucks to get stuck in job talk. But it’s really helpful to know what someone is working with, as it will help you find mutual interests. And - it’s often easy for people to talk about because they are familiar with the subject.
If it turns out that they are unemployed, I just say something encouraging so they don’t have to feel bad, like this:
“So that means you can enjoy sleep-ins every morning right? Nice!”
And then I ask if they spend their time on any hobbies or interests, and we’ll continue the conversation talking about that.
What you want to avoid is getting STUCK in job talk.
To avoid this, just change the subject by asking:
This question is natural to ask in connection to both job and studies. And this is my favorite question! Because no matter what they reply, you can now start talking about your passions and dreams. In my opinion, passions and dreams are the most rewarding subjects you can bring up with someone.
Here you’ll discover their favorite interests and hobbies or places they want to go.
They’ll love to talk about this and you'll have a great opportunity to find mutual interests. Let them expand on their interests.
“How does that work?”
“How do you do that?”
If you find any common ground; if you’ve both been to the same place or share any interest, you can emerge into that just like you talk to any close friend. You’re off the shaky launch and into conversation you'll both find entertaining.
Make sure to read this chapter on how to avoid awkward silence.
That’s it, these six questions have helped me start great conversations with so many people.
If you want a flying start - memorize them and practice them whenever you get the chance, just as long as you ask them in a genuine way. You don’t need to learn them in a specific order, and you don't need to phrase them exactly like I did. Just fire any of them off when the conversation stalls.
Sometimes you want to start a conversation even when it's not explicitly meant to socialize. Perhaps you end up next to someone on the train or in the lunch queue in school. In these settings, it’s too direct to start asking people stuff out of nowhere. Instead, you need to say something related to the situation first.
My advice here is to not try to fake questions about the situation. You don't have to. Your brain has a constant inner conversation, so just let some of that conversation out instead. So say something that’s on your mind. Let's say that you end up next to someone on a train:
Starting a conversation with the person next to you on the train
“Excuse me, do you know when we will arrive?”
“Do you know if they serve food on this train?”
“Do you know if they have any Wifi on this train?”.
As soon as you've initiated a conversation with this situation-related question, it's more natural to ask something about the person you're talking to.
"Where are you heading?"
And after this warm-up you can go over to the universal questions above, like:
“Where are you from?”
You're already done with chapter 1. You now know how to hit up an interesting conversation with someone. Now - how do you keep that conversation going? And how do you get past the boring small talk, so you can start bonding?
It's time for Chapter 2: How to keep an interesting conversation going.