“How can I become better at talking to people? I’ve always been slightly awkward when making conversation, and I’m not sure what I should talk about. How can I train myself to be a better conversationalist?”
If you want to improve your conversation skills and feel more at ease in social situations, this guide is for you. You’ll learn some simple techniques and exercises you can use when talking to people in both informal and professional settings. When you’ve learned the basic rules of conversation, you’ll feel more confident around others.
1. Listen carefully to the other person
You might have already heard of “active listening.” Active listening is about really paying attention to the person you’re talking to and being present in the conversation. People with poor conversation skills tend to wait for their turn to speak without registering what their conversation partner is saying.
This might sound easy, but, in practice, it can be difficult to stay focused. You might start to think about whether you’re coming across well or what you will say next. One good way to stay focused is to paraphrase what they say back to them.
If someone’s talking about London and says that they love the old buildings, for example, you might say:
“So, your favorite thing about London is the old buildings? I can understand that. There’s a real sense of history. Which one was your favorite?”
Active listening is covered in a lot more detail in most of the books on our conversation skills book list.
2. Find out what you have in common with someone
The best way to keep a conversation going is when both you and the person you talk to are interested in continuing it. You do that by talking about hobbies, activities, and preferences you have in common.
Try offering information about your interests and see whether they respond to any of them. Mention an activity you did or something that’s important to you.
Here’s a link to a detailed guide explaining how to make conversation, which contains lots of strategies that will help you find commonalities.
Pivot to the emotion
Sometimes, you might not have anything in common with someone else. If this is the case, you can still share how you feel. Try to pivot the conversation to emotions rather than facts. For example, if you try to stay talking about facts, you might have a conversation along these lines:
Them: I went to a concert last night.
You: Oh, cool. What sort of music?
You: Oh. I like heavy metal.
At this point, the conversation may stall.
If you pivot to talking about the emotions, the conversation could go like this:
Them: I went to a concert last night.
You: Oh, cool. What sort of music?
You: Oh, wow. I’ve never been to a classical concert before. I’m more into heavy metal. There’s something different about a live concert, though, isn’t there? It feels so much more special than listening to a recording.
Them: Yeah. It’s a completely different experience, hearing it live. I love the feeling of connection to everyone else there.
You: I know what you mean. The best festival I ever went to [continue sharing]…
3. Ask personal questions to move past small talk
Small talk is important, as it builds rapport and trust, but it can become dull after a while. Try to gradually move the conversation towards more personal or meaningful topics. You can do this by asking personal questions that encourage deeper thought.
- “How did you get to the conference today?” is an impersonal, fact-based question.
- “What did you think of that speaker?” is slightly more personal because it’s a request for an opinion.
- “What made you get into this profession?” is more personal because it gives the other person an opportunity to talk about their ambitions, desires, and motivation.
Read our article on how to start having meaningful and deep conversations.
4. Use your surroundings to find things to say
Many websites on the internet that promise to help you develop good conversation skills have long lists of random conversation topics. It can be good to memorize a question or two, but conversations and small talk shouldn’t be random if you’re looking to bond with someone.
Use what’s around you for inspiration for how to start a conversation. For example, “I love how they renovated their apartment” can be more than enough to show that you’re open to interaction at a dinner party.
You can also use an observation about what the other person is wearing or doing to start a conversation. For example, “That’s a cool bracelet, where did you get it?” or “Hey, you seem to be an expert at mixing cocktails! Where did you learn how to do that?”
Here’s our guide on how to make small talk.
5. Practice your basic conversation skills often
Many of us can get really nervous and start worrying whenever we have to go up and talk to someone, especially before we’ve started social skills training.
Making conversation is a skill, and that means that you need to practice to get better at it. Try setting yourself a goal of getting some conversation practice every day.
If this sounds scary, remind yourself that talking to someone isn’t about making perfect conversation. It’s about being relevant to the situation you’re in. It’s about being sincere rather than frantically trying to come up with something interesting to say. Even a simple “Hey, how’re you?” to a cashier is good practice. Here’s an overview of how to make conversation.
6. Look confident and approachable
Talking to someone you don’t know can be scary. It’s easy to think, “What do I even say?”, “How do I behave?” and “Why even bother?”
But talking to people you don’t know is how you get to know them. Don’t be afraid to express your personality.
Appearing approachable is very important when talking to new people. Body language, including confident eye contact, is a big part of it. Standing straight, keeping your head up, and smiling makes a huge difference.
Don’t be afraid of being excited about meeting someone new. When you express interest in people and listen to them, they will open up to you, and your conversations will turn into something meaningful.
7. Slow down and take breaks
When we’re nervous, it’s very easy to speak quickly in an effort to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible. Often, this will lead you to mumble, stammer, or say the wrong thing. Try to speak at about half the speed you naturally want to, taking breaks to breathe and for emphasis. This can make you sound more thoughtful and might even help you to relax.
It’s also important to take breaks from practicing making conversation if you’re struggling. Introverts, in particular, need time recharging to prevent social burnout. If you feel your anxiety rising, consider taking a few minutes somewhere quiet to calm down before trying again. You can also allow yourself to leave a party earlier or have a weekend all by yourself for longer-term burnout.
Here’s our full guide on making conversation as an introvert.
8. Signal that you’ll speak when in groups
Waiting for your turn doesn’t work in group settings because the conversation rarely dies down long enough. At the same time, you can’t blatantly interrupt people.
A trick that works well is to breathe in quickly just before you’re about to talk. This creates the recognizable sound of someone just about to say something. Combine that with a sweeping movement of your hand before you start talking.
When you do this, people subconsciously register that you’re about to start talking, and the hand gesture draws people’s eyes toward you.
There are a few differences between group and 1-on-1 conversations that people tend to ignore. A key difference is that when there are more people in a conversation, it’s often more about having fun than getting to know each other on a deep level.
The more people in the group, the more time you spend listening. Keeping eye contact with the current speaker, nodding, and reacting helps to keep you a part of the conversation even when you’re not saying anything.
Read our guides on how to join a group conversation and how to be included in a conversation with a group of friends.
9. Be curious about other people
Almost everyone likes to feel interesting. Being genuinely curious about other people can help you to come across as a great conversationalist.
Being curious is about being ready to learn. Encourage people to talk about something they’re experts in. Asking about something you don’t know doesn’t make you look stupid. It makes you look engaged and interested.
If you’re not sure where to start, try using the FORD method. FORD stands for Family, Occupation, Recreation, Dreams. This gives you some great starter topics. Try to use open questions, such as “What” or “Why.” Set yourself a challenge to see how much you can find out about someone else during a single conversation, but be careful not to seem like you’re interrogating them.
10. Find a balance between asking and sharing
During a conversation, don’t focus all your attention on the other person or on yourself. Try to keep the conversation balanced.
Read our guide on how to make conversation without asking too many questions. It explains why conversations die out and how to keep them interesting without getting stuck in endless questions.
11. Spot the signs that a conversation is drifting
Learning to read people will give you confidence that whoever you’re talking to is enjoying the conversation, which may inspire you to practice your social skills more often.
Watch out for signs that the other person is feeling uncomfortable or bored. Their body language may give away their feelings. For example, they may look elsewhere, adopt a glazed expression, or keep shifting in their seat.
You can also listen out for verbal signals. For example, if someone gives minimal answers to your questions or sounds indifferent, the conversation may be coming to an end.
For more tips, read our guide on how to know when a conversation is over.
12. Learn how to avoid self-sabotage
No matter how much you may want to improve your conversational skills, you will probably find yourself a little stressed when you’re faced with actually having to practice. When this happens, it’s easy to set yourself up for failure without realizing it.
One common way of self-sabotaging your conversations is to try to end them as quickly as possible. You tell yourself that you’re going to practice your conversation skills. You psych yourself up and mentally rehearse how the conversation is going to go. You put yourself in a social situation and start to panic. You rush through the conversation, giving short answers to try to end it quickly.
Lots of people do this when they become anxious. The first step to stopping this kind of self-sabotage is to notice when you’re doing it. Try telling yourself, “Rushing will make me feel better in the short term, but staying a little bit longer will let me learn.”
Don’t try to push away your feelings of nervousness. That can just make them worse. Instead, remind yourself, “I’m nervous about this conversation, but I can handle being nervous for a little while.”
13. Focus on being genuine rather than witty
Good conversation is rarely about inspired quips or witty observations. If you want to learn how to be more witty, try watching a funny person talk to others. You’ll probably find that their funny comments only make up a small proportion of their conversation.
Great conversationalists use conversations to show others who they really are and to get to know other people. They ask questions, listen to the answers and share something about themselves in the process.
Check out our guide on how to learn to be witty if you’d like tips on adding humor to your conversations.
Show your best side
Try thinking of a conversation as a chance to show off your best attributes and to find the best attributes of others.
You might worry that you’re hiding your “real” self or being fake, but that isn’t the case. Studies show that trying to “put your best face forward” helps people form a more accurate impression of you than if you just try to “be yourself.”
14. Know the rules of professional conversation
Having a professional conversation can be a slightly different challenge from a personal one, but the skills you use will be very similar.
In a professional conversation, it’s usually important to be clear and focused but also warm and friendly. Here are some key rules for professional conversations
- Don’t waste time. You don’t want to be brusque, but you also don’t want to take up their time if they have a deadline. If a conversation feels like it’s dragging, check in with them. Try saying, “I don’t want to keep you if you’re busy?”
- Plan what you need to say in advance. This is particularly important in meetings. Giving yourself some bullet points means that you don’t miss off something important and helps keep the conversation on track.
- Pay attention to the personal parts of the conversation. People you meet in a professional context are still people. Asking a simple question such as “How’re the kids?” shows that you’ve remembered something that’s important to them, but only if they feel that you’re listening to the answer.
- Give people a heads up about difficult conversations. If you know you need to have a tough conversation at work, consider letting the other person know what you want to talk to them about. This can help avoid them feeling blindsided and defensive.
15. Lead a life you find interesting
It can be really difficult to be an interesting conversationalist if you don’t find your own life interesting. Take a look at this possible reply to the question, “What did you get up to this weekend?”
“Oh, nothing much. I just kinda pottered around the house. I read a bit and did some housework. Nothing interesting.”
The example above isn’t boring because the activities are boring. It’s because the speaker sounded bored by them. If you felt that you’d had an interesting weekend, you might have said:
“I had a really nice, quiet weekend. I got a few housework tasks off of my to-do list, and then I read the latest book by my favorite author. It’s part of a series, so I’m still mulling it over today and trying to work out what it means for some of the characters.”
Try to set a little bit of time aside each week, or even each day, to do something you find genuinely interesting. Even if others aren’t interested in the activity, they will probably respond well to your enthusiasm. This can also help to build your self-esteem. Try developing a range of interests; this will broaden your conversational repertoire.
Reading up on diverse topics can also help. Reading widely can improve your vocabulary and make you a more engaging conversationalist. (However, it’s important to remember that knowing a lot of complicated words doesn’t necessarily make you an interesting person.)
16. Learn phone conversation etiquette
Some people find phone conversations harder than talking face to face, while other people have the opposite experience. On the phone, you can’t read the other person’s body language, but you also don’t need to worry about your posture or movements.
An important part of phone etiquette is recognizing that you don’t know what the other person is doing when you call. Try showing that you respect them by asking whether now is a good time to talk and giving them some information about the kind of conversation you want to have. For example:
- “Are you busy? I’m just calling for a chat really, so let me know if you’re in the middle of something.”
- “I’m sorry to interrupt your evening. I just realized that I left my keys at work, and I was wondering whether I could drop by to pick up the spare?”
17. Avoid interrupting
A good conversation has a natural flow between the two speakers, and interrupting can come across as rude. If you find yourself interrupting, try taking a breath after the other person has finished speaking. That can provide a small pause to avoid speaking over them.
If you realize that you’ve interrupted, don’t panic. Try saying, “Before I interrupted, you were saying…” This shows that your interruption was an accident and that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say.
18. Let some things go in conversation
Sometimes, you come up with something interesting, insightful, or witty to say, but the conversation has moved on. It’s tempting to say it anyway, but this can break the natural flow of the conversation. Instead, try to let it go. Remind yourself, “Now I’ve thought of it, I can bring it up the next time it’s relevant,” and refocus on where the conversation is now.
How to improve your conversation skills when learning a foreign language
Practice speaking, listening to, and reading your target language as often as possible. Look for a language exchange partner via tandem.net. Facebook groups, such as English Conversation, can connect you with other people who want to practice a foreign language.
When talking to a native speaker, ask them for detailed feedback. Along with feedback on your vocabulary and pronunciation, you could also ask for their advice on how you can adjust your conversation style to sound more like a native speaker.
If you can’t find a language partner or would rather practice alone while you gain more confidence, try an app that lets you practice with a language bot, such as Magiclingua.
What exercises can I do to improve my conversation skills?
The best exercise is regular practice. If your confidence is low, start with small, low-stakes interactions. For example, say “Hi, how are you?” to a store worker or ask your colleague whether they had a good weekend. You can gradually move on to deeper, more interesting conversations.
When might I need professional help for my poor conversation skills?
Some people with ADHD, Aspergers, or autism find professional help useful in improving their conversation skills. Speech therapy might be needed for those with mutism or physical difficulties with speech. If you have Aspergers, our guide on how to make friends when you have Aspergers may be helpful.
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