Making conversation // I didn’t know how!

998524_tranquility_4I have always found it hard to talk to people that I don’t know well, and more specifically to initiate a conversation. This difficulty is multiplied when there are strangers involved, either in a social, or work situation, or in a completely random encounter at a shopping mall or on a plane.
I think this is probably because I am reasonably shy, and  part of it has been because of my introvert tendencies and not wanting to engage in meaningless conversation for the sake of filling in a moment of silence.

Why bother having conversations?
As I discussed in my earlier introversion posts <you can find them here> I believe that we humans are purpose-built for community and connection with other people. Conversation allows us to make these connections, to learn from other people, to be enriched, to be encouraged, to influence, to encourage others, to minister, to provide comfort, to develop relationships.

For years I avoided making conversation and making these connections. Over time I forgot how to do it, until I was rescued by my friend Andrew who attended a Caleb Ministries training course and learned about the conversation stack, which is a very simple system for initiating and developing conversations. Andrew’s a great, natural conversationalist anyway, but he knew I’d benefit from it, so he shared this tool with me and as I’ve experimented with the conversation stack over the past couple of years, I have learned a secret…people love to talk about themselves or about things that they are interested in. If I can get people talking about themselves, it takes the pressure of me and I don’t have to talk so much.

Here’s the stack (For most general conversations I rarely get past the tennis racquet.). The left column is what you can picture in your mind to remind you of what’s coming next, the right column is the basic question to ask (you’ll need to modify it to your own style otherwise you’ll sound like you’re working through a list…you want it to feel natural, take some time to practice on your family and friends if you like.)
NAMEPLATE                            What is your name?
HOUSE                                         Where do you live?
PEOPLE IN HOUSE                  Do you have family?
CLOCK                                         What do you do with your time?
AEROPLANE                             Travel?
TENNIS RACQUET                  Hobbies? Sports?
LIGHT BULB                              Ideas, points to bounce off
GOAL POSTS                              Do you have goals, dreams?
QUESTION MARK                    Problems? Frustrations? Concerns?
TROPHY                                       Achievements?
SUNSET                                        Inspirational people?

Here are a couple of points to remember when you’re using the conversation stack:

Respond, don’t interrogate:: Don’t just ask lots of questions and don’t get creepy…you’ll come off like you’re interrogating the person and they will more likely than not become defensive and clam up, defeating the purpose of using these kick-off questions. Respond to what the person shares, interact. Share about yourself a little.

Open ended questions :: Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Ask questions that require an answer that will allow the person to elaborate about their answer, and provide you with material to ask follow on questions.

Listen:: Don’t sit there thinking of your next brilliant contribution to the conversation. Really listen. Look out for gems, or places where your stories can intersect and you can connect.

No agendas:: Don’t go into any conversation with preconceived ideas of what the outcome will be. If the person thinks they are being manipulated they will shut down.

Don’t force it:: If they don’t want to talk…move on. Some people just really don’t want to talk (I’m betting you know how that is LOL)…don’t force them to.

I’ve found this system so helpful in getting past the awkward small talk that can plague so many social situations. I hope it helps you too.

Have you ever used a conversation stack? How does it work for you? Are you a natural conversationalist? Do you have to work at it like I do?


7 responses to “Making conversation // I didn’t know how!

  1. Michelle, interesting that someone has actually documented this… I found myself nodding at the steps – I am probably a lot like you, in being shy etc – but when I have to engage, I employ similar tactics without even thinking about them…

    validation! 🙂

  2. calledsoldiers

    I am a natural conversationalist, but I do struggle coming up with good ice breakers, once into the conversation I am very good at listening and following up on what others are saying.
    As I get to know a person I am even better, but this may help me in the initial phase.

  3. FROM TWITTER >> @adamsmchugh@MickGeorge I like your latest blog post but I don’t really understand the idea of the “stack” – how is that a tool for helping introverts?

    Adam, thanks for your question. The stack is essentially a sequential list of questions to ask to help develop a decent conversation. Speaking for myself and from my experience…I hate talking about the weather and silly surface stuff, so in the past I tended to avoid talking to people so I didn’t have to make small talk. This series of questions provided a way for me to engage with people (with the understanding that God works via relationships and I couldn’t develop those if I didn’t talk to people) and make connections that were not only meaningful for the person I was talking to, but that didn’t bore me silly either. It was a motivator, and it effectively removed my “excuses” for not engaging with people. I know not all introverts are like this, but I think there’s a fair chance that many are.

  4. Michelle

    Perhaps I am reading your blog wrong – I am analytical (hee-hee) – but it creates the impression that you are focusing strongly on the person so much that he or she may feel a little intimidated. I understand not to put the Spanish Inquisition on the person, but do people not feel a litttle threatened because you are actually asking so many personal questions – as opposed to the ol’ weather which is neutral?

  5. Not usually. I have found that given the opportunity, most people are more than happy to talk about themselves, and interspersed with sharing about yourself, it makes for interesting and stimulating conversation. I don’t deal with small talk (weather) etc particularly well, I’d rather hear someone’s story than waste time with the weather 🙂

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  7. HI liked the conversation stack but I don’t understand the ‘light bulb’ . what ?? would you ask for that? thanks

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