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How to Start a Conversation and Keep It Flowing

Etiquette experts give tips on talking to absolutely anyone.

Struggling to strike up conversations, whether if they're with a stranger or someone you know? Getting more comfortable just takes practice—and some guidance. To help you become a more self-assured talker, Best Life asked the experts for their conversation tips. Read on to learn questions to ask, who to direct them toward, and tons of other tricks for how to start a conversation and keep it flowing. Whether you're looking to improve your social skills for personal or professional reasons, these insights will equip you with the tools you need become the most confident conversationalist around.

RELATED: How to Keep a Conversation Going With Confidence.

Why Is Knowing How to Start a Conversation Important?

A great conversation isn't just about gathering information—it's about building a foundation for a partnership, a friendship, or other opportunities. Good conversation skills are also vital for career advancement, fostering workplace harmony and transforming casual chats into meaningful connections with whoever it is you're speaking with. Even the dreaded "small talk" serves its purpose by communicating empathy and a willingness to listen—no matter how dry the conversation may seem.

At the same time, it's important to recognize that not everyone approaches conversation with the same amount of confidence. "Everyone should know that while there are some who are more inclined towards chatting up others, no one is born a skilled conversationalist," says Jodi RR Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. "It takes time, and it takes practice."

12 Tips on How to Initiate Conversations

1. Prepare some good conversation starters.

close up of two people shaking hands
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Ever been caught in the headlights of a soon-to-take-place social interaction without any idea of what to say? If so, it's probably time to start building up an arsenal of conversation starters.

"Always be prepared to give a self-introduction," says Smith. "Your name only gets you halfway there. You should also include a tidbit of information about yourself. It is this bit of information that will help you start a conversation or help the other person ask you a question."

It also helps to stay cognizant of what's happening in the world around you. "Be well informed," advises Liza Grotts, certified etiquette expert and author of A Traveler's Passport to Etiquette. "Read at least one daily newspaper and don't forget the sports page."

2. Use open-ended questions.

woman sitting on man's desk as they drink coffee
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The benefits of using open-ended questions in conversation are pretty straightforward. Simply put, they encourage people to share more about their thoughts and experiences than close-ended questions do. Plus, they help promote critical and creative thinking, allowing for deeper conversations that explore various perspectives in place of a simple exchange of information.

3. Ask them about their life.

two men having a deep conversation while sitting on a hill overlooking the city
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By showing genuine curiosity about someone's passions or background, you not only keep the conversation going but also deepen your connection. Deep talks aren't about peppering your partner with questions to fill silence—you want to peel back the layers to discover the core of who they are, creating a space where they feel seen and heard.

"Asking others about themselves is an essential ingredient to keeping the conversation fresh and ongoing," says Randi Levin, a transitional life strategist and founder of Randi Levin Coaching. "We have all been on the receiving end of chatting with someone who only speaks about themselves. Nothing could be a bigger turn-off."

RELATED: 200+ Get to Know You Questions That Actually Work.

4. Find common ground.

A happy young man high-fiving his female colleague.
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Shared interests and experiences are a catalyst for connection, making conversations smoother and more enjoyable. "Shared experiences are always a go-to conversation booster," says Levin. "There is an implied know, like, and trust factor when we find common ground with strangers." Whether it's a mutual hobby, a shared professional background, or a common dislike for Monday mornings, any common ground can help facilitate more meaningful dialogue.

If all else fails, you can always rely strategies such as the FORD method, which stands for "family, occupation, recreation, dreams." Asking questions in these areas can help guide you toward topics that really resonate with you and your conversation partner.

5. Throw in a compliment.

woman receiving a compliment from her boss
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Saying something positive about someone is a great way to lighten the atmosphere and make them feel appreciated. "The best compliments are the ones that are woven into the conversation and that come from an authentic and heartfelt place," Levin reminds us. "They should be less about appearance and surface fluff and more about insights that have been gathered from speaking with one another."

Of course, it's also important to recognize when to scale back. "Sincere compliments are lovely. But being insincere will make others wary of you," Smith cautions.

6. Maintain eye contact.

woman avoiding eye contact with man
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Eye contact is an agreement between speakers that says, "I'm here with you, in this moment." By maintaining that visual link, you're signaling attentiveness, ensuring that your conversation partner feels acknowledged and appreciated. Striking the right balance—a steady gaze, not a stare—can convey confidence and sincerity, building trust as the conversation flows.

7. Pay attention to body language.

man and woman sitting on couch, facing away from each other
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The way we stand, the gestures we make, and even the distance we keep can either complement or contradict what we're saying aloud. "Your body should face the other person, shoulders squared to theirs, open body stance," says Smith. "Make sure your arms are not crossed and that your hands are not hidden in your pockets." Of course, you don't want to get too familiar too fast. Keep an eye on how the other person is receiving your efforts, and be sure to give them plenty of personal space.

RELATED: 60 Positive Words That Start With "E" to Use in Any Conversation.

8. Ask for their opinion.

two men sitting across from each other at desk having a business meeting
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Asking for someone's opinion indicates that you value their thoughts and perspectives. Not only that, but it also encourages them to share more about themselves. "Connection is about learning. Conversation is the road to that connection, so asking for the opinion of others is a key way to build upon communication and engage in learning something new," says Levin.

Requesting input also opens up new avenues for discussion, making the conversation more dynamic and engaging. Moreover, it can help uncover common interests or differing viewpoints, both of which can lead to deeper and more meaningful exchanges.

9. Crack a joke.

man and woman walking through park holding yoga mats and laughing
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Making jokes creates bonds by establishing a shared sense of humor and lightening the mood. It can also serve as a bridge to more serious topics. Still, it's important to proceed with caution when using humor.

"Humor is great when infused appropriately into a discussion, but not if it is used as a substitute for good communication because one person feels insecure," says Levin. "It is okay to make a joke sparingly that fits the dimensions of the interchange and emphasizes a point, but it should be a one-and-done scenario, not a skit."

10. Wear something worth talking about.

Woman holding a yellow sapphire necklace up to the camera
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A unique accessory or striking outfit naturally draws attention and curiosity, prompting others to comment on or ask about it. It can also raise a variety of topics, from fashion preferences to personal stories behind the item. "Entering a room or entering a conversation with something interesting that is a visual conversation starter is a fun way to break the ice," says Levin.

Of course, you don't want to overdo it. Make sure what you're wearing is appropriate for the event, and don't spend too much time talking about your wardrobe. It should be utilized as a conversation starter, not the conversation itself.

11. Offer to help with something.

couple spending their first date at a cooking class
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Offering to help shows that you are genuinely interested in someone's needs and are willing to invest some time to assist them. Working together on a common goal can also foster a sense of camaraderie.

"There is no better conversation booster than feeling like we are being heard and appreciated by someone else," says Levin. "Offering to help with an event, or a connection, or with a project indicates that we value the potential relationship that our conversation has begun, and we see value in continuing it."

12. Ask follow-up questions.

man and woman talking on a couch asking one another questions
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By asking for clarification or further details, we show the speaker that we are listening actively while encouraging them to explore their thoughts more fully. It says, "I'm engaged in this conversation, and I want to understand more."

This approach is particularly effective in in-person conversations, where non-verbal cues can further enhance the exchange. Some examples include:

  • Can you give me an example of what you mean?
  • How did that make you feel?
  • What was your thought process behind that decision?
  • Can you explain that in more detail?
  • What do you think the implications of that are?

13. Keep practicing.

man at cafe ordering from woman at counter
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According to the experts, the only way to really improve your conversational skills is to work on them—intentionally and often. "Like any other skill, small talk and conversations should be practiced," Smith insists. "Whether it is the cashier at the local bagel store, the librarian, a fellow commuter, or someone also waiting in line, try having a brief conversation about the weather or current events. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel, and the better you will be at small talk."

She reminds us that this advice does not apply in situations where we feel too awkward or afraid. "Manners matter, but safety first. Do not strike up conversations with strangers while alone, at night, or in a potentially dangerous situation," Smith warns.

RELATED: 210 Deep Questions to Ask for a Closer Connection.

Things to Avoid When Starting a Conversation

Two people having conversation at outdoor cafe
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While there are many strategies to enhance your conversational capacity, it's equally important to be aware of pitfalls that can derail your efforts. Here are some things to avoid when striking up a conversation:

Avoid controversial topics.

In casual conversation, steer clear of discussions about politics, religion, and other sensitive subjects that might provoke strong opinions or discomfort. These topics can quickly turn a friendly chat into a heated debate, making it difficult to maintain a positive environment. Instead, focus on neutral topics.

Don't monopolize the conversation.

"Think of a conversation as a game of catch," Smith suggests. "You throw the ball, hold on to it for a few seconds, then throw it back to the other person. Good conversations involve give and take. If you find that you are not talking at all or that you are doing all the talking, something is off in your game."

While sharing your experiences and stories is important, constantly steering the conversation back to yourself can come off as self-centered. Remember, good conversations are built on mutual effort and genuine curiosity about the other person.

Avoid overly personal questions.

Respect boundaries and avoid diving into deeply personal or intrusive topics, especially in initial interactions. Building rapport takes time, and pushing for certain details too soon can make the other person feel uncomfortable. "This is not a police interrogation," Smith reminds us. "Do not ask anything too specifically personal at first. Do be mindful of power dynamics." For example, a direct report might feel compelled to answer a superior's too-personal question at work, even if they don't want to.

Don't be negative.

Keep the conversation positive and uplifting. Complaining or focusing on negative topics can bring the room down. Instead, try to highlight positive subjects and experiences. This not only keeps the conversation enjoyable for both of you but will also leave the other person with a positive impression of you.

Don't overstay your welcome.

Knowing when to walk away from a conversation is important. "You should talk to someone just long enough to be polite and not let a three-minute conversation turn into 30 minutes," says Grotts. "When you need to exit, try 'Please excuse me,' or 'It was nice talking with you.' No other explanation is necessary." She also suggests keeping in mind the three Bs: "Begin. Be brief. Be gone."

RELATED: 10 Best Public Speaking Hacks That Experts Use.

Common Conversation Roadblocks

Woman is frowning and looking away from her boyfriend with her arms crossed, as he is looking worriedly into her face as they stand at home in their lounge
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Even the most experienced conversationalists experience instances of discomfort or doubt that can hinder the stream of dialogue. But fear not, for these obstacles are not dead ends; they are simply detours that require just a bit of navigational savvy to overcome.

How to handle award silences.

Awkward silences are always unpleasant to encounter—hence the name. They can be difficult to crawl out of, too, but they don't have to derail the entire journey. We can fill these gaps and keep the conversation flowing by using compliments or intriguing questions. Another effective strategy is to share a personal anecdote or a funny story, which can lighten the mood and provide a natural segue into other topics.

RELATED: 15 Best Family Dinner Conversation Topics.

Changing topics gracefully.

Changing topics gracefully is an essential maneuver in the conversation toolkit. It's about sensing when a subject has run its course and finding a new direction that keeps the dialogue going. For instance, if you're wrapping up a discussion about a recent vacation, you might segue into a new topic by asking your conversation partner about future travel plans or favorite destinations. This method also shows that you're genuinely interested in the other person's experiences and preferences

Managing social anxiety.

For many, anxiety acts as an internal alert that something is amiss during social interactions. If you suffer from anxiety in social situations, you can prepare in advance, practice in low-pressure situations, and employ calming techniques like deep breathing or even taking a brief moment for yourself.

FAQ

How can I overcome my fear of initiating conversations?

To overcome your fear of initiating conversations, prepare some conversation starters, practice them, and show genuine interest in others. This can make starting conversations feel less daunting and more natural.

What are some effective conversation starters?

Start a conversation by making simple observations about your surroundings, cracking a joke, or asking about the other person's interests. These are all great ways to get the ball rolling.

How can I tell if I'm using good body language during a conversation?

You can tell if you're using body language appropriately during a conversation by maintaining open postures, mirroring the other person's gestures, and using appropriate facial expressions that align with your message. These signs indicate that you're engaging positively.

Wrapping Up

As a reminder, great conversationalists are not born. They are made through curiosity, practice, and a genuine interest in the stories of others. Take these tips and incorporate them into your daily interactions. It won't be long until you start noticing major improvements in your ability to connect with others.

Carrie Weisman
Carrie Weisman oversees all SEO efforts at Best Life. She specializes in content optimization and editorial marketing. Read more
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