Life of the Party: How to Start Great Conversations
You want to be friendly, but small talk always feels awkward. Learn how to keep the conversation flowing by asking getting-to-know-you questions and learning to follow (not always lead).
Small talk can be a big problem, especially for adults with ADHD.
I want to be friendly and polite, but sometimes I can’t think of a thing to say. How about you? Do you have the same problem with easy conversation starters? Here are some strategies I try when my mind goes blank:
1. Comment on a topic common to both of you at the moment: the food, the room, the occasion, the weather. Yes, talking about the weather is a cliché, but it works. Good questions to ask are “How do you know our host?” and “What brings you to this event?” Always keep it on the positive side. Unless you can be hilariously funny, the first time you come in contact with a person isn’t a good time to complain.
2. Comment on a topic of general interest. A friend of mine scans Google News before he goes anywhere he will need to make small talk, so he can say, “Did you hear that Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post?” or whatever.
3. Ask a question that people can answer as they please. My favorite question is: “What’s keeping you busy these days?” It’s useful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteering, family, hobbies). The “busy” question is preferable to the inevitable (well, inevitable in New York City) “What do you do?” A variant is: “What are you working on these days?” This is an especially useful dodge if you know what the person does for a living, but can’t remember.
4. Ask open questions that can’t be answered with a single word.
5. Ask a follow-up question if you do ask a question that can be answered with a single word, instead of supplying your own information in response. For example, if you ask, “Where are you from?” an interesting follow-up question might be “What would your life be like if you still lived there?”
6. Ask getting-to-know-you questions. “Which newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to? Which websites do you visit regularly?” Such questions will often reveal a hidden passion, which can make for great conversation.
7. React to what a person says in the spirit in which that comment was offered. If he makes a joke, even if it’s not very funny, try to laugh. If she offers some surprising information (“Did you know that the Harry Potter series has sold more than 450 million copies?”), react with surprise.
8. Be slightly inappropriate. I can’t use this strategy myself, because I don’t have the necessary gumption, but my husband is a master. I have heard him ask questions that seem too prying, or too cheeky, and I feel a wifely annoyance, but then I see that the person to whom he’s talking isn’t offended. If anything, he seems flattered by my husband’s interest.
9. Follow someone’s conversational lead. If someone obviously drops a reference to a subject, pick up that thread. Confession: I have a streak of perversity that makes me want to thwart people in their conversational desires – I’m not sure why. I remember talking to a guy who was dying to talk about his time living in Vietnam, and I just would not cooperate. Why not? I should’ve been thrilled to find a good subject for discussion.
10. Along the same lines, counter-intuitively, don’t try to talk about your favorite topic, because you’ll be tempted to talk too much. This is a strategy that I often fail to follow, but I should follow it. I’ll get preoccupied with a topic and want to talk about it all the time, with everyone I meet, and I have a lot to say. My husband is a martyr to the subject of happiness, which I talk about all the time.