A good conversationalist should also be a good listener – and a keen observer. By far, the most important thing about initiating and maintaining a conversation with an individual or group is to know your audience. Ive found this to be crucial. Unfortunately, there are many of us (introverts and extroverts alike) that miss this point altogether.
Think about the last person that cornered you at a party and droned on and on about things that you could have cared less about. This person has already assumed that you should be hanging on their every word. In most cases they havent spent the time to get to know you – if they did, theyd know that your knowledge in the area of third world foreign policy is limited.
Now, although the conversation is doomed from the beginning, these extroverts seem unfazed by the fact that you have nothing to add. They are quite content to drone on with their monologue. They take your quietness as a sign of approval. There is no respect here.
As a social anxiety sufferer, its the other way around for me. I am very aware of my audience – maybe too aware. Since any attempt at conversation is a big personal risk for me, I tend to go for the sure thing. I try to make sure I know with whom I am conversing with. Im at the other end of the scale from the person mentioned above. In many ways, I need a little so what attitude mixed in with my overly cautious approach (just a bit, mind you). Many times I hold back and overanalyze each response. If not for that, I feel my conversations would flow so much better.
What Im aiming for is a perfect balance. I want to have the confidence to speak freely knowing that Ive got a receptive audience.
It boils down to the fact that – introvert or extrovert – you cant go far wrong by knowing your audience. It allows you to converse intelligently with those whom you are most compatible. For example, it makes no sense for me to try and converse with a group of jocks about women and sports. I know through experience that it will end badly. I know in my heart that I dont belong – Im not one of them. So why would I endure a forced conversation that would surely end in disaster?
And lets face it: I really need to have as much as possible in my favor.
Getting to know your audience
There was a time when talking to complete strangers paralyzed me with fear. If I was forced into a situation where I needed to converse with others, I was very reserved. I held back all but the most basic greeting and weather related niceties. In fact, I was almost totally mute. This trait was not conducive to getting to know people.
Nowadays, with a little more confidence, I am able to ask key questions and provide others with limited details about myself. The perceived gap between my social standing compared to that of others doesnt seem so great. I dont automatically assume that every stranger I meet is out of my league. I allow time to get to know them via small-talk, or whatever.
But, mainly, Im trying to develop my ability to read others quickly. By doing this, I know if there is a chance for civil (or even stimulating) conversation, or not. If not, I politely excuse myself and move on. There is no sense in struggling with a conversation (only to get back mediocre feedback), when the next person could provide the positive, stimulating responses I need.
What are the warning signs that a conversation will struggle? Well, I try to get a feel for the other persons attitude towards me. Do I sense impatience, arrogance, superiority or hostility? Do they seem to be so caught up with themselves that they ignore or dismiss what I have to say? Does there seem to be any chemistry?
Granted, its extremely difficult to peg some people – especially those who are on their best behavior. Still, I make an attempt to get to know everyone.
Here is the thing: YOU WILL NOT BE COMPATABLE WITH EVERYONE.
Dont try to force things, and dont take it personally if things dont work out. Im sure that there is a hard statistic out there that states my personality type is compatible with X % of the population. Thats why I dont beat myself up over it.
In order to get to know others, I generally take the cautious approach. I usually introduce myself followed by a few relevant, well-placed observations or questions. I keep it extremely light and impersonal until I get more info. I play it one step at a time while my intuition is on high alert analyzing verbal feedback and body language. I can usually have someone figured out in a few minutes.
If I get good feedback, Ill open up a little more, and so on – judging each reply and observing body language as I go. Eventually, there is a little trust developed (although this usually takes a few conversations over time).
I wish I could go through life with more of a who cares attitude. I want to be comfortable talking with anyone (whether they like it or not) and not caring about what others think of me. I want to be spontaneous, witty and funny amongst a crowd of strangers as well as my friends and family.
Unfortunately, that takes a level of confidence that I may never have. For the time being, getting to know my audience stacks the odds in my favor. Some might say a wimpish way out – I say a great way for someone like me to get the ball rolling and develop much needed social skills.
Next, Ill get into the numerous ways I go about stirring up conversations.