That girl at the bar, your boss, your mother-in-law . . . when we say anyone, we mean anyone.
Master the approach
A compliment is the best way to disarm your target and break the ice — “Nice shoes!” or “You look happy today” is absolutely certain to illicit a positive response, and get the conversation off on the right foot. After you’ve laid that foundation, build with a question — “Nice shoes, where did you get them from?”, for example.
Learn to listen
Listening seems like an obvious component of conversation but it’s not always easy when you’re nervous. Ask questions that bounce off previous answers — when she tells you she got those shoes on holiday in the United States last year, ask her where she visited? Was that her first time in the US? Where’s the favourite place she’s travelled to?
Keep it open-ended
Yes/no questions that can be shut down with a single word are conversational dead ends, so stick to open-ended queries that reveal a bit about their personality. Questions about free time — rather than an endless string of inquiries about work, which is chat most people are happy to leave in the office — are always winners; “What music do you listen to?”, “What magazines do you read?”, “What’s keeping you busy at the moment?”
One of the oldest tricks in the ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ book, establish empathy by mirroring the other person’s verbal and non-verbal cues — it proves you’ve been listening and are plugged into the conversation. And respond to the other person’s body language — if they tense up at the mention of sex, steer clear. If they lean forward when you mention your recent South American holiday, go for gold.
Talk about yourself
You wouldn’t have those interesting South American tales if you hadn’t gone on that interesting South American trip — proving that the easiest way to make interesting conversation is to be an interesting person. Go to restaurants, travel, play sport, read books, play an instrument — and talk about your passions enthusiastically.
But not too much
Gibbering endlessly about yourself isn’t a turn-on, so know when to shut up. It goes back to points two and three about asking questions — a good conversation should be like a game of tennis with the ball sailing back and forth over the net, rather than feeling like one player is whacking it back and forth against a brick wall.
Keep up to date
The latest updates from the siege in Aleppo aren’t exactly hot conversation pieces, but a solid understanding of the world around you means it’s more likely you’ll have interests in common with the person you’re trying to talk to — good taste in film, music and TV helps a lot here.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of some bore oversharing about their parents’ divorce or their political beliefs — so put yourself in your conversation partner’s shoes and spare them from the same misery. Read their body language to see how comfortable they are with the intimacy of what you’re sharing.
Avoid conversation killers
Money, religion, and sex are all obvious taboos — judgmental comments are more subtle but no less capable of souring the mood. “Isn’t it about time you two got engaged?”, “Why do you look so tired?”, “When is the baby due?” . . . proceed with caution.
Have an exit strategy
The most awkward part of a conversation is often the escape once the small talk has dried up, so have some stock strategies. “I’ve really got to catch Mark before he leaves” is a good way of making a clean break, and if you feel awkward about ditching someone, handball them on to someone else in the room with an introduction.