Conversations are key to our own personal development. Without communication we struggle to grow, interact, and communicate our thoughts and feelings. We also limit our skills in developing new relationships, connections, listening skills, body language, empathy, new vocabulary and we even reduce our own confidence levels.
Making conversation with new people can be awkward, especially if you are self-conscious, introverted or experience anxiety.
Your mind starts thinking about what you can talk about. Do I ask them questions? Do I talk about work? Do I let them do all the talking? It starts to become a little daunting. You then start worrying about the balance of topics and what not to talk about. If you merely talk about work, will you appear dull. If you deliver too many jokes will people take you seriously, and then there is the no go topics, like political and religious beliefs that could offend.
Then creeps in the self-doubt. What if I don't make a good impression or no one likes me? What if I say something stupid?! It just starts to become a bit overwhelming when you aren't used to socialising. Chances are you end up shying away in the corner again with your head down hoping that no one approaches you.
The good new is though, that theses skills can still be developed. You can become an excellent conversationist, and can make new connections and establish genuine relationships with new people.
The first step in improving your conversational skills is to identify what prevents you entering into a conversation.
For example: you have been approached by a colleague; you are both about to sit down and have lunch, but you don't really know each other. Think about how you would react. Will you try to shy away from making conversation? Ask closed questions that have nothing but yes or no answers to them? Allow them to do all the talking? Or avoid taking about yourself?
Now I won't lie, to improve and develop your communication skills you will need to be ready to jump out of your own comfort zone.
If you shy away from conversation, you need to learn how to initiate a conversation. It might be a cliché, but talk about the weather, ask them how their day has been, do they have any plans at the weekend? If you don't know them, introduce yourself.
If you are extremely shy, show that vulnerability and confront it! Don't be afraid to introduce yourself and follow it up by saying you get nervous when you meet new people. It allows others to empathise with you, and they are more likely to stay and engage in a conversation. But don't just say it for the sake of it! Be genuine. If you aren't nervous, then don't lie because your body language may reveal a different story. This also applies to topics you don't understand, but I will come to that later.
Ok, so you have opened up a conversation by introducing yourself, but how do you keep it going?
You need to start asking open questions. The last thing you want is to be asking questions that get back 'yes', 'no' answers. If this continues to happen, chances are the other person will start to feel a little awkward, and you will feel like you are pulling teeth.
But don't panic! You can still turn it around, if this happens.
If a question can be responded with a 'yes' or 'no'answer, it's a closed question, with little to no manoeuvre for the conversation too flow. For example, if you were to ask someone 'Have you had a good day?' That could be closed with a yes or a no. Instead try asking the same question in a way that would require more detail, like: 'How has your day been, what have you been up to today?' This not only requires more elaboration from the other person, but it additionally allows you both to pick up on other potential questions based on their response. Which, in turn, will naturally progress the conversation to flow and make you feel more at ease the longer it continues.
Now you are well on your way too engaging in a conversation. You are getting responses to your questions, but it is important to know not to fire out question after question. Don't just ask questions in the hope that they will do all the work, because they will likely start to feel like you are interrogating them. A conversation is two way street and it requires both parties to fully engage. Be mindful not to let the other person do all the talking, but like wise don't interrupt before they finish to ask them another question. Pay attention to small cues and natural openings in their body language and speech, where you can then respond. A valuable point to remember is to try to contribute to about one-half of the conversation when speaking one-on-one. Allow them the opportunity to you questions as well, and when they do, take your time. Don't rush to provide your answer, instead pause for a couple of seconds to gather your thoughts, and then respond. Make a point to listen to what the other person is expressing and ask at least one question back to them about what they just spoke about. For example: Your colleague has just told you they are going to dinner with their sister at the weekend. Make a point to ask a relevant question such as do they have any more siblings? Or what restaurant is it? It proves the other person you are listening and valuing what they are saying. Conversational skills are as much about listening as they are about speaking.
You have the conversation flowing, but how do you start to build trust and connections? If you struggle to open up and talk about yourself, this is definitely an area which will make you feel uncomfortable. But it shouldn't have to be. In order to establish trust and connections between others, you need to offer a little insight into who you are. Now, you will be relieved to know this doesn't mean you need to start telling everyone your life story! No, no, it merely means giving small tip bits of personal information like what you enjoy doing or your favourite type or food. Nothing too personal, but enough to start keeping the conversation flowing to see if there is any common ground.
For example: Your colleague has just told you the name of the restaurant she is going to with her sister, don't be afraid to respond with your own thoughts. "Oh I enjoy that restaurant! The lasagna is my favourite, what about you? What do you enjoy eating there?"
Not only have you just built upon the conversation, you have showed her you have valued and listened to what she said. She also now knows a small piece of personal information about you and you have then reverted the conversation back to her to show you are interested in her as a person and what she likes.
But never lie and say you have been somewhere if you haven't or try to pretend like you know what someone is talking about. Your body language is likely telling them otherwise. Plus if they ask you something on that subject, chances are you won't be able to answer and will look foolish. Be open, and honest. Ask them to elaborate or ask questions to help you understand, and if that doesn't work, just ask them to explain it a different way.
Overtime (I'm talking weeks, months, years even. Not the same day or night) you can start revealing more about yourself. More personal information and eventually as your friendship progresses it should build you up to start trusting the other person with more in-depth information, and opening up about your thoughts and feeling on more sensitive personal topics.
The more you engage in meeting and getting to know new people the more comfortable and confident you will start to become, and the more skills you will acquire.
Once you start building up that confidence, you want to move onto inviting others into a conversation.
The Self-Care Sunday Edit
Every Sunday, we will be bringing you little edits about how to improve your self-care and wellness.