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Six Tips to Avoid Awkward Conversation

Misha Tyler
Misha Tyler

December 18, 2014

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We’ve all been there.

You’re at a social gathering and you’re chatting with the people you know, enjoying the appetizer spread, and having a great time. Then you notice that person in the corner. The estranged uncle who hasn’t talked to anyone since the Food Fight Incident of Christmas 2006. The new co-worker who’s alone and staring into the depths of their punch glass.

You, being the kind person you are, what to engage them in good conversation and make them feel welcome. But the question is how?

Never fear! There are quite a few tips and tricks you can use as a strategic step forward when it comes to drawing out those untalkative friends and relations.

1. Ask Good Questions

When it comes to conversation, there are two types of questions: starter questions and follow-up questions. Both are important for maintaining a conversation with another person. What makes questions good?

Good questions are open-ended, engaging, and thoughtful. They ask what, how, and why, opening up the possibility for deeper responses rather than limiting the other person’s response to a short yes or no.

My personal favorite starter question is, “What was the highlight of….” and fill in the blank with whatever is most relevant: day, week, weekend, trip to Hawaii, Thanksgiving break, etc.

Their response to such a question is the perfect opportunity to ask follow-up questions that lean into the conversation.

The principle to remember here is: seek to understand before being understood. Follow-up questions come in various forms and prove that you care about what the other person is saying. Your follow-up questions may clarify information by repeating or rephrasing the content, “It sounds like you’re saying that…” followed by, “Am I understanding that correctly?”

Whether sparking up a conversation or keeping one going, asking good questions communicates value to another person.

2. Five Magic Words: Tell me more about that

This handy phrase can do wonders for coaxing a person to open up.

For best results, use once you’ve hit upon a topic that’s clearly important to the other person. By asking them to tell you more, they get a chance to dive deeper into a topic they care about. It takes a little practice, but you can make these five magic words suit your personal style by using them in tandem with a comment like, “That’s really interesting, tell me more about that” or, “Wow, I had no idea hydrology could be so intricate! What else can you tell me?”

Though awkward at first, this phrase becomes more natural as you develop your own way of incorporating these five magic words.

3. Show Genuine Interest

In the 1800’s, Winston Churchill’s wife attended a dinner along with two British politicians: William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Gladstone talked while Disraeli was known for asking questions.

Churchill’s mother said of the two men, “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.”

Have you ever met someone who made you feel this way? Someone whose interest in your life made you feel like you were an incredibly special person. You can be that for someone else! When you approach that person in the corner, don’t do it with the intent of just making conversation. Take a genuine interest in their life, or all these tips are useless.

4. Be a Good Audience

Being an English major, I love telling stories–especially long, meaningful stories. But if we’re chatting in Starbucks and I catch your shifty eyes every time someone walks in through the door, it’s a huge turn-off.

If you ask someone to tell a story or answer a question, do them the kindness of being a good audience. There are many ways you can do this through your body language: make eye contact, give verbal affirmations, repeat key details… etc. Think of the kind of audience you would want when you’re giving an anecdote and emulate those qualities when you’re talking with others.

5. Be Prepared

Some people are able to spontaneously spark interesting conversations. These people are rare. The rest of us rely on strategy.

If you know you’ll be entering a social situation, study up ahead of time! Your “study” doesn’t have to be arduous. Knowing a bit about current events, cultural icons, or popular books and movies is a great starting point. Before leading youth group every Wednesday, I think of an interesting question or a fun fact to share with my students and spark up conversations.

If you know the situation is coming, equip yourself with an arsenal of interesting knowledge!

6. Smile!

One of the easiest ways you can make a person feel right at home is to smile. Body language (smiling, posture, eye contact, etc.) communicates a lot more than verbal cues. If you are verbally affirmative, but with a bored expression on your face, your fellow conversationalist will feel you’re not really interested in what they have to say. (And you’re dishonest to boot.)

Don’t overdo the smiling. You don’t want to seem creepy or intimidating. But sometimes a smile can rejuvenate even the most shy person and draw them out into a conversation. Your enthusiasm and interest will encourage whoever you’re speaking with and make them feel welcome.

Communication is not something you’re magically be good at. It’s a skill which takes practice. And lots of it.

At times, you might feel awkward and uncomfortable. Your attempts to engage those “corner people” in your life might totally flop. But practicing communication which shows genuine love to others and makes them feel honored and understood is invaluable. You won’t regret it.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy 11 Practical Ways to Sharpen Your Communication Skills.

Misha Tyler
Misha Tyler

Misha is an Unbound graduate who has a passion for working with students. When she’s not spending time with students, she’s often practicing French, dreaming of travel, playing indoor soccer, or drinking tea.

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