How to start a conversation. It's one of those things that seems like it should be second nature.
...And for some people, conversing is that easy. It's just like taking a breath. They just naturally know how to spring into a conversation with anyone. They can be funny, charming, and effortless with strangers, whether it’s over the phone, in person, or through a screen.
But for the rest of us, figuring out how to start a conversation can be a little nerve-wracking. It can be difficult to know just how to start a friendly chat with a stranger.
Do you open with a joke? What if it falls flat? Do you try getting them to say the first word? What if they never take the hint?
Thankfully, conversation doesn’t have to just be an art for natural social butterflies, it can be a science as well, with easy to follow rules.
To help begin your next important exchange, here are the 17 best steps to start a conversation.
1. Pay attention to your situation
This may seem obvious, but it is crucially important. Where are you when you are starting up this chat?
Conversations change depending on how you have them. A chat started through text would have less filler comments, be more direct, but also use more casual language. A conversation over the phone would have to completely concentrate on words and tone of voice without any physical signals to help you along. In person, you have the opposite concerns. There, you can rely (or worry about) body language almost as much as the words you are using.
Prepare with these benefits and limitations in mind. If it’s possible to have the conversation in the format you are most comfortable, try to make that happen.
Additionally, consider your physical location while choosing your opening comments. Tone and topic can change depending on whether you are about to open a discussion in a bar or a boardroom.
In a bar, you’ll be talking loudly and casually and you’ll want to keep the topic light. In a boardroom, it’s just the opposite.
2. Think about who you are talking to
Just as important as number 1, you should keep the person in mind when you prepare to speak. Also, keep in mind who this person is to you.
You don’t start a conversation talking to your mother the same way you do with your girlfriend, to give a simple example. So, make a point of approaching this person (or people) with the same distinction.
Is this a man or a woman? Is it a colleague or a stranger? Are you talking business or socializing?
Use some common sense to tailor the things you talk about to what the person might be interested in and what they will be expecting to hear from you.
3. Consider what you want out of the conversation
Are you looking for business, friendship, romance, or just a bit of conversation? Your opening gambit tells the other person a lot about what you want from them, so you should make a point of knowing the answer yourself first.
There are a lot of things to talk about in any given conversation. Before you speak up, call, or text, think about the specific things you want to talk about with this person in this specific conversation and what you hope to achieve by talking about them. Then, make sure your first words suggest where the conversation is going.
4. “Read” your conversation partner
Whatever the situation, whoever the person, and whatever you want, it’s important to size up your conversation partner before you speak.
This is obviously much easier in person. In person, you can ask yourself:
- Does this person look comfortable in these surroundings and with you?
- Do they appear to be relaxed and interested in talking?
- Do they look like they want to be left alone?
- Is their attention focused on something (sports on the TV, musicians on stage, the drink in their hands, news on their phone) you can discuss together?
However, even at a distance you can think about what you know about this person before you call or send a message. Think about the details you know.
- What have you heard about this person?
- What is their reputation? Are they generally considered friendly and open or more closed off?
- Do you know any of their interests?
“Reading” your potential conversation partner can help you a great deal. It can tell you what conversation tactics might work, how hard you’ll need to work to keep a conversation going, and whether now is the right time to strike up a chat.
5. Start with “hello”
There’s nothing simpler, and that’s important for good conversation.
It’s easy to overthink how to start a conversation and to try to jump in with the most memorable comment in history, but just a simple “hello” or basic introduction is still best.
You’d be surprised how far the simplest openings can take you.
A smile tells your fellow converser that you are open and interested in a pleasant discussion. Whether this is business or something more personal, a smile sets the right tone for what will follow. A smile also suggests you’re relaxed and easy-going, even if you’re nervous underneath.
Smiling is important, even if you are just talking over the phone. People can tell when you are smiling by how you pronounce words.
7. Make eye contact
This can be a difficult task for the socially awkward, but it’s an important one. If you’re meeting someone in person, you need to look them in the eye.
Just like a smile, eye contact sends all sorts of positive signals to the person you are approaching. It suggests confidence and honesty as well as approachability.
It also shows that you have a direct interest in the person you are talking to. You aren’t distracted. This person is the only important person in your world as long as you are talking.
8. Use conversation starters
Once you’re past the basic introductions, use conversation starters to move into actual discussion.
Conversation starters are questions that can prompt your conversation partner into opening up. They give you things to talk about in a question format that encourages response. Then, they allow the conversation to turn in interesting and more personal directions.
They also push the conversation on because it allows the other person to talk about their favorite subject: themselves.
Beyond these benefits, they allow you to set the parameters of the conversation. By offering up questions early on, you tell the other person that this conversation is about them: you are interested in them and what they have to say.
Conversation starters can cover a lot of different topics. Consider a few of these:
- Ask what the person wants out of life, the evening, the event
- Ask for an opinion about the surrounding environment (what do you think of this band? is that a good beer?)
- Ask about the weather (an old but still reliable conversation starter in a pinch)
- Ask about current events… carefully (don’t bring up anything too controversial this early!)
These and many other topics, when used carefully, allow you to enter a conversation almost seamlessly.
9. Give a compliment
Just as everyone likes to talk about themselves, everyone likes to hear nice things about themselves. Giving an inoffensive compliment is a great way to put the other person at ease and create a friendly connection early on in the conversation.
However, this can be a bit more hazardous than some of the above steps. Be careful how you compliment the person.
It’s fine to say “I have great taste in beer” if you see the other person’s drink, but stay away from anything that might offend your new conversation partner.
Since you don’t know them yet, you can’t be sure how touchy they are about their appearance, for instance, and a well-meant compliment about a dress can come off badly with the wrong person on the receiving end.
If you feel uncertain about whether a compliment would be taken the wrong way, best to stick to the truly inoffensive. Wait until you have a response to your conversation starter and then compliment the person for it.
“That’s a really interesting idea” or “I never thought of that” can make the other person feel good about themselves and also feel like you are listening and engaged.
If this still feels a little tricky, feel free to skip this step. You can always come back to it once you have a better feel for the person further along in the conversation.
10. Tell a joke
If you are good at telling jokes or generally being humorous, there are few better ways to start a conversation and ingratiate yourself to a new person.
But if you lack these skills… the potential for failure is very high. There’s a reason this tip is so often mocked in movies. It can go wrong on so many levels.
If you feel certain you can pull this off, then use this tip frequently. Otherwise, stay well away.
Transitioning to an actual conversation
So, you’ve made the initial contact, now how do you avoid letting the conversation drag into awkward pauses and eyes glancing elsewhere in the room? Use these techniques to keep things going smoothly once you’ve got the person’s attention.
11. Let the other person set the pace and tone
This is a great way to keep the other person comfortable, which is one of the most important steps in knowing how to start a conversation. While you remain in control of the overall conversation by setting the parameters and following the steps below, you allow the other person to control various qualities of your discussion.
Let them show you how quickly they want to move on from your conversation starter. Also, let them choose how serious or silly they want to be.
No matter the format of the discussion, giving the other person this leeway allows them to feel like you are listening to their wants and needs in the conversation.
12. But lead the conversation yourself
Let the other person feel important, but make sure you remain in overall control. While you want to let the other person show you how they want the conversation going, make sure you are in charge of the most important element: the topics themselves.
By controlling what you talk about, you are able to make sure you get what you want from the conversation.
If that is a business deal, you’ll be able to focus in on returning to that deal every so often and moving it forward. If you’re looking to get to know a girl, you’ll be able to keep the conversation getting ever more intimate (although at her pace).
However, if the other person introduces a topic, don’t dismiss it just because they’ve temporarily taken the lead.
It’s important to share the control sometimes. If you are too forceful about controlling the conversation, you may turn the other person off. You may also miss the obvious sign that the person is bored with the topics you are introducing.
13. Keep asking questions
So, how do you control the conversation? The answer is simple: questions. Questions aren’t just a great way to start a conversation, they are the best way to keep control of it no matter how long it goes on.
Be sure to follow up your initial conversation starter with other related questions that target points made by the other person in their answer.
If they tell you the beer they are drinking is good, ask when they started drinking it, if it is their regular drink, if they like anything else at that bar. Then, when the time is right, move the conversation to a more productive topic.
By finding the right questions to ask, you give the illusion of control to the other person while you are in the driver’s seat the whole time.
When you ask questions, you allow the other person to do most of the talking, all while you can easily change topics just by redirecting the questions.
And, just like above, questions suggest your whole focus is on hearing what the other person has to say.
14. Keep it focused on them
It’s important to note here that your questions should focus as much as possible on the other person. Just like in conversation starters, you want these questions to be about how the other person feels or what the other person has done.
Talking about yourself is an easy hole to fall into when you are talking to a stranger. After all, you want to impress this person. What better way than by doing a little bragging and bringing it all back to you?
Questions help limit this (mostly negative) impulse, but you may find that your questions start trending back towards you and your interests or talents. A little bit of bragging and self-focus is important to a conversation, but try to keep the focus on the other person as much as possible.
15. Steer clear of the serious
Unless your conversation partner draws you into deep conversation topics, avoid them in this first encounter.
Being serious can demand a level of intimacy others aren’t ready to commit to on a first meeting. Additionally, it’s more likely that topics and options will come up that might offend or make someone uncomfortable.
Keep it light.
16. Be open, but not intimate
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share anything, though. The key is finding things to talk about that allow for balance between being open and being intimate.
Be sure to share things about yourself that are interesting and that add to the conversation.
If you are asking a lot of questions that dig into someone else’s life and thoughts, you’ll be expected to offer something back in return. Make sure to point out where you agree with the other person and where your experiences overlap.
17. Stay casual
Whether it’s business or personal, on the phone or in person, make sure to maintain a casual attitude throughout. If you seem nervous or worked up, it’ll negatively affect your conversation.
Remember that this is just a bit of chatting between two people, and the worst thing that will happen is you don’t make a strong connection.
The more laid back you are about the conversation, the easier and more natural it will be to follow all of the above steps.
Knowing how to start a conversation isn’t as tricky as it can seem to those out of practice. It’s just a matter of getting a few key points right.
If you can size up the situation and set the right parameters, you’re halfway there. If you can transition into full conversation and steer it in the right direction, you’ve got it made. That may still sound like a lot of work, but a little practice and sticking to the steps above will make you a conversation expert faster than you might think.