They say that conversation is an art.
While some people do seem to have a natural talent for holding court and forming a connection with others, it is also possible to practice and hone our conversational skills over time. That’s great news for those of us who may feel a bit shy and awkward in social settings.
Whether you’re attending a networking event, making small talk with an acquaintance, or having a one-on-one meeting with your manager, it’s always valuable to know how to carry a conversation.
Below, we’ve gathered some practical and simple tips to help you carry a conversation, and make small talk feel less awkward and more impactful. So the next time you run into an acquaintance or find yourself in an elevator with your manager, you’ll be able to make chit-chat with confidence.
Have some topics in your back pocket
If you’re going to be attending a networking event or a meeting with coworkers, it might be helpful to have some conversation topics in your back pocket.
This can help you feel more prepared and confident knowing that you’ll have a few topics on hand that you enjoy talking about.
According to this Harvard Business Review article by Robbie Samuels, try starting with lighter topics before delving into conversations with more depth. Samuels writes:
“Start your in-person conversations with coworkers on the lighter side. Follow the other person’s lead about whether to keep engaging. You can stay within your comfort zone by sticking to topics you enjoy discussing. It’s only after establishing some level of comfort that you might consider sharing more vulnerable experiences, and invite others to do the same.”
Make a list of topics that you enjoy and could speak at length about. Topics like hobbies or favorite TV shows/movies are always great because you’re likely to find common points of interest with other people. These mutual interests can create a sense of familiarity and belonging, which can then open the conversation into other more meaningful directions.
Review your planner
Have you ever found yourself in this situation? You’re on a Zoom call with coworkers, making small talk, when out of the blue someone asks, “What have you been up to these days?” Suddenly, you freeze like a deer in headlights, with absolutely nothing to say.
When presented with this question, I always find myself struggling to remember what I’ve been up to. Maybe it’s because we’ve all been homebound these days and have had a hard time distinguishing the weeks!
But an easy solution is to just glance over your planner before your call. This will refresh your memory of projects you’ve been working on or people you’ve collaborated with or even personal details like memorable meals that you’ve made.
This is particularly helpful if you’re about to hop on a call with coworkers or professionals in your industry. Work calls can always feel a bit nerve wracking, but it can put you at ease knowing that you’ll have something to say in case someone asks what you’ve been up to lately.
Focus on the other person
This one sounds obvious, but I’m sure many of us have struggled with holding up our end of a conversation only because we’ve often been stuck in our own heads.
We worry that we’ll say the wrong things. Or we start rehearsing our responses before the other person has even finished speaking. But if we try to put our focus and attention on the other person, it takes the pressure off of ourselves. We don’t have to be witty and charming and interesting all the time. We just have to listen and make the other person look good. Whew!
Active listening allows us to stay engaged in the conversation, which helps us organically come up with questions and responses, without sounding scripted or insincere.
Get their opinions
Of course, feeling natural and at ease in a conversation is easier said than done. But one way to keep the conversation flowing is to encourage people to share their thoughts.
So if a coworker brings up that they saw a movie over the weekend, simply ask them for their opinion. What did they think about the movie? Are they a fan of the director? Do they have other movies that they would recommend?
Or if you’re at a party and a guest is sharing an interesting anecdote, try asking them questions about how they responded or reacted in certain moments. Your natural curiosity and empathy will help put the other person at ease, and encourage them to open up. So if they’re telling a story about the time their flight got canceled and got stranded at the airport, you can say something like, “What did you do?” or “That must’ve been stressful. How did you cope?”
Let the other person speak
While asking questions is a great sign that you’re engaged and interested in the conversation, we also want to make sure that we’re not interrupting or bombarding the person with too many questions. After all, we’re trying to get to know the other person, not make them feel like they’re at a job interview.
This can be particularly useful when you’re on a Zoom call. With on-screen calls, it’s harder to read body language and facial cues that would otherwise alert us to chime in and interject. A small interruption can suddenly disrupt the flow of a conversation.
So it’s always a safe bet to listen and then wait for a pause or a beat to add your two cents.
When we’re nervous, we have a tendency to avoid eye contact or stare at our feet or play with our phone. But the other person may misread our non-verbal cues as boredom or disinterest.
It’s okay to feel nervous and awkward—we’re only human beings after all and we’re all just trying our best. So if you catch yourself fidgeting or looking distracted, just try to bring your focus back to the other person. Nod, smile, and listen. It doesn’t matter how witty or funny someone is, what we really value is someone’s time and attention. Being present for the other person is what people will take away and remember most from their interaction with you.