How to Talk to Anyone

Some conversations are easy. Others, not so much. Here’s how to say just about anything to just about anyone.

You board the bus on your first day at a new school. A friendly-looking girl smiles at you. You say “Hi.” She says “Hi” back. Then you say . . . nothing. And stare out the window for the rest of the ride. If this sounds familiar, don’t feel bad. We’ve all been there. Small talk sounds like it should be easy, but sometimes it feels so hard. It can even seem better to say nothing at all. But the truth is, the ability to hold a conversation with anyone you meet is a valuable skill. Studies show that people with good communication skills have better relationships with others. And in surveys, managers report that they place the highest value on effective communication skills when interviewing job candidates. 

“Talking to people is how we build relationships,” says Danielle Bayard Jackson. She’s a friendship coach and educator. “If we want to be able to relate to other people, grow our network, and access and share information, we need to be able to have meaningful conversations with other people.”

Thanks to texting and social media, our face-to-face conversation skills are all a little rusty. But now is a great time to polish them. “Throughout life, you’ll need to communicate with bosses as well as with peers, so getting a head start now will give you an advantage later on,” says Frank McAndrew. He’s a psychology professor.

Do your conversation skills need a boost? Here are tips to help you talk to anyone.

Scenario: Your parents ask you to come talk to their friends at a barbecue. The friends ask how school is (fine), tell you how much you’ve grown since the last time they saw you (umm, thanks?), and then no one has anything to say. How can you fill the silence?

SOLUTION: We get it. Making chitchat with adults you don’t know that well can be awkward. But here’s a secret: Those adults probably feel as nervous as you do. In fact, they probably think you’re fascinating and really want to know what’s going on in your life. They just don’t know how to ask. Help them out by giving specific answers to their questions. For example, instead of saying school is fine, describe one class you love, or even a subject you’re struggling with. That offers a great jumping-off point for the other person to ask more questions or share a related story or experience. You can also ask them questions. If you’re talking about French class, you could ask if they studied a language in school and if they still use it. Or ask what their favorite subject was or if they had a teacher they still think about. You’ll be bonding in no time!

Scenario: Your crush sits down next to you. You’ve never spoken, and now is the perfect time to break the ice. But you have no idea what to say!

SOLUTION: Jackson suggests starting off with a low-risk question, like asking about an assignment in class or if the person is going to a classmate’s party that weekend. “It lowers any fear of rejection, because you’re just asking for something factual,” she says. If your crush answers in a way that seems engaging or asks you a question back, you can build the conversation from there. And if the person doesn’t engage, don’t take it personally. “If you’re asking questions and being brave, and they’re not giving the same energy, it’s not a reflection of you,” Jackson says. “You deserve a great conversation buddy.”

Scenario: You’d really love an extension on your English essay. And, now that you think about it, you’re not entirely sure what you’re supposed to be writing about, either. You want to ask your teacher, but you’re worried he’ll get mad.

SOLUTION: Teachers are there to help you. If you’re struggling or confused, they want to know. They’d much rather you talk to them about what’s going on than have you write about the wrong topic or not turn in your paper at all. To make the most of your chat, ask to talk to your teacher one-on-one after class, so neither of you gets distracted by onlookers. This way your teacher will be prepared and able to give you his full attention. Also, make sure that what you’re asking about hasn’t been addressed already. “As a former teacher, I will say teachers are always open to questions,” Jackson says. “But it helps, before you ask the question, to check that the info is not already written on the board or in multiple emails.” And remember to thank your teacher for taking the time to talk things through when you’re done!

Scenario: You need to have a difficult conversation with a friend, but you’re nervous about how to start. You don’t want to make your friend angry, but you can’t just let it go. How can you speak your mind without sabotaging your friendship?

SOLUTION: Start by being vulnerable. People can get defensive when they feel confronted. But if you start by talking about how you’re feeling, the chat will seem less like an attack. You might say something like, “I want to tell you something, but I don’t want you to be mad at me.” Being honest about your concerns can help make your friend feel receptive to what you have to say. When you get to the heart of the conversation, tell your friend what’s bothering you. Try to describe the impact of the behavior instead of focusing on the behavior itself, Jackson says. Talk about your own experience instead of making demands. For instance, saying, “I feel awkward when you make jokes about me,” rather than, “stop making jokes,” can help your friend understand why the behavior felt hurtful. 

Scenario: It’s lunch during your first week at a new school. You want to make some friends, but you’re anxious about breaking into a group. How can you connect?

SOLUTION: Take a cue from your shared environment. “Think about your five senses, like something you feel or smell or see, and comment on it,” Jackson says. For instance, if you’re in the cafeteria, you could turn to the person next to you and say, “Doesn’t lunch smell amazing?” If the lunch doesn’t smell amazing, say something like “Is it always this loud in here?” Make eye contact so the person knows you’re talking to them. At the least, they’ll likely respond to your comment, and from there you can gauge if they’re interested in having a conversation. 

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