10 simple ways to start a conversation

Many people encounter problems in their daily lives because when it comes to starting a conversation they feel helpless and numb. I say start it off with a small and light talk…

If you have confronted yourself by saying small talk doesn’t matter, think again. It builds rapport and often leads to bigger things, like friendships and new jobs. “Small talk is a misnomer,” says Laurie Chock of Chock and Goldberg, a communication consultant firm. “Those little conversations probably have more impact than any other.”

In fact, people who know what to say and when to say it are reviewed as friendly, gracious and interesting. While some people seem to be born with this gift, but this can also be learned through practice:

Here are 10 simple ways to start a conversation and keep it going, practice it yourself and become the one who can talk to anyone about anything.

1) Silence your inner critic: Judith Sills, a clinical psychologist states that a harsh self criticism is the most common obstacle to successful small talk. “If you feel there is nothing to loose—there’s no agenda—then you can relax and suspend that fear of judgment,” says Sills. That’s why many of us who are able to chat easily with a stranger on a airplane draw a blank when it comes to exchanging a few words with our friend’s boss.

2) Begin with the obvious: A competitor colleague of yours recently had a child: ask him how he is enjoying fatherhood. Your boss’s boss was just promoted: congratulate him and ask about the new job.

You don’t have to be clever, just show you’d like to talk by commenting on the person’s interests or whatever it is you have in common—no matter how tenuous it may be.
When you don’t have anything in common, or you’re both just killing time—waiting for the elevator, for example—it is perfectly acceptable to discuss the weather, besides; you can calm other person’s nerves with a little chitchat.

What if a person gives only grudging one-word response? Take the hint, that means he or she wants to be left alone, but don’t take it personally.

3) Compliment—carefully: It’s a fact that people are never bored by praise and sincere questions about their work. If you follow up a compliment with an easy-to-answer question— “I love your daughter’s dress; where did you find it?” —even the most modest person will appreciate the attention, as long as it is sincere.

Avoid potentially troublesome areas, such as a person’s physical appearance. Your comments, however well-intended, may sting and, worse, there’s usually no appropriate comeback. When someone says “gosh, you look much prettier in real life than you do in your daughter’s birthday snaps,” what the other person is supposed to say? “Oh, thanks, now I’ll shoot that person who took these snaps?” Instead, just say the person looks terrific and leave it at that.

4) Use friendly body language: A quick way to end a conversation before it even starts is to fold your arms, dart your eyes and lock your face into a grim expression. Whether you mean it or not, you appear uninterested or aloof.

Instead, make eye contact, keep an open posture and smile. “Body language speaks before you do,” says Don Gabor, author of Speaking your Mind in 101 Difficult Situations. “If you send friendly messages, you get back friendly messages.”

5) Turn the spotlight on others: People are always bored by the proud parents who talk on and on about their talented children, never bothering to ask about the listener’s equally special child. At some point the person who is talking has an obligation to turn the conversation around and ask, “How are your children?”

“People will think you are fascinating,” says Chock, “if you get them to talk about themselves.” Ask questions. Discover the person’s interests. If you don’t understand what he or she is talking about, say so. People are usually so flattered by your interest that they don’t notice if your questions aren’t brilliant.

6) Listen: You are at a coffee shop, trapped in conversation with a bore. What do you do? Listen closely for a nugget to explore. Even boring people have a passion that you can learn from. If this fails, small-talk experts ask “What do you mean by that?” to encourage the other person. Or they nod in agreement and say “Oh that must have been very exciting” or “It sounds as if that was tough for you.”

7) Keep it light: Traditionally, etiquette mavens have warned against controversial topics. While talk of personal illnesses, money woes and marital problems should still be avoided, nowadays politics is usually considered standard small-talk fare.

Voice your opinion, yet avoid “I’m right, you’re wrong” statements. Soften your disagreement by prefacing your remarks with comments such as “I can see we regard this differently.”

8) Give equal time: You are at a dinner party and have spoken with the man on your left for ten minutes. Do you owe the woman on your right equal time? If she looks bored, common courtesy requires that you involve her in your conversation.

“We have all been in that uncomfortable situation of being ignored,” Chock explains. “Even if you want to continue talking to someone, you have to be considerate of the other person beside you. I might say something to the first person such as ‘I’m sorry I have been monopolizing you. Your other dinner companions should have a chance to talk to you too.”

9) Have a sense of humor: Even the most gracious and considerate people sometimes say stupid, offensive or insensitive things. If you are the object of such “humor,” shrug it off. “The person is probably not mean-spirited, just unaware,” says Gabor.

10) Make your exit: You have suffered through that description of her house renovation. Or the conversation has simply wound down. How do you move on without being insulting?

Simply excuse yourself during a break, saying you need a cold drink or a snack or want to say hello to someone else. The more you practice small talk, the better you’ll get at sensing what’s appropriate.

And that, the experts say, is the real secret to small talk. “Very often people who avoid small talk imagine that everyone else is sparkling conversationalist,” says Sills. “Everyone else is not sparkling. They are just connecting.” And so you can.

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