You’re at a party, talking in a three-person group consisting of you, your friend, and their friend (a stranger to you). Your friend, the connective tissue of the conversation, says she’s going to go get a drink. Do you guys want anything? No, no, you say. But uh-oh. Now you’re alone with the friend. Your mind goes blank. What do you say? What do you talk about? Umm, ahh … that, uh, Joe Biden … huh?
Susan RoAne, speaker and author of What Do I Say Next?, knows what you should say. The conversation expert shared with us a few tips to help you figure out how to force some words out of your mouth in these sorts of situations, as well as some things you should avoid.
1. Talk about the weather.
“What’s small about talking about the weather during a storm when you’re standing next to someone at a bus stop?” said RoAne. She doesn’t agree with the idea that small talk is useless filler; instead, it’s a necessary bridge to forming a deeper bond. “We have to earn the right to have deeper conversation,” she said. “And we do that through having had enough little conversations that connect us and make us feel comfortable with each other.” Don’t feel like you need to discard the small in favor of the large, and do feel free to talk about the weather.
2. Try bringing up the news.
“I know this is gonna sound really old school, but read the Cut,” she said. That’s us! “Read a magazine. Read your local paper. Have them send it to your watch.” When trying to talk to someone, it’s helpful to have something to say; one way to have something to say is to remain aware of the sort of things other people are talking about: world events, asteroids, the lizard who didn’t need a man. Things outside of what might be your own areas of interest.
“I’m going to quote my fifth-grade teacher,” RoAne said. “In order to be a good conversationalist, you have to be well informed. To be well informed, you have to be well read.” Helpful words, particularly if you also missed learning that in fifth grade.
3. Let people tell you what they want to talk about.
Rather than try to steer the conversation based on what you assume a person might be interested in, listen for cues. “Instead of coming with an agenda, listen to what someone is enthusiastically talking about, and ask a question about it,” RoAne said. And it’s fine if you’re completely unfamiliar with the topic. “Say something like, ‘You know, I’m really not familiar with that. Can you tell me more?’”
4. But don’t ask too many questions.
An oft-stated rule for stimulating conversation, with its origin in Dale Carnegie’s 1936 self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People, is to ask your conversation partner about themselves. In the wrong hands, though, this well-intentioned advice can become overwhelming. “I’ll give you four questions, but if you ask the fifth question in a row and you’ve given no information about yourself,” RoAne said, “I take three steps back and think out loud, What’s it to ya?”
Make sure you’re not grilling the person you’re talking to. Offer some of your own thoughts, and leave space to let them ask you something.
5. Look interested in the conversation.
Don’t look over the person’s shoulder for someone more interesting or more likely to get you a job. Don’t look at your phone. Don’t apologize and say, ugh, you’re so sorry, but you have to look at your phone for a second because 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.” Be present, look at the person, and listen to what they’re saying.
6. Bring your OAR.
“There are three ways to make conversation,” RoAne said. “I call it bring your oar — O-A-R. You can paddle out of any conversation problem.” O stands for “observation”: Offer a comment about something you see or something happening around you. A stands for “ask”: Ask the person a question about themselves or about something related to the situation you’re both in. R stands for “reveal”: Offer an opinion or a fact about yourself.
But again, don’t rely too heavily on any one OAR-related aspect. “Conversations are a combination,” said RoAne.
7. Allow for some silence every once in a while.
But what about those silences that come with a close friend or a loved one? How do we fill those? “Sometimes we think that a conversation with a loved one should be ongoing, 24 hours a day,” RoAne said. “But we all need some quiet time.” Remember to keep your loved one’s interests in mind, and make sure you’re cognizant of what they might be thinking and feeling and wanting to talk about, but don’t force it. “Being able to be with a loved one and be in comfortable silence is really a gift.”