How to Start a Conversation

Some people seem to naturally know how to start a conversation. They can kickoff conversations anywhere, from a party, to a seminar, to a queue at the supermarket. I’ve always admired these rare people.

On the other hand, working as a social confidence coach, I often meet people who don’t know how to start a conversation and struggle with this, either all around or in particular types of situations.

Learning how to start a conversation easily and effectively has been one of the key points in developing my people skills, and this is a big part of why I also enjoy teaching it.

Forget What You Thought You Knew About Starting a Conversation

Chances are, you already have a baggage of concepts on how to start a conversation from word of mouth, family education, books and articles.

My first recommendation in order to boost your conversation skills is to leave them behind, because most of them probably come from limiting mindsets. I’m talking about mindsets that overemphasize the importance of politeness or make impressing others the conversational priority.

I find that most advice on how to start a conversation makes you come off either rigid and insecure (at best) or creepy (at worst). So I’m going to take you into a somewhat different frame for starting conversations.

I think you first need to get a good idea of how to develop your conversation confidence. Once you get the attitude component handled, starting conversations with anyone becomes a walk in the park.

Check out my instructional presentation on this topic on this page, which will teach you a simple, 3-step formula for developing your conversation confidence.

The Golden Rule: Be Friendly

Forget about impressing people right off the bat when you start a conversation. You’ll have plenty of time to impress with your slick, charming self. I have one golden rule for starting a conversation and that is to be, or at least appear, friendly.

Your goal is not to impress, it is to show that you are a relaxed and sociable person who wants to have an enjoyable chat. That’s the best way to engage another person in a conversation.

When I work with my clients to help them improve the way they initiate a conversation, we focus on developing a friendly vibe more than anything else. And a friendly vibe is demonstrated mostly by your non-verbals.

So instead of focusing on coming up with clever conversation starters that will instantly woo the other person, focus on:

  • Smiling and holding eye contact;
  • Breathing regularly and relaxing your body;
  • Keeping your posture open and non-threatening.

Ask Good Questions

One of the most important tools for engaging another person in a conversation is your curiosity. Your curiosity best manifests itself in the way you ask questions, which is one people skill I think is critical.

First of all, you want to ask big, open-ended questions that require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer and create for the other person the context to really talk about themselves.

Secondly, you don’t want to stick with the typical questions as conversation starters just because other people do so. The questions you ask, in my view, should be authentic and reflect your honest interests. You have much better chances of taking a conversation somewhere by putting your real interests forward.

Yes, Preparation Is Fine

If you struggle with starting conversations with some people or in some contexts, it’s OK to use conversation starters you’ve learned ahead of time and practiced before. Equipped with good conversation starters, you will have a tool for engaging people and you will feel more at ease.

However, it’s really dangerous to become depended on lines and conversation starters. This instructional presentation on conversation confidence I made explains why. If you have trouble starting conversations, it’s a must to check it out.

On the other hand keep in mind that at a certain point, as your conversation and people skills sharpen, memorized conversations starters are best to be left behind. Furthermore, remember that good conversation starters reflect your authentic curiosity. They’re not lines you use robotically; they’re adjusted to you and to the social context.

A Conversation Is a Two-Way Street

I often find that lots of people hesitate to talk about themselves, especially at the beginning of a conversation. They may believe it’s impolite or they may not be comfortable with opening up, so they choose to bombard the other person with questions as an alternative.

Nobody wants to feel like they’re in an interrogatory when they’re having a conversation: What do you do? Where do you live? Where do you work? Where are you from? What hobbies do you have? That is too many questions for two minutes of conversation.

Study people who are able to start conversations with ease in a semi-obsessive-compulsive manner like I did, and you’ll notice they are very open and talkative, and they have something to say about almost anything. This is why I believe that learning how to start a conversation is an exercise in opening up more.

If I were to synthesize how to start a conversation in one concise phrase, it would be this: have a combination of friendliness, curiosity, authenticity and verve. This mix is an almost magical key which opens many doors in social interactions. And more open doors mean more options.

Image courtesy of Batara