How to Have a Casual Conversation with Anybody

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"Make the other person feel important -- and do it sincerely," wrote Dale Carnegie in his book "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Most people have to learn how to be a conversationalist, while it seems to flow naturally for others. Watching the news and political pundits is a good way to learn what not to do: interrupt, dominate the conversation and fail to listen. Talk-show hosts, on the other hand, ask questions and draw out the person being spoken with.

Stand up, if possible, and introduce yourself and smile. Gestures like these indicate you are accessible, and conversation will flow more easily.

Remember the person’s name. Repeating their name back to them by saying, “Nice to meet you, John,” will help seal it in your mind for later.

Use open-ended questions. Avoid questions with a one-word answer to get the conversation started. Instead of asking “Did you enjoy the cheese platter?” ask the person what she thinks about the latest interesting article in the local paper.

Stay away from questions that are too deep or too personal. The conversation should remain light, and refrain from delving into awkward territory. Light doesn’t mean talking about the weather. Have an arsenal of topics ready for such occasions, such as a current art gallery opening or the new coffee shop in town are topics you can use depending on the type of crowd and situation.

Listen to the other person. People love to talk about themselves. If you ask a question such as “What do you do for a living?” pay attention, and fight the urge to compare yourself to them by interrupting with a long-winded story about the one time you did something vaguely similar.

Avoid asking questions that are likely to end with your foot in your mouth. These are things like “When are you due?” or “How old are you?” When dealing with people who ask these questions, squelch the rudeness with “Wouldn’t you like to know,” or “I’ll forgive you for asking if you forgive me for not answering.”

Rein in the humor. One man’s joke can turn into another man’s boredom. Subjects you may find hilarious may be quite offensive to others, so fight the urge to tell jokes concerning politics, race, religion and sex. When you are around those making jokes, don't take yourself too seriously.

Say the person’s name. At the end of the conversation, be sure to say the person’s name that you have just met. This shows that you were paying attention.