3 Tips to Starting a Conversation (and Defusing Awkwardness)

It’s the eternal question: how to start a conversation in a way that’s not creepy (“You have such beautiful lips”), an overshare (“Ugh, this thong is way too tight”), or weird (“Do you like ham?”) This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen walks us through how to start a conversation without remarking that your conversation partner looks just like your former cellmate.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #220
image of a person starting up a conversation with a stranger

Tip #2: Break the ice with small talk. No, really.

I know, I know. This is controversial. Everyone hates small talk. And a lot of “how to initiate conversation” guides out there say to skip the small talk, to go deeper, to be unique and memorable. But asking “What’s your favorite Jolly Rancher flavor,” or “If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with your extra eight hours,” or worse, “Tell me about your biggest heartbreak,” is weird. Why? Because small talk exists for a reason. It’s a way to check each other out—it’s the conversational equivalent of dogs sniffing each other’s butts. 

Small talk is hard because there are constraints—by definition, it has to be about light, impersonal topics like the weather, traffic, the Red Sox, or complimenting someone’s shoes. 

But small talk is an opportunity. In a short conversation, like an elevator ride, use it to convey who you are. Next time you’re forced into small talk, do an audit on yourself and watch how you handle it. Is talking about the weather your chance to complain bitterly? Or to express wonder at the changing leaves or joke about getting your money’s worth from your antiperspirant? It may be small talk, but it leaves an impression on your conversation partner about who you are and how you interact with the world.

It may be small talk, but it leaves an impression on your conversation partner about who you are and how you interact with the world.

In a longer conversation, use small talk as a launchpad into something more substantial. Pivot from talking about the weather into related territory, like your trip to the beach last weekend and the seals you saw offshore, getting your flu shot and wondering if it will be effective this year, or how you’re considering hoarding Pumpkin Spice Latte K-cups in anticipation of the end of Starbucks's PSL season.

Tip #3: Focus on both them and you.

This tip is also controversial—the vast majority of “how to start a conversation” advice instructs you to focus exclusively on the other person. Make it about them, the advice goes: compliment them, ask them questions about themselves. Then ask more. People love to talk about themselves, they’ll be happy to oblige, and will leave thinking you’re fascinating, simply because you were curious about them.

All this is true, but we need to balance out the scales. Conversation is reciprocal. 

You don’t want to interrogate them as if they’re tied to a chair under a bare light bulb and leave them with no sense of who you are, but neither do you want to give them a play-by-play of your week in real time—“And then I organized my middle desk drawer.” Instead, a balance of you and them is ideal.

Interestingly, this balance seems to be natural. In the cutest study ever, researchers at the University of Waterloo videotaped snacktime conversation in a class of 25 preschoolers to see what topics they raised when initiating conversation. Essentially, it was the small talk of small fries.

The vast majority of conversation initiation referenced people. Specifically, 41% of the time, the topic was the kid being addressed, like “You know how to get to my house,” “Erik, you are a picky eater,” or “Are you gonna fill your whole cup?” But 39% of the time, the topic was the self, like, “My leg is tired of walking,” or “I drank my juice and spit it back in!”

The kids illustrated a universal truth: be interested and curious about the other person, but also offer tidbits about yourself so your conversation partner can have something to work with and ask questions about you. And while you may not want to tell your conversation partner at a cocktail party “I drank my mojito and spit it back in!,” do give them some information about yourself so they can get some traction.

To wrap up, if you struggle with starting conversation, know you’re not alone. As I was researching this episode, I came across a book titled The Lost Art of Conversation from 1910. Bemoaning fellow humans’ inability to speak with each other is at least a century old. Heck, I’m guessing cavemen struggled with how to initiate conversation, and they didn’t even have “How ‘bout them Red Sox” as an option.

Image of two strangers chatting © Shutterstock


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

You May Also Like...

The Quick and Dirty Tips Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To exercise your choices about cookies, please see Cookies and Online Tracking.