Everyone knows those moments in a conversation, where suddenly there’s a break in the flow, and a pause in the breath, while each of you waits for the other to say something clever. Maybe you take a sip from your empty glass, or avert your eyes whilst searching your brain for something quick to fill the awkward space. It feels like forever, until someone breaks the silence with an offer of more wine, a stiff laugh or bringing the talk back to noticing the weather. You know what I’m talking about right? I’m sure it’s not just me. I’m certain that I’m not the only one who’s ever been on an awkward date where the conversation just felt like it was a little too forced, or when you meet someone new at a party and you’re just not clicking, or you’re speaking with a co-worker and the flow just isn’t there. I used to be super shy and meeting new people was really scary.
Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be face to face. I can remember so many times talking on the phone and not knowing what to say, only to start speaking at the same time as the other person, and then we stop for another silence before talking over each other again! It reminds me of when you’re walking in a busy shopping centre or a packed sidewalk and there’s someone coming towards you but you’re not sure if they’ll get out of your way or if you should move. So you move at the last minute, but so do they! And you end up doing a little dance together before laughing awkwardly and marching out of there as fast as you can. Yes, we’ve all had those moments.
At least when it comes to the guy on the street, it’s easy to brush it off a few minutes later and move on, literally as you walk away. But when you’re sitting across from someone on a date, or you’re talking to someone like a colleague or another parent at your kids school, where you know you’re going to see that person almost every day, it can feel a little more tricky. Some people seem to navigate these moments easily and somehow keep the conversation going or find a polite way to remove themselves. So what do they know, that others don’t? How is it that they can do the social dance so effortlessly, when there are so many others who struggle to hold a conversation or simply to introduce themselves and meet new people? Why is it that talking to strangers can be so simple for some people, and yet so scary for others?
What’s the deal with meeting new people?
The key is in the recipe. That’s right. There’s a recipe for talking to people that can help you keep a conversation flowing and let your mind calm itself so you can enjoy being present and making new friends. But first, let’s take a deeper look at what’s really going on under the surface.
Many people experience a feeling of shyness or overthinking when it comes to meeting new people. Rarely is shyness ever a problem when a shy person is around people they are familiar with right? There are a number of reasons why a person might feel less confident in social situations or talking to people. For the most part, what it comes down to, is a feeling of uncertainty and not knowing what’s next. When you’re with your friends, you have a fairly good idea for how they might respond to certain things, and what their likes and dislikes are. There is less guess work and more predictability and comfort when we’re around people we already know.
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When we meet new people, we don’t really know what their perspectives are on the world, what they think about certain topics, whether they will understand our sense of humour or take it personally, or even how they might respond to a simple “hello”. For many people this “not yet knowing” can feel so uncomfortable that their brain goes into overdrive trying to make sure that you’re safe from harm, safe from embarrassment, safe from any potential negative consequences that the mind can imagine. If you’ve ever been in that situation where your mind starts to kick into over-safety-gear, you’ll know that it can feel like there is too much information to process fast enough. That’s when you end up with awkward silences in a conversation or freeze before a conversation begins. So let’s start there.
How to quiet your mind
One of the first things that you can do in these situations is learn to calm your mind and to help it to feel safer so that it doesn’t take over. One of the ways that I like to do this is simply by talking to my mind, or my inner self. I tell myself that I’m OK. That whatever happens, I’ve got this and I’ll be OK. That the most logical worst case scenario is that I might feel embarrassed for example, and that it’s OK to feel. I will still be OK in the end and move on from this.
Sometimes it helps to take a few deep breaths, holding them in each time while I count to 7. Doing this can actually have a biological effect in your body that helps you to calm your nervous system. You might notice yourself feeling a little more present in the moment and less focused on the thoughts running through your mind.
Another thing that works in any situation is to pay attention to your body. How are you sitting or standing or holding yourself? Is your head up and are you smiling? Or are you looking at the floor, hunching your back and frowning? The way you hold your body can directly affect how you feel. So if you want to feel more confident, a good place to start is by holding your body the way you would if you were confident. Smile. Sit upright with your shoulders back. Notice how different this feels.
You can even take it a step further and focus on your physical senses by noting in your mind or counting 3 positive things that you can see, hear, smell, taste, touch or feel. Fore example, I might pay attention to how I can feel the warmth of the fireplace at my back and the contrast of the cold glass I’m holding. I will notice the fizz in my mouth and lemony taste of my water as I take a sip. I might even hold it in my mouth for a moment. I will notice the beautiful colours and patterns of the curtains, a painting or someone’s outfit, and I’ll smell perfume or cooking in the air around me. By concentrating on using your physical senses and paying attention to taking in deep breaths, you draw the focus away from your chattering mind, and into the present moment which can help to calm you. OK. I’m more calm. Now what?
1.) Get Curious.
Let’s play a game! One of the best ways to help your mind feel more at ease, is to take away the pressure and have a little bit of fun. I know someone who used to play a game where he would go to a bar and challenge himself to say hello to at least 10 people. He would literally see someone, count to three, then go up to them and say hello. The funny part was that he’d walk away before they could even reply! His game wasn’t about having conversations or even meeting people. It was about saying hello. The key to this is to make your game so simple and so easy and even a little silly if you like. Back then, my friend was so shy and even scared of talking to strangers. These days he is a master at connecting with people from all walks of life and loves walking into a room buzzing with people.
I like to pretend that I’m a detective or a hunter and occasionally a gatherer. Sometimes I’m the detective and the goal of my game is to find out something interesting about someone I’ve not yet met. This usually requires a little bit of conversation and curiosity on my part. Other times I’m the hunter and the goal of my game is to “hunt” for as many “hello’s” as I can in one night. Usually this just means I go up to say hello to as many people as possible and I wait for a response from them, but I don’t have to make conversation. Then there’s the gatherer game I play. This one is for you if you’re still too shy to go and meet people on your own, but you know you need to get in there and give it a go.
When I’m playing the gatherer game, the goal is to simply be part of a conversation that is between a group of people I already know, where there is also someone I don’t know. Sometimes, this might just mean that I introduce myself to the person I don’t know and smile and say hi and then stand in the group for a little while. Other times I might join in the group conversation by asking a question to the new person or laughing at their jokes. The goal is to still interact with at least one new person, but to do it in a comfortable group setting. Sometimes everyone in the group setting is new and doesn’t know each other, which is fine too, because we’re all in the same boat.
See social gatherings as a fun adventure
Either way, games can help your mind to relax and you can find one that works for you. The idea is to start to see social gatherings and getting to know new people, as an adventure where you can learn and discover interesting new things about people and their worlds. Being the person who is doing the discovering puts you in a more empowered position and your mind starts to realise that you are in control of the situation, which can also help it to relax and enjoy the process. So, step 1 is; Get curious and play a game!
2.) Keep it simple.
Once you’ve picked your person that you’re going to get curious about, it helps to have a simple way to open the conversation. Personally I’ve found that memorizing “opening lines” can feel even more awkward and kicks the overthinking back into gear as the mind searches to remember the exact words to say. Instead, I like to keep it simple and look for something in the environment I can comment on naturally. Often this is a compliment to the other person, followed by a simple question. For example, I might say “Wow, I love your shoes, where did you get them?” Or it could be as easy as “Mmm. These pies are so tasty. Have you tried one?” So step 2 is; Compliment and ask a question. If all else fails, and your mind is overthinking this part, you can always simply say “hello”.
3.) Introduce yourself.
This part is easy. Now that you’ve said hello, it’s pretty natural to follow on with who you are. This helps you to go from two strangers, to two people who are getting to know each other. This can be really simple and as easy as saying “I’m Melisa, by the way”. Sometimes you can even use their name to start a conversation. For example; “Oh that’s an interesting name, where is it from?” or “Oh you know that means Beautiful in Mandarin” or “That’s a lovely name. You know I had a friend named that, so it will be easy to remember. She was from Italy. Have you ever been there?” But even if the only thing that happens is that you discover each other’s names, then you are already off to a great start.
4.) Ask open questions.
These are questions that leave the answer open for the person to respond in a variety of ways. They are not just yes or no answers. One way to remember that you’re asking an open question is that they’ll often start with what, how, where or when. For example, “Where is your name from? It sounds very interesting.” or “How did you meet the bride and groom?” and “What do you do for fun?”. Anyone who’s ever met me knows that my go to question is about what people do for fun. I like this question because it gets people talking about things that they are passionate about and it takes their mind away from the usual talk of what they do for work. Also, when people are passionate about something they will usually be happy to talk about it for a while and it can lead into all sorts of other conversations.
5.) Comment and follow up.
Comment on what they’ve said and keep the conversation on the same topic for a little bit by asking a follow up question. So for example, if they’re talking about how they love playing golf, you could say “Oh yeah me too! What’s the best course you’ve ever played?” or even if you’ve never played golf, you could say “to be honest I don’t know much about golf but I’ve seen some beautiful courses on TV. What’s the best course you’ve ever played?” Or you could keep it even more simple and say “Oh wow! I’m much better at mini golf than actual golf. How did you get into it?”
By making a genuine positive comment about the topic, you’re helping the interaction feel more like a flowing conversation rather than a bunch of questions. Plus it shows that you’re interested in getting to know the other person and makes them feel more comfortable too. Remember, sometimes other people are just as uncertain as you are! This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything they say, or pretend you like things that you don’t. It just means finding something that you can comment on in a friendly way, and then following up with a question about the same topic.
6.) Share something.
You’ll soon find that maybe you want to change topics or that you’re really flowing talking about the same topic. Either way is great! Now it’s time to share a little bit about yourself. You can slip this in at any time in response to what they’ve said. For example, if they’re talking about their favorite golf course overseas, you can say something like “Oh I used to live there” or “I’d love to travel there. In fact, I pretty much want to travel all over the world. How about you?”
The more you can really get interested in the other person, the more you’ll find that it’s easy to make conversations flow. If you’re ever talking with someone and find that you’re losing interest, remember that you’re in control! You can always change the topic, ask a different question, or excuse yourself and go find someone else to talk to. You don’t need an excuse to leave a conversation, you can simply say “well it was really nice meeting you Lisa. Hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.”
So that’s it! That’s the recipe for keeping a conversation flowing. You can do what my friend did and try it out one step at a time, starting with keeping calm and saying hello. Then when you’re ready, you can move on to getting curious and playing a game. Meeting new people can be so much fun when you’re curious. It’s like watching an awesome movie, or reading an interesting book. You’re an Explorer! An Adventurer! A Discoverer of curiosities and fun.
So go out there and give it a go like I did. I used to be really shy and would be that person at parties who stayed in the corner quietly watching everyone else. Now I like to walk around and get to know everyone. By the end of the night I’ve usually enjoyed some great conversations and a few potential friendships. All I did was apply the above steps, one by one in baby steps. I didn’t do them all at once! And you don’t have to either. In fact, I recommend taking it slow and just making it fun and silly to begin with. Take weeks, or months or until you’re comfortable, to focus on just doing step 1 before you move on to step 2. You might even find a group of friendly people at a meetup where you feel comfortable practising your new skills. Maybe I’ll even see you there!