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How To Be A Great Conversationalist

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I have a friend who is extremely nervous in group situations. She runs marathons, manages her household and raises her child alone while her husband is deployed for months at a time, and can whip up a gourmet meal out of almost anything, yet she trembles at the thought of having to make conversation at a dinner party.

Research indicates she isn’t alone. About 20% of the population suffers from sensory perception sensitivity. This trait typically manifests as shyness or inhibition.

On the downside, individuals with this trait take longer to make decisions and bore easily with small talk. On the upside, they are detail-oriented and more conscientious than their more outgoing counterparts (click here for more information on this topic).

Setting the science aside, the reality is that we all find ourselves in situations where it is necessary to make conversation with people outside our family and close circle of friends. Even if you aren’t shy by nature, it can sometimes be hard to engage in meaningful conversation with someone you don’t know well.

Who among us hasn’t suffered the awkward silence staring at a new acquaintance, frantically racking our brains for a conversation topic? Since we can’t avoid these situations, I’m going to give you some help in the form of simple tricks and conversation starters that will have you chatting up a storm at your next group event.

Body Language

The art of being a great conversationalist involves more than what you say. It has a lot to do with how engaged and interested you appear to be. That’s why body language is such an important facet of good conversation skills.

  • Eye contact – When you are listening, good eye contact indicates that you are paying attention to the person who is speaking. When you are speaking, it shows confidence and honesty.
  • Posture – Good posture not only makes you look more attractive and more confident, it makes you appear interested and shows respect to the speaker. Picture a surly teen slumped in his desk compared to the eager student beside him sitting up straight with pencil poised for note-taking—which one gives the impression of being interested in what the teacher is saying?
  • Gestures – the occasional gesture to emphasize a point is fine, but fidgeting indicates boredom and is distracting so if you tend to fidget when you’re nervous, adopt a habit of clasping your hands together in your lap while you converse.

Tips For Making Small Talk

For most types of group events (e.g. dinner parties, school events, church activities) you will primarily be engaged in small talk with other attendees, perhaps several people, as you mingle at the event. When you worry too much about what you are going to say, you often miss important details like the person’s name who you’ve just met.

Rather than stressing yourself out over what you should say, walk into these situations looking forward to and prepared to learn as much as you can about each person you meet. This will set you up to be the best conversationalist EVER because it will force you to:

  • Ask questions about the person to whom you are speaking
  • Be a good listener
  • Avoid talking too much about yourself

Why will this make you the best conversationalist ever? Because the person you are speaking to will feel valued and interesting, which is really all most of us want.

Don’t know how to get the other person to talk about herself? Here’s a few questions to get you started.

  • Are you named after someone in your family? How did your parents choose your name?
  • Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
  • Do you have any pets/children/siblings? Tell me about them.
  • Are you married? How long? Tell me about your husband.
  • What do you do in your free time?
  • Do you have any plans for the upcoming holiday or season?
  • What was your first job? Did you like it? Did it affect your job choices later in life?
  • How do you know the host? How did you get involved in this group/event?

Topics To Avoid

I realize I just encouraged you to ask your conversation partner tons of questions about herself.  By all means, feel free to ask any of the questions above. There are a few topics, however, that you should steer clear of when making small talk.

  • Politics (unless you are at a political fundraising event or something similar, you should stay away from this controversial topic)
  • Religion (again, unless you are at a church event, this area can be sensitive and even offensive to some)
  • Finances (even at a fundraising event it is ill manners to inquire about someone’s financial affairs)
  • Intimacy (if you are shy, you’re probably blushing at the thought of discussing this topic in public and if you’re not shy, take a clue from how uncomfortable the shy people are as to why you wouldn’t want to broach this subject with a new acquaintance)
  • Gossip (save this for your girlfriends—you may think it makes you look like you’re in the know, but really it just makes you look petty and cruel)

How To Deal With Inappropriate Questions

Since not everyone has discovered this amazing website yet, not everyone you meet will be armed with this great knowledge you now possess. Consequently, you might be confronted with an inappropriate question or remark at a social function. These are definitely scenarios where two wrongs to not make a right. No matter how tempting it is, do NOT answer a rude question with a rude response. If others don’t view the question as rude, it will just make you look like a jerk. A better tactic is to innocently point out the inappropriateness of the question with a sense of humor and/or pleasant disposition. Here are some examples:

Q: When are you two going to have kids?

A: About nine months after conception.

Q: Your wedding ring is gorgeous! How much did it cost?

A: Half his net worth if he ever wants it back.

Q: You live there? I heard that was a rundown neighborhood.

A: Not until we moved in.

On a more serious note, you can usually derail an inappropriate question with one of these responses:

  • Why do you ask?
  • What do you think?
  • That’s personal and I prefer not to talk about it.

I hope these tips help you navigate your next social event with less anxiety. If you have your own tips to share, please do so in the comments.

19 thoughts on “How To Be A Great Conversationalist”

  1. Being much like your friend, I have found that being a good listener & asking questions about the other person to be the best remedy. People love to talk about themselves & often need someone who will listen, really listen, to them. It then gives me time to feel comfortable & then able to talk freely. Great suggestions!
    I visited from the Ladies Only Blog Hop.
    Happy Monday!

  2. Love it.. Could have used this last Wednesday when My 13 year old had to go speak infront of 200 people at her school.. Definately going to share this with her.

  3. Those are great tips! I’m very talkative, and I recently faced the fact that I talk about myself too much! Gasp!! See, I just did it lol!! 🙂 Seriously, those tips really will help someone who gets really uncomfortable conversing with strangers. Thanks for sharing! I will be sharing it with friends who could use the info!

  4. Great tips. Especially love those on topics to avoid. Its funny how many people bring up politics but it’s such a touchy subject that its best left untouched.

  5. These are great tips! I LOVE the tips on how to handle inappropriate questions! I would totally says those things to someone. In reality it is very nerve racking to be in uncomfortable situations. I hate going to military functions where people don’t know me. I don’t usually say much to anyone.

  6. What great tips. Many people would be shocked to know that I was a very shy person for many years. I wish I would have read this list back then. I have learned by trial and error!

  7. Great tips, thank you.
    i have a touch of social anxiety and blush very easily when chatting to strangers making me even more nervous.
    Love the inappropriate question section, a giggle!

  8. These are great tips. I am and have always been very introverted and extremely shy. It only gets worse in social situations with new people, especially if there are a lot of them. I have avoided parties and even events that would have helped me further myself in my business all because I can’t talk to people. I almost start to hyperventilate, overthink everything coming out of my mouth, and if I say even one thing that I am not 100% happy with, I will beat myself up about it afterwards as if it were the only thing that happened and now no one will like me and everyone with think I’m weird. It’s a problem.

    I really love what you wrote about dealing with inappropriate questions! The wedding ring question, especially. That is a hilarious and fantastic answer.

    • Holly, I do the same thing. Even if I don’t feel awkward at an event, when I replay every conversation after I get home I’m appalled at some of the silly things I say. I really do think that if you are sincere and try to put other people at ease, they don’t remember anything foolish you say and instead are left with a positive impression of you.

  9. LOL at the rundown neighborhood comeback!! 🙂

    This was a great post. We all know people who are hesitant w/the small talk, and helping them integrate better into the conversations can be easy and rewarding to do!

  10. This was an excellent post. You hit on several points that I think deserve a lot of emphasis, don’t talk about yourself too much, be a good listener, and avoid “Hot” topics!!

    • Changing the subject is certainly the more mature response, but since I tend toward the sarcastic and immature I can’t help the occasional wisecrack retort. Too bad I usually don’t think of them until the next day!

  11. Love the conversation starter questions. I’m fine making small talk once the conversation is started, but never know how to quite get one started comfortably. And had to laugh at your great responses to awkward questions.

    • It honestly took me YEARS to come up with a handful of go-to questions to jump start a conversation. Unfortunately, I suffered through a lot of bad calls like asking “so what do you do for a living?” which seems innocent enough but will often throw SAHMs off track and put them on the defensive.

  12. Your friend seems like my kinda girl! Haha, I am just like that – only I can fake it really well, and people usually don’t notice. My heartrate does though. Eek. I actually love the responses to the inappropriate questions. Love. I am always one to resort to something a little less … tactful. Haha.

    • It’s funny you say that because I actually think my friend fakes it very well too. She is one of those people whose shyness comes off as confidence so people usually melt when she makes conversation with them. Only I am aware of how self-conscious she feels while she’s speaking! Stormy, your name doesn’t fit someone shy. 🙂

  13. Yep. This is me! I hate talking to a group of people or reading something out loud. I also get tongue tied and never know what to do! Even when reading to my son, i get freaked out!!

  14. Politics and Religion are definite conversation killers. I have been subject many times listening to someone tell me how great or not so great our president is, not just the current one but who ever might be in office at the time. I just don’t want to hear it..

    Hahahaha… love the answer to When Are you going to have kids…


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