Few social interactions are more pleasing than a wide-ranging conversation, with all its natural twists and turns.
It hardly matters whether you’re talking with loved ones, friends, colleagues, or even random people you meet in life.
A pleasurable discussion meanders naturally from topic to topic with a sprinkling of humor here and there, and perhaps even a dash of intrigue to spice things up a little (if appropriate!).
Such conversations get those endorphins flowing and can leave you basking in the warm glow of the exchange for some time after.
On the other hand, the reverse situation can be grim…
…a conversation that stumbles from one awkward exchange to another with no flow, many dead ends, and those dreaded and seemingly never-ending ‘tumbleweed’ moments.
The after-effects of a scenario like that can linger long in your memory.
Before we take a look at some ways you might keep a conversation going, let’s consider how conversation actually works.
There’s More To Conversation Than You Might Think
It’s easy to talk about a topic close to your heart, but if the other person or people aren’t engaged with what you’re saying, or you don’t give them space to respond, then it’s just a monologue, not a conversation.
There’s a big difference between being a chatterbox and being a good conversationalist.
Robert Wardhaugh, in his book How Conversation Works, neatly sums up the nuances which need to be understood by both parties for conversation to flow naturally and normally:
You must have a well-developed feeling about what you can (or cannot) say and when you can (or cannot) speak.
You must know how to use words to do things and also exactly what words you can use in certain circumstances.
And you must be able to supplement and reinforce what you choose to say with other appropriate behaviors: your movements, gestures, posture, gaze, and so on.
You must also attune yourself to how others employ these same skills.
A list like this shows the level of sophisticated thought and intuition which need to be in place for a conversation to be mutually satisfying.
Clearly, this isn’t something which is taught. It is picked up intuitively as we mature and learn to play the game of human social interaction.
It also indicates why conversations often go wrong and how easy it is for a conversation to hit a roadblock when one party just doesn’t understand these unwritten and fairly complex ‘rules.’
It also explains why so many people have difficulties with conversation, feeling awkward and tongue-tied. And it underlines the importance of body language, too.
It Takes Two…
Always remember that a conversation is a two-way street and that asking questions and listening to responses is as important as being able to speak fluently yourself.
The self-obsessed motormouth, who is a little bit too keen on hearing the sound of their own voice, is never going to make a good conversationalist.
True, in situations like this there may be none of the awkward silences…
However, the other person is going to be left mighty frustrated if they’ve not had a chance to speak their own mind and have been forced to listen to a windbag venting their own opinions.
12 Ways To Keep A Conversation Going
Now that we’ve looked at the mechanics of conversation, let’s consider some strategies you might be able to use to the keep the talk flowing and those awkward silences to a minimum.
You’ll also find that these techniques are useful to re-energize a conversation when the pace starts to slow and before it grinds to an inevitable and oh-so-awkward halt.
1. Never Underestimate The Value Of Small Talk
Although in many cultures the idea of chit chat about unimportant topics like the weather or sport is seen as a waste of time, we native English speakers use small talk as a gateway to a conversation.
It allows us to do the very human thing of assessing the other person and getting an idea of what makes them tick.
It ultimately allows the conversation to develop naturally as rapport between the speakers is established early on and gradually deepens.
The undemanding and often well-rehearsed topics of small talk – where do you live, what do you do, the weather, sport, etc. – help all parties to relax and be themselves.
If you’ve spent some time getting to know the other person through small talk, there’s less chance of those awkward silences developing as the conversation continues.
2. Choose Subjects You Know The Other Person Finds Interesting
One of the benefits of a few minutes’ small talk is that it helps you to gauge their likes and dislikes.
Since most people like talking about themselves, you can keep the conversation going by asking deeper questions on topics that may have already been touched on.
For example, a trivial chat about the weather might easily lead on to a conversation about a recent skiing trip or the predicted heat wave and its likely effects.
3. Make Sure You Ask ‘Open’ Questions
When it comes to getting deeper into any subject, the way you pose your questions is the key to success.
There’s no better route to an awkward conversation than by asking questions which allow a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
By this, I mean avoid questions like:
“So, you went to Costa Rica on vacation last year?”
Instead, try an open-ended question like:
“You mentioned you went to Costa Rica last year. What was the weather/the beach/the wildlife like?”
The open question gives the chance for the other person to elaborate and, in turn, that will lead to further questions and hopefully open up a rich seam of discussion.
A top tip to make sure you keep your questions ‘open’ is to start with what, where, when, why, who, or how.
All’s not lost if you do end up asking a ‘yes/no’ question; you can recover easily by asking for more information, saying something like:
“I’d like to know more. Can you tell me more about…?”
4. Now Take The Conversation To A Deeper Level
Once the small talk has done its job, the task of the good conversationalist is to take the conversation forward by asking more probing questions.
If you already asked “Where do you live?”, you could go on to ask “Why did you move there?”
In fact, ‘why’ questions are great if you want to dig a little deeper and develop the conversation.
A word of caution at this point: once the questions become more personal and intimate, make sure you pay attention to any cues of discomfort.
If the other person seems in any way uncomfortable, be sure to back pedal and return to safer ground with less penetrating, neutral questions.
5. Listen Closely
There’s little point in asking all those nice open-ended questions if you’re obviously not listening to the response.
Employ the technique of active listening, so you can really understand the other person’s point of view.
Don’t interrupt and, when they’ve finished speaking, have a go at summarizing what they said to really show that you were paying attention…
“If I’ve got this right, it sounds like you…”
And if you need clarification because you’ve misunderstood something, try something like…
“Are you saying…?”
If you’ve been paying close attention, you can also show empathy by putting yourself in the speaker’s shoes.
A really good listener will be well prepared to keep the conversation moving along when the pace slows and interest seems to be dwindling.
For instance, topics that may have been touched on earlier in the conversation can be brought back into play with a question like:
“You mentioned earlier that…”
This naturally opens up an avenue for further discussion.
Always make eye contact at the start of the conversation and then maintain it by looking into the other person’s eyes for about 4 or 5 seconds…
…not for too long or you’ll be in danger of creeping them out, so be sure to look away.
While your eyes are averted, make sure you don’t gaze too intently at other people or things, though, because that would signal inattention.
Then re-establish eye contact after a few seconds.
The ideal balance is to aim for eye contact for about 50% of the time when you’re speaking and 70% of the time when you’re listening.
Perhaps it seems odd to reduce it to a formula, but it’s the easiest way to remember how much eye contact to make without overdoing it.
8. Body Language Is Important
A good conversation isn’t all about speaking! There’s a lot of non-verbal communication that goes on in any human interaction and good body language is key to a relaxed, comfortable exchange.
If you sit or stand stiffly, for example, that can make the other person feel uneasy.
Try leaning back a little in your chair, and don’t forget to add a gentle smile (not a full-on grin, though – unless appropriate!).
If you’re standing, then leaning casually against a bar or a wall has the same effect.
Oh, and don’t forget to keep those shoulders down – there’s nothing that displays tension more clearly than having your shoulders up around your ears!
9. A Little Laughter Goes A Long Way
There’s no doubt that a little humor helps any conversation along, not least because it helps to build a good rapport and forge a sense of kinship.
Not everyone’s the greatest comedian, so don’t force it.
You don’t have to pepper your conversation with witty one-liners or even tell jokes. A well-timed sarcastic or self-deprecating comment can raise a laugh just as well.
10. Silence Can Actually Be Golden
OK, so I started this piece with a mention of tumbleweed moments when awkward silences punctuate a conversation and then kill it stone dead.
In truth, though, you shouldn’t be afraid of the occasional hush.
Silence is an important part of the art of conversation. Knowing when to speak and when not to speak is a fundamental skill that needs to be learned intuitively.
There’s a world of difference between an awkward silence and a few seconds’ pause in conversation.
The latter is absolutely normal, so don’t panic when it happens. Don’t feel you need to blurt out something – anything! – in desperation to fill the void.
It can give you a chance to gather your thoughts. It can also indicate that a topic has reached its natural conclusion or has become a tad too intense for comfort and allows for a change of tack.
11. Unintentional Offense
It’s all too easy to say something which causes deep offense during the course of a conversation, even when it was never intended that way.
Saying something inappropriate or insensitive throws the conversation out of balance and creates an awkwardness which is hard to recover from.
The best approach is always to face up to it, name it, and move forward.
Don’t try to act like it never happened. That’s a sure way to deepen the hurt and bring the conversation to an uneasy and premature end.
12. Keep Up With Current Affairs
If you make the effort to stay on top of what’s going on nationally and internationally, from celebrity gossip to climate change concerns, you’ll always have a rich seam of topics to keep the conversation going.
A word of advice though: when you’re with people you don’t know, it’s always wise to steer clear of partisan politics and religious matters for reasons that are pretty obvious.
One Final Note
Don’t keep flogging a dead horse!
There are times when the best of your efforts will come to nothing because the other party is either not interested or not willing to engage in the conversation.
This might be for a whole host of reasons, most or all of which are beyond your control.
Just try to bring the conversation to a close as swiftly as possible without being rude. Put it down to experience and move on!
Summing Things Up
Don’t try to apply more than one of these suggestions at a time or you’re likely to feel overwhelmed and anxious which will dry up the conversation straight away.
Why not try just one? When you feel you’ve mastered it – and hopefully it’s already begun to make conversations move along a little more fluently – you’ll feel more confident about using the other techniques going forward.
Some of the suggestions above may take a little practice and forethought, but the rewards that you’ll reap from enhancing your skills as a conversationalist will be well worth the effort.
There’ll be dividends in your professional and social life and (if you’re single and keeping a lookout for the perfect life’s partner) your romantic life, too!
The last word goes to the British poet David Whyte:
“A real conversation always contains an invitation. You are inviting another person to reveal herself or himself to you, to tell you who they are or what they want.”
Working as a freelance copywriter, Juliana is following a path well-trodden by her family, who seem to have 'wordsmithing' in their DNA. She'll turn her quill to anything from lifestyle and wellness articles to blog posts and SEO articles. All this is underpinned by a lifetime of travel, cultural exchange and her love of the richly expressive medium of the English language.