How to Keep a Conversation Going
Ah the awkward silence – the death of any social situation. Once a conversation reaches that point any other topics can feel a little strained and difficult but sometimes it just seems hard to avoid getting there. Well there’s a knack to avoiding an awkward silence without talking about inane things at the same time. Learning to keep a conversation going is an important skill to learn and can really help you overcome shyness in the long run. Now the trick to this is not to try and memorize some topics to keep using in conversation but to learn how to learn how to keep a conversation going organically.
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So I’m not going to show you how to ‘trick’ people into thinking that you’re having a conversation when you’re really running through a script in your head. I’m going to show you how to actually have a conversation with anyone and keep it going as long as the both of you want. And how to make it flow easily without becoming awkward. It’s one of the best things you can learn to improve your social skills and social life in general.
Now I always say the same thing here but I think it’s important to remember. If you’re struggling with shyness then it’s important to learn how to keep a conversation going – but it’s also important not to force yourself into situations which you know will go badly. You need to take things slowly and retrain the lower levels of your brain. Throwing yourself into the deep end can certainly make things worse, so take things one step at a time OK? That said learning to keep a conversation going smoothly can really help your confidence when it comes to social situations where you’d normally worry about ending up in an awkward silence.
To start with you might need to remind yourself of these techniques but as you continue things will get easier. Eventually you’ll be able to carry a conversation easily without even thinking about it.
Social skills are just that - a skill and they need to be learned just like any other skill.
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Keeping a Conversation Going Organically
So to start with you might need to change how you think about conversations. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere and even if you’re really ‘clicking’ with someone you both need to take responsibility to keep conversation going. If one person is trying to keep the conversation going alone it’s going to seem very forced. Some people just naturally keep conversations going without thinking about it – and with a little practice you can do this too. But to start with just try and mentally remind yourself to work at a conversation.
If you’re frequently talking to people you’re comfortable talking to or you’re panicking when talking to strangers then you might be in the habit of not really paying attention to what they’re saying and keeping your attention inside your own head. Forget about everything else. Stop worrying people are watching everything you say or do. Get out of your head and pay real, genuine attention to what they’re saying.
When someone in a conversation isn’t actually listening and is just waiting for their turn to talk? It’s not going to last and it’s obvious to the other person when you’re doing it. Listen to what they’re saying and respond to it. This is the first thing you really need to do to keep conversations going.
Questions to Keep a Conversation Going
If you listen to a normal conversation going on around you they flow naturally with exchange of information and questions and this is what you need to learn to do.
I looked at this before in the social awkwardness guide. The best way to keep a conversation going is to keep asking questions. Rather than trying to bring up new topics constantly just keep asking questions. If someone’s trying to keep a conversation going with topic points it’s not going to flow normally. If you ask open ended questions and then follow that with follow up questions it will flow a lot better. When you’re asked a question you can follow your answer with a question as well. Asking open ended questions is an easy way to keep a conversation going and is probably the easiest way to avoid an awkward silence.
Use a little common sense here and don’t be too intrusive with strangers, unless it’s clear they want to talk about it of course. Ask questions relevant to the topic and you can follow up with your own experiences – if they’re relevant to the topic. Avoid steering the conversation to you the whole time but don’t feel that you need to constantly ask them questions if you have something to add which is relevant. Try to find an even balance and that will lead to a positive conversation.
Topics to Keep a Conversation Going
If you’re struggling for a topic to start a conversation or move one on from small talk then I’ve a few suggestions for you. I don’t really advise ‘conversation points’ because you’re trying to learn to keep a conversation going naturally. Instead focus on things which are going on around you or common interests you both might have. If you’re at a class or activity for example then you have an obvious talking point and it’s easy to get into the topic with a question about it.
You can use topics from the media but this can be a stickier area. It’s better to stick to the bigger or better known events, and avoid the controversial subjects unless you know how the feel about it before hand. And certainly avoid the ‘small talk’ subjects such as the weather. It’s one way to start a conversation if you don’t have anything else but it’s a great way to kill a conversation because it’s going to feel a little forced after that.
You can never always know the right topics to talk about, especially if you don’t really know the person you’re talking to. And you’re never always going to say the right thing – but one piece of advice I can certainly suggest for this is ‘just say it’.
Just Say It
Too many times in conversations I used to find myself going silent because I didn’t want to say what was on my mind. I was worried how they’d judge me for saying it even if the topic wasn’t very controversial I’d worry about how it would make me look or that the person wouldn’t like the subject. This led to the death of many conversations.
So now I work with my new rule – I just say it. I obviously filter myself from the controversial topics but otherwise I’m just going to say what’s on my mind. If it doesn’t interest them we’ll move on to another topic and if they don’t agree we might discuss it which leads to more of a conversation but few people are actually going to care that much about something I say. And personally I don’t think people change. I’d rather share my opinions and talk to people who share my interests (even if we don’t always agree on everything) than not talk to anyone and worry about what I’m saying constantly.
So get out of your head and just say it. Some people have a problem having ‘no filter’ and saying whatever comes to their mind which doesn’t work out so well. But because you’re reading a guide on conversation skills it’s safe to say you have too much of a filter. So let yourself go a bit and blurt it out, you’ll still have the sense to avoid the subjects the people with ‘no filter’ would probably bring up.
I’ve spoken about this before but it’s an important part of any social interaction. Keeping eye contact might come easily to some people but if you don’t find it natural then you need to practice it. If you feel like you’re constantly staring at someone then do it in bursts. If two people are talking about something which they’re both interested then it’s normal for them to make eye contact for roughly 30-60% of the conversation. This can vary if you’re talking during an activity which requires attention or if the other person has a problem with shyness and eye contact of course.
I’ve already looked at how to properly keep eye contact but it’s basically just something you need to work on. It’s an important part of conversation and the more you do it the more you’ll get used to it. If you’re having a problem with meeting people directly in the eye then focus on the top of their nose between their eyes. It might feel more comfortable for you and they won’t be able to tell the difference.
A good way to think of keeping a conversation going is a technique called conversation threading. Each part of a sentence can be dissected into parts and you can follow that part of the thread to keep a conversation going.
Beth: “I’m just back from France I’m completely jet lagged but I’m supposed to be at work in the morning.”
Here there are three conversation threads you can follow. The fact that’s she’s just back from France, the fact she’s jet lagged and her job. Generally (and I know this sounds cynical but it’s true) people talk about topics with others because they want to talk about it themselves. So picking any of these threads in a conversation (even if they’re posed as a question) can be a great way to continue a conversation.
So there for example you could ask about her trip to France, tell an anecdote about your own jet lag or ask about her work. Then you can follow a new thread from her response.
“I was in Paris for a week visiting family. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been but it’s always my favorite place to go.”
Here you can pick out some more threads. You could ask when she’s been there before, what she likes so much about it or where else she goes. You could also ask about the family she was visiting but maybe gauge the tone here. You don’t want to drag down a conversation with a stranger about a family member on their death bed.
Always keep in mind you’re not looking to make this a game of 20 questions. If they’re engaging in the conversation as well they’ll ask questions and you should answer them without just rushing to another question. It’s a conversation, not an interview.
If you do find yourself at the end of the thread and they haven’t offered anything new (like getting a one word answer) then do one of either two things. Either this is the point to let a conversation end (see below) or you can loop back to an earlier thread.
“So you said you said you had work in the morning. What will your boss be like if you turn up late?”
The idea of threading a conversation like is probably the easiest way to keep a conversation going. It can take a little practice to get right but it’s easy to remember and leads to a more organic conversation.
Practice, Practice, Practice
It becomes a bit of a vicious circle, but the more you have people to talk to the easier you’ll learn. That’s why if you can actually say I have no friends you’ll need to start slow and ease yourself into this. Learning how to keep a conversation going is possible from home so practice a bit and slowly ease yourself into tougher situations. Family is also a good fall back and once you’re feeling more comfortable with your conversation skills it’s easier to move from there.
Regardless who you’re talking to you should be working on the conversation. Even if it’s an old friend or family member - if you keep working on your conversation skills with people you’d normally be comfortable in silence with it’s going to help your social and conversation skills even further. Talk to people around you, talk to people online, talk to people standing next to you in line. Just talk to anyone you can. Even the loudest extroverts out there have learned how to keep a conversation going at one point and every time they talk to someone they’re just reinforcing these skills. It’s the same for everyone, the more you talk to people the more natural it will become and eventually you’ll forget even reading this guide.
Start small. Ask them a question about their day, ask them about the online chat service, ask them about whatever you’re queuing up for. Just get a conversation started and take it from there. Even if it’s a short conversation it’ll keep the techniques fresh in your mind and boost your confidence. Become a complete chatterbox and talk to anyone and everyone. You’d be amazed at how easily it all becomes the more you talk to people and eventually it’ll just be second nature to keep a conversation going easily.
It’s entirely possible to practice your conversation skills online or through phone texting. Just remember that this doesn’t really compare to a face to face conversation and you’ll have to push for that at some point. But it doesn’t hurt to talk to people online when it’s just not possible to meet people face to face.
Ideally you want to use voice or video chat for this. It’ll get you as close to a spontaneous conversation as you can really get online while using a chat or IM service, email, forum or phone texting can give you too much of a gap to think about what to say next. Learning how to keep a conversation going like this is exactly the same, except you also need to avoid the far too common conversation killer ‘lol’. Don’t follow everything they say with something like this, follow it with questions and actual meaningful conversation the same as you would in a face to face conversation.
When to End a Conversation
The more you practice these techniques, the easier you’re going to find it to keep a conversation going without even thinking about it. Your problem then (if you can really even call it a problem) is not going to be learning how to keep a conversation going – but how to end a conversation. I’ll look at this in more detail in another article but every conversation must end at some point.
Look for the signs of the other person wanting to end it. Looking for the time or slowly taking a step or two away are the obvious ones. Some people will be too polite to end a conversation but don’t push it when it’s obvious they want to leave.
If a conversation is becoming one sided and the other person is obviously not making an effort with you then it might not be worth keeping a conversation going. They might just be distracted or perhaps shy but if your attempts at keeping a conversation going are being met with one line answers and a lack of enthusiasm then it’s time to move on.
How to End a Conversation
Strive to end every conversation positively. Politely let them go or parson yourself and you’ll leave the opportunity for another conversation in the future – keep them and they might want to avoid a repetition.
If a conversation is going well then try to get into the habit of ending it with a follow up. Asking to exchange contact details or continue the conversation and meet up another day might seem pretty daunting at first. But as your confidence grows it’s something which can certainly improve your social life pretty quickly.
The key thing to remember in learning how to keep a conversation going is practice. Nothing will help you improve your conversation skills other than talking to people. I’ve linked a few other guides above which can help round out your knowledge as well but just keep practicing.
Now not everyone who has a problem keeping a conversation going will have a problem with shyness. But statistically around 40% of people feel shy in one situation or another and it can certainly put a dampener on your conversation skills, let alone your social life.
Social skills are just that – a skill. You can’t walk right on to a Tennis court and play against a seasoned athlete can you? No. And you would expect to be able to because it takes training. Well social skills are exactly the same, we’re just expected to have learned them at some point and not everyone does.
If you’re looking to add a little extra kick to your social training and see the quickest possible improvement then take a look at our online training course.