Beyond Small Talk: How to Avoid Awkward Conversations When Meeting Someone New!
Meeting people for the first time can be uncomfortable, especially when the conversation isn’t flowing. Small talk only works for so long, and too often dead-ends at awkward silence. Not the best first impression to make personally or professionally! So how can you build an effective conversation that goes beyond “Nice weather we’re having,” makes others—and yourself—feel good about the exchange, and adds to your A+ first impression?
Comment on a topic you have in common
You have a few built-in commonalities with the people you’re sharing space with: the room, the occasion, the food, the weather, the company you both do business with. Great questions include:
- “How do you know our host?”
- “What do you enjoy most about attending this type of event?”
- “Have you always been in this profession?”
Remember to keep it positive and avoid complaining!
Comment on a topic of general interest
Whether it’s the top headlines or the entertainment section, it can be helpful to scan the news before you go anywhere you’ll need to make small talk. Then you can ask a, “Did you hear…” question. Just be sure you say it in a way that does not make the other person feel stupid if they are not familiar; basically reiterate the story versus making them feel like they have to fill it in.
Ask an open-ended question
Read carefully, for this is the go-to above all other questions: “What’s keeping you busy these days?” For starters, this implies no judgment, as can be inferred from “What do you do?” It also lets people choose their focus, such as work, family, or hobby. Best of all, it avoids the dreaded one-word answer.
Ask a follow-up question
If you do get a one-word answer, try asking a follow-up question. If you first ask, “Where are you from?” you might follow up with, “What brought you here?” or, “What do you miss most about living there?”
Ask a getting-to-know-you question
Questions about fun things, such as recreation, can reveal a hidden passion and spark great conversation. Try:
- “What TV shows are you watching now?”
- “Where is your favorite place to get away?”
- “What was your dream job growing up?”
- “What book has influenced you the most?”
Whatever the other person says, try to react in the spirit of their comment. For instance, if that person makes a joke, do your best to laugh (even if it isn’t funny). If they share a “Did you know…” question, react with surprise (even if you did already know). The best gift you can give your conversation partner is to make that person feel interesting and engaging.
Despite your best efforts, sometimes a first-time conversation will be a struggle. Maybe you’re listening to someone’s deep existential beliefs, or maybe you’re getting stonewalled with one-word answers. Either way, you need things to improve. How can you do it gracefully?
Use a gracious getaway
Gracious and effective: “It has been nice talking with/meeting you! I hope you enjoy the rest of the event.” In so many words, this says, I’ve appreciated our time together, but we’ll both be moving on to other ventures now. This is more effective than an indirect getaway, such as excusing yourself to use the restroom, get a drink (because it’s gracious to offer to get one for your conversation buddy), or talk to a friend you just noticed. Those all leave your conversation open to possibly resume later.
Draw out a shy person
If your conversation volley is falling flat, but you’re not feeling a vibe of annoyance or negativity, you may be talking to a shy person. Try drawing them out with a question that requires an opinion, such as a current event. Demonstrate that you appreciate (and won’t judge) their honesty, even if you disagree.
Match details with an oversharer
If you’re not getting a word in edgewise, you may be talking to an oversharer, who has brought you in on the most intimate details of their life during your first chat. If you can’t make a gracious getaway, try becoming a mirror. Overshare the things no one else wants to hear about your life—your thousands of adorable dog photos, the gory details of your C-section, or the latest in your sister’s divorce. Don’t let the oversharer dominate the conversation; participate, and assert your right to talk, as well. It could be fun, or at least it will pass the time faster!
Be direct if you’re uncomfortable
If someone’s conversation makes you uncomfortable, please tell them. There’s a good chance they’re not aware of your feelings unless you speak up. Respectfully assert your boundaries with, “I’m really not comfortable talking about this,” or, “I’d rather talk about something else.” For more great ways to deal with rude or uncomfortable questions, read up on How to Ace Awkward Social Questions.
If this uncomfortable setting is a first date, you’ll have to decide if you want to stick it out, or if you’d rather admit that you’re not enjoying yourself and that you’d like to end the date early. Either way, you’ll eventually have to confess that you don’t want to spend time with this person!
You’ll never get a second chance to make that critical first impression, so make sure it’s a good (and not awkward) one! Don’t be afraid to push past the small talk. Asking the right questions at the right time will create great conversation, foster good feelings about the encounter, and solidify positive memories of you. And if the going gets too rough, you can always leave a good impression with a gracious exit strategy!
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