How to Have Better Conversations

How to Have Better Conversations

I’m a stand-up comic; between open mics and shows, I cannot go a single night without making enough small talk to feed a thousand dinner parties. Oddly enough, how I perform in one-on-one conversation can feel far more important than whatever I say into a microphone. But “perform” is the key word that just might be sabotaging most people when they try to make small talk.

Regardless of your field, we’ve all been there: walking into a room full of strangers or acquaintances and feeling that nervous pit in your stomach. You want to make a good impression and hold an intelligent, witty conversation but the anxiety starts creeping in. Suddenly you’re more focused on “performing” well socially than actually connecting with people.

Today’s anxiety-reducing social etiquette hack comes from from this TikTok by creator Danielle Bayard Jackson (@thefriendshipexpert). In the video, she explains that your priority in a conversation should not be performance, but curiosity. I’m going to expand on that with some of my own tips for having better conversations, pulled not just from all the hours I’ve put in, but from all the hours I’ve spent annoyed out of my mind from people performing conversation at me. Let’s dig in.

How to have better conversations: Curiosity over performance

When you shift your focus from performance to curiosity, you’ll not only reduce your social anxiety, but you’ll actually have more meaningful conversations. Here are some tips.

Ask open-ended questions

Resist the urge to “perform” by talking about yourself. Instead, ask open-ended questions that allow others to share. You can afford to be a little blunt here, if need be. Simple starters like “What do you like about your work?” or “Where did you grow up?” open up dialogue. Listen intently to their responses and ask thoughtful follow-up questions to show genuine interest. For instance, if they respond that one of their favorite things about work is their coworkers, ask what those people are like. If they say they actually hate their work, ask them what sucks about it in particular. Remember: The objective here is curiosity. The conversation will flow more naturally this way.

Get comfortable with silences

Don’t get unnerved by natural lulls and pauses in conversations. This can be excruciating, but silences allow you and the other person to reflect on what’s been said. Refrain from filling gaps in conversation with nervous rambling. Breathe and enjoy the moment. If someone has a moment to reflect, they may actually think of something else they’d like to add to the conversation.

Compliment sincerely

If you notice something you genuinely admire about someone, politely mention it. The key here is simplicity, but sincerity. “That’s a nice watch” or “You have a good eye for art” does the trick. Don’t just compliment for the sake of flattery. Tasteful, sincere compliments open people up, and can be a great opening for another open-ended question.

Don’t overshare

Believe me, I know how easy it is to monopolize a conversation by oversharing about yourself due to nerves. Keep the focus on the other person by only sharing personal details or stories when absolutely relevant. Again, don’t talk solely to fill space.

Stay present

Anxiety can distract you from conversations as your mind races ahead. Catch yourself if this happens, take a breath, and calmly re-focus on the moment. Don’t stress about where the conversation “should” go next or fret over an earlier awkward moment. Stay engaged in the present.

Having better, less anxious conversations requires tuning into the other person without expectations. Curiosity and sincere interest opens up honest dialogue where performance and posturing closes it off. Try shifting your mindset—the connections you make will become more real, raw and rewarding.

Lead Image Credit: Universal Pictures

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