You’re at a networking event, surrounded by smart and capable people that you’d love to know better. You start talking to another business owner and at first, the conversation is going fine. What business are you in? How’d you get your start? Where are you from? But once these preliminary questions are answered and you’ve both run out of things to say, the dreaded awkward silences ensue.
You know the ones – possibly only 3-5 seconds long, but lasting an eternity in your mind. An awkward, soul-crushing eternity that you’re sure makes you look uninteresting and strange to your conversation partner.
But remember this: They’re part of the awkward silences, too. They’re just as uncomfortable about them as you are.
Banish awkward silences by asking this question
The good news? There’s a way to banish awkward silences from your conversations forever. That’s not a generalization. Once you learn the right questions to ask to keep the conversation moving naturally, you’ll never have to worry about the dreaded long pause again.
Banish awkward silences by asking detailed questions instead of the traditional “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?”
- How did you end up in (this city/country)?
- What do you like about (this city)?
- Did you always think you’d end up doing (this career)?
- Any restaurant recommendations or must-see attractions in (their past city)?
By delving a bit deeper (not too deep – notice that these questions just scrape the surface of the other person’s life) instead of just asking the traditional “small talk” questions, you avoid the traditional small talk awkward silences.
You open up the conversation and give it a range of possibilities through which it can take off. Now, you two can talk about your hopes and dreams, your disappointments and goals, your hobbies and pastimes instead of just naming the city in which you grew up or the industry you work in.
Another important tip for keeping the conversation flowing naturally and not peppering the other person with seemingly random questions just to keep talking? Know what they’re really asking when they ask you a question.
Know what they’re really asking
At the heart of every question someone asks is a desire to know more. Sure, we’re conditioned to ask the same types of questions upon meeting someone, but it’s more than that.
There’s a reason we ask someone where they’re from or what they do.
If you can give a deeper answer to the seemingly top-level questions people ask, you give yourself and your new conversation partner “talking fuel.” Not just mindless, empty chatter, but serious, get-to-know-me talking fuel.
And how can you give a deeper answer to a seemingly superficial question? By knowing what they’re really asking.
We loved this useful, enlightening example from Charisma on Command:
- They say: “Where are you from?” (Act as though they asked “Why did you wind up where you are today?”)
- They say “What do you do?” (Act as though they asked “Why do you spend your time doing what you do?”)
This is a great tip to use in conversation because while the other person may not have read this article and learned how to avoid asking dead-end questions that lead to awkward silences, you have. You can apply what you’ve learned to read deeper into the questions they ask you, giving an answer that will keep the conversation flowing rather than stalling it.
There’s one final tip for ensuring awkward silences disappear from your conversations forever. This one takes about 5 minutes, but trust us – it’s worth it.
The essence of you in bullet points
What’s the point of another person conversing with you? Getting to know you better. Learning more about you. Understanding what makes you tick. Think back on the best, most interesting conversations you’ve had – the ones that you didn’t want to end. They probably involved each of you talking about the very essence of yourselves – what you believe, what you have faith in, what you fear, what you know well.
Now, with that in mind, sit down with a blank sheet of paper or a new document. Brainstorm about the essence of you, what makes you who you are. What do you want people to know about you, to sense from you when they speak to you? Now, write them down in no particular order.
Your top 5 traits, values, interests
Once you’ve got your self-descriptors written down, it’s time to prune them down to just 5. Sort them in the order of importance to you.
Which is the trait/hobby/value that you want people to sense first? It might be friendliness, desire to innovate, boldness, etc. Write that down in the number one spot. Do the same for the next 4.
Now, you’ve got a functional list of the things you want people to know about you when they speak to you.
The final step is coming up with some sample statements and answers to questions you might use to reinforce these values, traits, or interests.
For example, if I want people to see me as an intensely friendly person, when they ask me “Why’d you move to Atlanta?” I might say:
“You know, I loved New York City and the fast pace there, but I really missed the friendliness of the people in Atlanta. I like to be able to smile at people I pass on the street, or just spark a conversation with a stranger without being suspected of something malicious. Do you know what I mean?”
An answer like this communicates your values to the other person clearly, offers them an opening to respond with a deeper answer, and forges a connection between you and your conversation partner.
- Brainstorm what you consider to be the “essence” of you
- Narrow them down to your top 5 values/traits/interests
- Come up with sample answers to questions and statements that support these
Try these tips in your next “small talk” scenario. We think they will help you banish awkward silences forever. Do you have any additional tips you use for starting and keeping conversations flowing? We’d love to hear them in the comments!