Relationship Tips

The 12 Most Effective Ways To Open a Conversation, Whether You’re Talking to a Social Butterfly or a Wall

Dominique Michelle Astorino

Photo: Getty Images/KT images
If the mere thought of small talk or networking or even socializing with your actual friends makes you feel awkward—well, hey, that makes sense right now. After what feels like 75 years of pandemic living, you may now have a lower tolerance to crowds and social interaction in general—and according to sociologists and mental-professionals, getting back into the social swing of things after isolation might take some relearning. But that doesn't mean going form zero to social butterfly has to be a long and arduous process—for example, using any number of prompts for how to start a conversation can help squelch feelings of social anxiety.

“Getting together in groups can feel awkward, especially when we experience social anxiety,” says Michelle Chalfant, licensed therapist, holistic life coach, and host of The Adult Chair podcast. “With the pandemic, many people feel like they have lost the ability to connect, and at times, it might even feel uncomfortable.” That's exactly why preparing yourself for upcoming social encounters is key.

With a toolkit for your next gathering that includes social anxiety management tips from therapists and prompts for how to start a conversation, you'll be feeling comfortable and confident again in no time.

4 tips to prepare yourself for upcoming social gatherings

1. Take deep breaths

“When we are scared, stressed, or anxious we tend to hold our breath or have shallow breathing,” says Chalfant. “This creates more anxiety in our bodies. Take slow, deep breaths while you are speaking to someone to stay present, grounded in your body, and calm.”

2. Try a mantra

“Repeat: ‘I’m okay,’” says Chalfant. “Slowly repeat this short phrase to yourself over and over like a mantra; this will help you to stay present and keep any negative self-talk at bay.” She recommends saying it slowly while placing a hand over your heart.

3. Embrace the anxiety

Chalfant says connecting to your anxious feelings may help you reclaim the feeling and in turn lower feelings of awkwardness. “Get to know it, get a visual of it, and speak to it. Let it know that you’ve got it, you are going to be social, and that part of you can relax and you will do the talking.”

4. Use body language

“Open, friendly body language and facial expressions,” can put anyone at ease, including introverts and social butterflies, alike, says Terri Cole, clinical psychotherapist and author of Boundary Boss. “If you are no longer hugging or shaking hands, then immediately offer your elbow to bump, if that feels appropriate…. If someone reaches their hand out, you can gracefully offer your elbow instead."

12 foolproof prompts for how to start a conversation with anyone

It’s easier than you may assume to avoid conversational gaffes—doing so is just about asking the right thing. In other words? Simply ask questions. “People like to talk about themselves,” says Chalfant. “So, asking questions is a brilliant way to connect with others and lessen anxiety.” Cole echoes this and suggests creating flow in the conversation by using expansive questions as opposed to closed questions.

“People like to talk about themselves. So, asking questions is a brilliant way to connect with others and lessen anxiety.” —Michelle Chalfant, licensed therapist

“If you are at a gathering, instead of saying ‘Do you know the host?’ which a closed question, ask ‘How do you know Betty?’ which is an expansive question,” says Cole. “This will help you to engage people in interesting, energizing, or valuable conversations that expand (if you want them to) rather than constrict into awkward, one-word answer kind of conversations. Expansive questions tend to elicit deeper and more detailed responses.”

Below, Chalfant and Cole provide 12 expansive questions that all double as great strategies for how to start a conversation.

1. Event-related

  1. How do you know the host?
  2. Do you like gatherings like this? Are you more of an extrovert or introvert?
  3. Compliment the person on their outfit and ask where they got it. Ask where they shop and what they would recommend.

2. Seasonal

  1. What did you do this summer? How was your summer? Did you travel at all? If so, where?
  2. Any plans for the holidays? Are you ready for the change in seasons?

3. Work and life

  1. What do you like best about your job? How did you get into this business?
  2. Do you live nearby? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it?

4. Entertainment and pastimes

  1. I’m looking for a new book. Any books you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?
  2. Have you listened to any good podcasts recently? What did you like about them? Would you recommend any of them? Why?
  3. What are you watching on Netflix? Any good shows you’d recommend?
  4. Who or what inspires your art?
  5. I am thinking about taking a trip. What is your favorite travel destination?

Even armed with this tips for how to start a conversation, you might still feel uncomfortable in your social setting. But remember, it’s very likely that others around you feel similarly—and keeping this in mind can help you feel like you're part of a community. That, in turn, can lead to feelings of acceptance. “You are not alone in how you feel,” Chalfant says. “The best part is that the more you gather and the more you work on bringing yourself down from anxiety, the easier it becomes to gather in groups.”

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