How many times have you avoided talking to someone new because you were afraid that:
- You wouldn’t know what to say.
- You would eventually run out of things to talk about.
- Conversation would be boring or awkward.
That kind of self-doubt can be paralyzing. But you’re not alone.
Each week I get dozens of questions like, “Nick, can you please just tell me exactly what to say? That would really help me get started.”
I wish I could provide you guys with a miracle fix but then I’d just be another scammy marketer.
Conversations are dynamic and unique. You’re speaking with different people, with different personalities, in different situations. If you’re having the same conversations with all of them, then you’re never truly connecting with any of them.
Let go of the idea that a discussion is a mathematical formula. Stop looking for the “secret” to learning how to talk to people.
The answer is to become socially confident through real-world experience.
What I can provide you with are proven guidelines to make those experiences easier and more successful. But it’s still up to you to apply them.
Here are my 17 tips towards mastering conversation with new people.
Be genuinely interested in them. Every article on conversation tips starts with “listen well”. But how exactly do you do that?
You already know how! It happens naturally when you’re interested in the other person.
Don’t believe me? Why can you riff with your family and close friends with ease? Because you focus on the words coming out of their mouth rather than what to say next in your own head.
A conversation is a two-way exchange where you build off of what one another says. Listening will give you all the material you need to relate, ask relevant questions, and continue building the connection.
But if you’re not actively interested by what the other person is saying, it’s impossible to have an engaging discussion.
Use F.O.R.D. and avoid R.A.P.E. F.O.R.D. is a well-known guideline for what topics are generally effective when connecting with new people. It stands for family, occupation, recreation, and dreams (aspirations).
But, what about topics to avoid? I came across the acronym R.A.P.E. — it stands for religion, abortion, politics, economics. I’d also add in previous romantic relationships.
These are sensitive subjects to many people. Unless you’re really experienced at handling them or they’re relevant to the situation, I’d steer clear until you know the person better.
Ask engaging questions. Stop trying to carry the entire weight of the conversation. Asking meaningful questions takes the pressure off of you.
People love to talk about themselves so encourage them to do so. Invite them to share their passions, opinions, and stories. They’ll leave the conversation feeling like you were a great listener who cared about getting to know them.
Here are three rules for great questions that lead to meaningful connections:
- Open-ended or thought provoking. Questions that are easy to answer with one word do not pry conversation open. Force the other person to think about their answer and give you more material to connect with.
- Creative or unique. Don’t ask the same questions they’ve probably heard a thousand times.
- Emotional. Your questions should evoke feelings and not just yield constant exchanges of data. You want the “why” behind the words.
Don’t stress about coming up with amazing first questions. You’re just opening the door so you can continue to dig deeper. It’s perfectly fine to get the ball rolling with a “standard” question.
Let’s take “occupation” as an example. You might start talking to a woman with:
“So what do you do?”
She then tells you about her career as a travel photographer. You could follow up with a set of progressively bland, factual questions like:
“Did you go to school for it?” / “Do you like it?”
You’ll likely get a lot of short, unenthusiastic, “small talk” replies. It’s also going to feel like an interview.
Or you could use engaging questions like:
“Did you always want to be a photographer or was there a defining moment?” / “What’s the one shot that you’re most proud of?”
Which set do you think will get her excited to respond? Which will make her share real emotion and insight about herself? Which will be most memorable?
Use conversational “hook points” to maintain a natural discussion. Simply put, hook points are any words or ideas stated by the other person.
What’s being said in the moment will provide you with everything you need to fuel conversation. But when you’re in your head and not interested in what the other person is saying (step #1), you miss all the wonderful points of reference you can use to your advantage.
Let’s continue off the example above. You ask, “So what do you do?”. She responds, “I’m a travel photographer. I actually just came back on Wednesday from Argentina.”
What are some hook points I could continue conversation from?
– Flying (implied by the long-distance travel)
Pick one of the above. There are an unlimited amount of ways you could respond. Think…
Have you been to Argentina? What did you like about it? Do you have a story to share? If not, what do you want to know about Argentina? Are you into photography yourself? How do you feel about flying that long distance?
So you could…
Ask a relevant or deeper question. Like in the example above, you could immediately follow up with:
“I’m jealous, that sounds exciting. Did you always want to be a photographer or was there a defining moment?”
Or even something more lighthearted (but still unique and thought-provoking)…
“Okay so since you’re a pro, what’s your secret to enjoying a 12 hour flight?” [Flying]
- Sarcastic tease. “Wow, traveling the world and seeing beautiful sites sounds like such an awful job.” [Travel]
- Relate back. “I’d love to visit Argentina – the culture and nightlife seem incredible.” [Argentina]
- Be playful. “Oh my god why would you ever leave that gorgeous weather?” [Argentina]
- Roleplay. “It must be hard handling all that equipment yourself. Looks like I’m your new full-time travel assistant.” [Photography]
Mix up your responses and interject statements in between questions.
So the basic idea is this:
Ask an engaging question -> Listen and choose a hook point -> Make a relevant statement / question -> Repeat listening and choosing next hook point.
- Maintain strong eye contact. Without it, you will look nervous, disengaged, or disingenuous. This is especially true while the other person is talking. When breaking eye contact, do it briefly and casually.
Stop fearing silence. You don’t need to immediately fill every lull in conversation. It’s perfectly normal to have a quiet moment or two.
As long as you look comfortable in your skin, it won’t be weird or “creepy”. Silences are only awkward if you make them awkward.
If you tense up, look terrified, and stutter words out – then the other person will feel uncomfortable. But if you smile, take a breath, or casually sip your drink, then everything will feel great. Lead with confident body language even if you’re anxious on the inside.
Those extra few seconds give you a chance to collect your thoughts and respond well. Not only that, but because you look relaxed, the other person often restarts the conversation. A win-win for you.
- Don’t be a 1-Upper. If someone’s sharing a story with you (especially if it’s personal) don’t immediately respond with how you have a better, crazier, or more impressive one. It seems like you didn’t care about what they told you. They may even feel stupid and regret sharing their story.
Give real, personal compliments. People love to be validated and have their ego fed. Everyone wants to feel attractive and well-liked.
That said, don’t just start giving out cheap compliments. Generic compliments like that have been heard a 100 times before won’t make a strong impact. And if people feel you’re being insincere or have hidden motives, it can have a very negative effect on your connection.
So how do you give a great compliment?
Make sure they’ve legitimately earned it and make it unique to them.
I only give out compliments when someone has opened up to me, shared something personal, and impressed me. They’ve earned my praise and it carries a lot of weight because of it.
“That’s really interesting.”
“You look nice.”
“I love how you’re passionate about so many different things.”
“Damn that jacket looks fantastic on you.”
“I feel like I could talk to you about anything and it would still be fun.”
A couple of genuine compliments go a long way. Take a cue from Jack Nicholson.
Speak with a dominant, not submissive, tone. Submissive tones have a pitch that rises at the end of sentences. We do this with people we feel are superior (like bosses) or when we’re seeking approval – often with new people. It makes you sound nervous and unsure of yourself.
Dominant voices have a neutral or lower pitch at the end of sentences. It comes off secure, confident, and honest.
- Don’t needlessly apologize. Unless you actually upset someone or did something worthy of a real apology, don’t do it.
Stick to positive. Life can already be stressful enough. Everyone wants to be around someone who brings positive energy and improves the atmosphere. It’s contagious.
Yes, I understand some people have bonded through complaining and cynicism. But that’s a weak, unsustainable way to start a connection. Instead, be the guy who makes them forget about their worries and problems.
Even when someone says something like, “I had such a stressful, shitty work week.” Don’t say “Yeah I know how much that sucks.” Instead, elevate them up, “Well it’s a good thing you’re surrounded by great friends, great drinks, and have the weekend ahead of you :)”
Don’t criticize or judge them harshly. It’s okay to have a different opinion and to express it. But if you disagree with something, be polite about it.
“Wow, how could you like that?”
“That’s wrong, they actually found…”
“I can appreciate that although I’m more of a ____ guy myself.”
“I read a recent article that said…”
Attacking people only pushes them to get defensive or shut down.
If you disagree with someone so much that you can’t contain yourself, they aren’t right for you. Walk away and talk to someone who is.
- Give the occasional “I’m listening signal.” A simple head nod, “mhmm”, or “yeah” shows you’re involved in the conversation.
Learn how to tell a good story. It’s so much easier than you think. Every story follows this basic pattern:
Hook -> vivid imagery/emotions -> punch line.
Stories are an amazing way to draw someone in while getting them to relate with the real you. And since you’re just recalling something from your past, you won’t run out of what to say.
Avoid one-word or generic responses. They come off curt and can close the doors to more conversation.
For example, if someone asked: “I really want to see a game at Fenway, have you been?”
“Yeah”, “No”, or “Yeah, it’s cool.”
“Yeah, I go every year with my dad. You should definitely see a game before you leave.”
“Nah I haven’t but I’m dying to go, too.”
With both of those, you can lead into a story or ask a relevant question.
Assume people will like your presence. Our perceptions have a powerful impact on our outcomes.
If you walk into every social situation thinking “they’re not going to want to talk to me”, “I’m going to get rejected”, or “this is going to be awful”, you’re going to prove yourself right. You will project defeated body language, be timid, and have a hard time relaxing.
But if you believe people will be warm, friendly, and inviting – that’ll come true more than you think. You will walk into conversations genuinely excited to connect with people and it immediately shows.
Be expressive. You don’t need to feign excitement or become a chest thumping “alpha male”. But showing little to no facial expressions and having the “deer in headlights look” won’t arouse anyone.
SMILE! Get fired up when sharing a point you’re passionate about. Raise your eyebrows in surprise when they tell you something personal or shocking. Give a playful look of exasperation. Use your hands to help convey emotion.
Being animated is magnetic. Think about someone you consider a “very social person”. How do they look in conversation? Dull or lively?
Half of what makes conversations interesting for people is seeing your reactions to them.