Making conversation seems easy enough on the surface. You talk and they talk back, right? But then you find yourself in one of those awkward situations where you’re just staring at someone you barely know and you have to figure out how to keep the conversation interesting. Here are the most common mistakes we all make and how to avoid them.
These kinds of mistakes can happen with strangers or with people you’ve known for years — it isn’t limited to small talk. If you’re meeting someone new, we’ve talked about improving small talk skills, but these tips should help you get out of any awkward situation.
You Don’t Compliment Enough (and Don’t Accept Compliments Well)
Assuming you’ve been on the receiving end of a compliment at some point on your life, you know that when someone makes you feel good it tends to make you enjoy the conversation a lot more. It’s a deceptively simple tactic to improving conversation and one that can be employed in pretty much any social situation.
The basic idea here is to compliment the other party and make them feel good about themselves. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion author Dr Robert Cialdini offers two pieces of advice for doing this:
- Give Honest Compliments. It may not be easy, especially if the person has been distancing themselves from you for a while. But if you’re objective, they probably have some qualities you admire. If you take a positive action and compliment them, it may well break the ice and make them re-evaluate their perceptions of you.
- Ask for Their Advice. Cialdini notes this strategy — which involves asking for their professional advice, book suggestions, etc. — comes from Founding Father Ben Franklin, a master of politics and relationship building. “Now you’ve engaged the rule of commitment and consistency,” says Cialdini, in which they look at their actions (giving you advice or a book) and draw a conclusion from it (they must actually like you), a surprisingly common phenomenon in psychology.
The best part? According to a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, you don’t even have to offer sincere compliments. When most people receive a compliment, even an insincere one, they immediately feel better about themselves and the conversation as a whole. So, break the ice by complimenting a tie, admire a well-thought-out argument, or praise an idea.
Of course, when someone actually offers you a compliment, it can be hard to accept it without being awkward. In that case, The Art of Manliness has you covered:
The first step in quitting the faux modesty of the compliment deflection routine is to realise that fully accepting compliments does not make you conceited. You didn’t come up with the praise yourself, someone else did! You’re just confirming another person’s assessment, and again, it’s more polite to accept and appreciate their judgment rather than to contradict it.
Second, it’s ok to let yourself feel proud of something you did well. A little pride need not involve an inflated sense of your accomplishments or worthy qualities — just an honest assessment of what you did. It’s quite possible to be modest, while still being grateful and gracious. So what’s the best response to a compliment? Get ready for it…”Thank you.” That’s it. There’s never a situation where a simple, unadorned thank you won’t work.
That’s it. Just politely say “thanks” and move along. It’s a lot easier than many of us make it out to be!
You Don’t Listen
You’ve likely heard before that one of the most important facets of good conversation is being a good listener, but it’s more than just sitting around listening to the other person talk. In reality, you need to know how to listen and then respond in a way that demonstrates you’re contributing to the conversation. This is referred to as active listening.
We’ve mentioned active listening before, and the basics are pretty simple. You should listen, make comments that show you’re paying attention, repeat back key sections, and ask questions that move the discussion forward. Forbes describes active listening like so:
Active listening is all about capturing and truly understanding the messages another person is sending. It includes assessing nonverbal as well as verbal messages. A person’s posture, tone of voice and facial expressions is all examples of nonverbal messages. Active listening also entails understanding the context — the current situation, the person’s and scenarios backstory and the person’s expectations
You want to pay attention and respond to everything, including the words coming out of a person’s mouth and nonverbal cues. Then respond by paraphrasing and reflecting the conversation back to keep it moving forward productively. It’s a lot more difficult than it sounds, but it’s a great way to make people on both sides of the conversation walk away with a better understanding of everything that was discussed.
You Don’t Ask the Right Questions
This one’s probably the simplest trick to make yourself look like a better conversationalist than you actually are: ask a lot of questions. When you do so, people will feel like you’re doing a great job in the conversation, even if you’re not really doing anything.
An article by the Wall Street Journal sums up how to really ask good questions like so:
People love to talk about themselves and often will think you are a great conversationalist if you talk about them and not yourself. Don’t let the conversation stall after the person has answered — be ready with follow-up questions or build on the topic. And avoid obvious inquiries. Cathy Svacina, a 60-year-old marbles expert and tournament referee from Kansas City, Mo., likes to ask people what they do for fun. “That immediately tells me more about who they are than what they do for work,” she says.
This probably sounds self-explanatory, but most people are terrible at asking questions. To correct for this, you can ask all kinds of questions to make a conversation worthwhile, but remember to keep them open ended (like “How What? Where? Who? or Which?) and avoid the stereotypical questions like “What do you do?” or “What’s the weather like there?” when you can.
You Try Too Hard To “Be Yourself”
We’re often told to “be ourselves” in conversation, but that’s not exactly the best approach in every situation. Sometimes (and more often than not for some of us), “being yourself” is the exact opposite of what you should do in a conversation. In reality, you want to put your best foot forward and do a little acting.
Basically, sometimes it’s a good idea to “fake it till you make it” in conversation. You project more confidence with specific body language and sound like you know what you’re talking about by emphasising what you know. The same idea applies here and there’s nothing wrong with doing a little acting during a conversation to make it move better.
It sounds a little disingenuous, but research published in Social Psychological & Personality Science suggests that a positive presentation of yourself, even when it’s acting, gives a better impression of your real personality. We also know that humans tend to prefer cockiness over expertise when it comes to conversation, so when you’re projecting your “better self”, you’ll actually feel more confident, and you’ll tend to make the conversation more interesting in general.
That said, don’t overdo it. Research has shown that name dropping, personal disclaimers and bragging don’t necessarily work. They end up making people dislike you. It’s about projecting confidence, not being full of yourself.
You Dominate the Conversation
Everyone hates when one person dominates a conversation, but it’s incredibly hard to realise when you’re doing it in the moment. Even if you don’t consider yourself much of a conversationalist, you might end up dominating a conversation just because you’re nervous or excited about a topic.
You want to check yourself mid-conversation so you don’t end up talking the whole time. An article by the Wall Street Journal has two suggestions for keeping yourself from dominating the conversation:
- Avoid your favourite topic — whether it’s opera or you Shih Tzu — or else you’ll probably talk too much.
- With the dialogue chugging along, you can be expansive. But be careful. If the other person is talking too much, offer information about yourself. If you pause and the other person changes the subject, you were dominating.
It might sound counterintuitive to avoid your favourite topic, but it’s helpful at the beginning of a relationship so you don’t accidently dominate that conversation. Once you know someone well enough, you can dig into those topics together, but avoid them at the outset.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a little awkward in conversation or you’re the person who always has something to say. We all stand to improve our conversation habits. The above fundamentals are a good stepping stone to doing just that.