Getting into a conversation is one thing. There are socially accepted scripts you can follow: you can ask how they’re liking the weather, or how they know the host, or what they do for fun. But once you’re in a conversation, how do you maintain it? That’s where it gets a bit trickier. Here are five tips and tricks from experts to help you next time you experience an awkward mid-conversation silence.
1. Make sure you look interested.
Nothing kills a conversation faster than a face that says, “I’m waiting for this conversation to end so I can go do something else.” Make sure you look alert and interested. Don’t scan the rest of the room over your conversation partner’s shoulder, try to maintain an appropriate amount of eye contact, and — as Susan RoAne, speaker and author of What Do I Say Next? told the Cut — don’t check your phone, even if you just got a text. “Because your message in that situation is, Oh, I don’t even know what this is, but it’s more important than talking to you.”
2. Don’t discount small talk.
Small talk has a bad reputation, but it can both keep a conversation going and lead to bigger things. So go ahead — talk about the news, what your plans are for the weekend, and the things you do for fun. “We have to earn the right to have deeper conversation,” RoAne told the Cut. “And we do that through having had enough little conversations that connect us and make us feel comfortable with each other.”
You might be inclined to cut through the small talk and offer something personal, in an attempt to get the other person to feel safe getting personal with you, too. Christopher Gottschalk, author of How to Start and Make a Conversation, warns against this. “More often, unfortunately, this results in your getting too personal before the other person is comfortable with you.”
3. Listen actively.
Make sure you’re really listening to what the other person is saying, rather than just waiting for your turn to talk. What do they seem to be interested in? What do they want to talk about? “Instead of coming with an agenda, listen to what someone is enthusiastically talking about, and ask a question about it,” RoAne said.
“When you listen actively,” Gottschalk wrote, “you are signaling that you are taking the conversation and the other people in it seriously. They will participate more in the conversation as a result, and everyone will benefit.”
4. Ask open-ended questions.
Don’t fall into the trap of asking a series of yes-or-no questions. This makes it too easy for the conversation to stall, and too easy for your conversation partner to feel like they’re being quizzed. Instead, focus on open-ended questions. Debra Fine, author of the Fine Art of Small Talk, recommends the question “tell me about you,” because it allows the other person to take the lead, decide what they want you to know, and go from there.
This can lead to what Gottschalk calls the “ripple theory of conversation.” Like the ripples that occur when a rock is tossed into the lake, take their conversational cue and let it lead to something broader, and something broader, and something broader. For example, if you’re talking to a co-worker, maybe you can talk about her specific job, then the company, and then the industry as a whole.
5. Stay calm, and practice.
Try not to feel nervous. Even if you’re not naturally gifted at conversation, as long as you remain kind and interested your conversation partner will likely leave with a positive impression. And, like anything else, becoming a skilled conversationalist takes practice. So get out there and chat.