How to Start a Conversation

What to Do and What to Avoid

Some people just seem to have a knack for making conversation while others struggle to make small talk. Knowing how to start a conversation is a useful social skill. Whether you want to impress a potential client, strike up a conversation with a love interest, or just chat with a new acquaintance, knowing how to initiate a conversation can help you feel more comfortable and confident in a wide variety of social situations.

Before You Begin

If a room full of strangers is your idea of a waking nightmare, the idea of going to a party or work event can be incredibly daunting. These sorts of social situations can be especially difficult if you tend to be introverted, shy, or socially anxious.

One way to ease anxiety is to prepare in advance. Mentally review what you want to talk about and even consider practicing with a friend. The first step toward becoming an amazing conversationalist it to be prepared.

If you are nervous about starting a conversation, try these three simple strategies before you begin:

  1. Stay Positive: Stop worrying about making a mistake and have faith in your abilities. Worrying too much about what you are going to say next can actually cause you to lose track of the conversation as it’s happening. Instead, try to stay focused on the other person and what they are saying.
  2. Take a Deep Breath: If you are tense and nervous, you're less likely to feel at ease. Try to stay relaxed and just let the conversation flow naturally.
  3. Introduce Yourself: One of the simplest ways to begin is to just introduce yourself and then give the other person the chance to do the same. Once this initial icebreaker has taken place, try asking a simple question or making a simple observation to help inspire further discussion.

Conversation Killers

While it should go without saying, there are a few things you should avoid unless you are very familiar with the person with whom you are speaking.

While political commentary, gossip, complaints, and offensive jokes might be how your uncle starts conversations during your family get-togethers, it is probably not an example you should try to emulate in your day-to-day life.

Anything offensive, controversial, or uncomfortable should be avoided as you are initiating conversations.

There is a time and place to express your opinion or even try to persuade others, but make sure that such topics are welcome before you launch into an impassioned debate.

Some research suggests that when it comes to conversation openers, your best bet may be to stick to comments that are fairly innocuous. In one study, participants were asked to rate the effectiveness of a number of opening lines that might come from a potential romantic partner: flippant "pick-up" lines, open-ended, innocuous questions, and the direct approach.

Few respondents appreciated the pick-up line approach, but responses tended to be split when it came to preferences for the other two opening styles. Women tended to prefer the innocuous questions ("What's your favorite team?") while men favored the more direct approach ("I'd like to buy you a drink!").

The authors of the study suggest that it is best to err on the side of the innocuous approach when choosing a way to initiate a conversation with a stranger. This type of conversation opener tends to be less threatening, yet encourages the other person to provide some type of response.

Keep It Positive

Try to start your conversation on an upbeat note. Stay away from launching into complaints or making negative observations. No matter what the situation is, you can find something positive to say.

Comment on the weather, the food, the company, or the event itself. Saying something as simple as you are having a good time and hoping that your conversation partner is having a pleasant experience as well is a good way to get a conversation rolling. Even if the situation itself is not perfect, try to put a positive spin on it.

Comments to Lead With

  • “That was a really great presentation, wasn’t it?”
  • “Whoever organized this event sure did a great job!”
  • “Your presentation was excellent. I feel like I really learned a lot!”
  • “It’s quite cold today but the weather report said that tomorrow is supposed to be nice and sunny.”

People tend to respond better to a positive comment rather than a negative one. It helps show that you are a pleasant person who pays attention to what’s going on. Staying positive also helps put others at ease. As a result, people will be more interested in continuing a conversation with you.

Start Simple

Not every great conversation needs to begin with a deep, philosophical, earth-shattering observation. Simple icebreaker comments or questions are a great way to begin.

Commenting on the weather, the room, or the food might seem cliche, but there is a reason why this sort of icebreaker works so well. It’s a simple, easy way to get a conversation rolling, offering a bit of common ground between two strangers. Talking about inconsequential things can lead to further conversations about personal preferences, backgrounds, hobbies, and deeper topics that can help forge social bonds between people.

What the Research Says

In one study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers performed naturalistic observations on participants to record both small talk and deep conversations over a period of several days.

What they found is that people who engaged in deeper, personal conversations also had higher levels of happiness. This might mean that happy people are more likely to engage others in meaningful conversations—but it also might mean that such substantive conversations may actually lead to greater happiness. The researchers suggest that “the findings demonstrate that the happy life is social rather than solitary and conversationally deep rather than superficial.”

Not everyone loves making small talk, but it can be an important first step that can lead to deeper, more meaningful conversations.

While starting a conversation often begins by focusing on small, trivial things, research suggests that having more deep conversations may be linked to greater happiness and well-being.

Learning how to start a conversation can help lead you into these more consequential social connections.

Ask for Help

Asking a question is a great way to start a conversation. Doing this not only gives you a reason to engage the other person—it also gives them a chance to be helpful.

When using this approach, start with something simple that can be accomplished without a great deal of effort. For example, you might ask someone if they know what time a workshop begins or directions to a particular location.

Conversation Starters

  • “Do you happen to know where I could get a schedule?”
  • “Have you seen an earring? I seem to have lost one.”
  • “Do you know if there will be refreshments served after the workshop?”

One of the benefits of this approach is that asking a simple question can lead to further conversation about other topics. Once you have posed your question and the other person has offered their assistance, it creates something of a reciprocal social contract between you and your conversation partner.

Since they have offered their assistance, it is now up to you to give your thanks and introduce yourself. This can serve as an opportunity for you to ask more about the other person—who they are, what brings them here, and other questions that are relevant given the setting and situation.

Body Language

Sometimes what you don’t say is just as important as what you do say. As you strike up a new conversation, it is important to pay attention to your nonverbal communication.

Body language can be used to convey interest and emotion. A friendly expression, comfortable stance, and good eye contact, for example, can help show that you have a genuine interest in learning more about another person. Slouching, looking away, and frowning, on the other hand, might make your conversation partner feel that you are bored or disinterested.

Encouraging nonverbal signals include:

  • An open posture, which involves keeping the trunk of your body open with your arms relaxed, helps convey a sense of friendliness.
  • Good eye contact involves looking a person’s eyes. Don’t stare, which can be threatening. Instead, keep things natural, looking at the other person’s eyes but glancing away occasionally.
  • Smiling can be helpful, as long as it seem genuine and natural. Avoid faking a big smile and try to go for a relaxed but uplifting expression.

Listen and Express Interest

It can be intimidating to try to talk to someone when it feels that you have little in common. In these situations, getting the other person to talk about his or her own interests, work, or expertise can be a useful way to start a conversation.

Ask a question about what the other person does, then focus on really listening to what they have to say. People often enjoy talking about things they are passionate about, so expressing a genuine interest in the things that other people enjoy can be excellent fuel for a great conversation.

Strike a Balance

A good conversation does not rely on just one approach.

The best discussions involve a mixture of asking questions, listening to what other people have to say, and sharing things about yourself.

A simple conversation might start by:

  • Asking some basic information (“Did you enjoy the presentation?”)
  • Listening to the answer (“It was great! I feel like I really learned a lot!”)
  • Disclosing your own thoughts (“I thought so as well. I already have some ideas about how I can incorporate those tips into my work process.”)
  • Next, you might repeat the process by asking another question, or your conversation partner might then choose to ask a question about your earlier response.)

Learning how to start a conversation is an important skill that can help you build social connections in a wide variety of contexts. It can be difficult initially, particularly if you struggle with shyness or social anxiety, but gaining plenty of practice is the key to become more comfortable talking to other people.

Try to think of every one of these interactions as a practice session. The more often you initiate discussions with others, the stronger your conversational skills will become.

A Word From Verywell

Forging strong social connections is critical for both physical and mental health. Research has found that forming social relationships is linked to a stronger immune system, increased longevity, lower anxiety levels, greater empathy for others, and better self-esteem. By learning how to start a conversation, you will be better able to forge the social connections that are so critical to health and well-being.

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Article Sources
  • Mehl, MR, Vazire, S, Hollerant, SE, & Clark, S. Eavesdropping on happiness: Well-being is related to having less small talk and more substantative conversations. Psychological Science. 2010;21(4):539-541. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610362675

  • Umberson, D & Montez, JK. Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2010;51(Suppl):S54-S66. DOI: 10.1177/0022146510383501