We’re experiencing an epidemic of loneliness, especially for people who struggle with the art of good conversation.
If you’re like a lot of people, making friends has always been a challenge. Small talk feels forced and fake, so you end up saying nothing. Or maybe you are good at small talk, but conversations that start well seem to sputter out.
Conversation skills are important if you want a connected life. But sometimes we end up stopping a good conversation before it can start. You may not notice when you do it, but you feel it when others do it to you.
Fix these conversation-stoppers, and you’ll be the one who puts people at ease and brings out the best in them — which is how friendships start.
Here are 10 common habits that can shut down conversations:
1. You miss the cue that someone is trying to connect with you.
Your friend is having a birthday dinner and someone asks, “How do you know Kristin?” You give a one-word answer, “Work,” then look down. You just stopped a conversation!
You thought the question was just an information request. But the person gave you a conversation starter. They made a “bid” to connect, a term the Gottman Institute coined for something we do in romantic relationships. Asking about Kristin was the bid, a softball question that offers an opening, but also an easy out if you want to be left alone (that one word answer is how you signal you want to be left alone). To accept the bid, you might say, “I met Kristin at work. We used to be on a team with this horrible boss.”
And here you have an opportunity to avoid the second conversation stopper, which is …
2. You go negative too early.
You say: “I met Kristin at work. We were on a team together with this horrible boss! Kristen stood by me when he fired me.” While launching into a negative story right away skips the small talk, it’s better connection-wise to stick to positive or neutral subjects until you know someone better. Negative remarks subtly make people feel bad. Worse, negative talk could offend the person, or embarrass your mutual friend.
This is especially true for people with trauma. Bonding around trauma alone tends to be fragile; bonding around growth and healing is better. You’re trying to improve your friendships, so find things to appreciate about the party, your mutual friend, or the other person. This is just good small talk. It may not have the instant intimacy of a shared negative opinion, but positive small talk lets you gradually bond over topics that reflect your constructive goals. This is how you find friends who are also building a better life for themselves.
3. You aren’t curious about the other person.
When you lack curiosity, you listen but don’t follow up. Someone tells you they volunteer at an animal shelter and you say “oh, that’s nice.” Instead, be curious! What made you decide to do that? Do you miss the animals when they get adopted? Are there a lot of animals that need adoption these days? This is how new friendships can form, because you’re both in the project of conversation together.
4. You accidentally change the subject to yourself.
This happens when someone tells you something – for example, that they’ve just been accepted to grad school – and you miss the cue to celebrate and ask follow-ups. Instead, you talk about when you were in grad school. This is usually an innocent attempt to relate, but if it shifts the focus to yourself, it will make the person feel alone and unheard.
Think of conversation as a way to learn about someone else – including whether they are curious about you – not just as a way to tell stories or talk about yourself. No, not everyone is going to ask about you. If you were neglected as a kid and no one listened to you, you may try to push into a conversation with stories about yourself, or you may be too reluctant to share. Aim for 50/50 sharing. It doesn’t have to be “you tell a story, then I tell a story.” It’s even better to talk about ideas and phenomena outside of both your lives, while also peppering the conversation with personal experience.
5. You don’t listen carefully before speaking.
This happens when you think you agree, and say you agree, but you misheard or misunderstood.
This has happened to me on podcasts. I’m asked something like, “What’s your take on internal family systems?” I say, “Well, it doesn’t resonate with me, but people I respect like it.” But then the interviewer says, “Me too, I hate internal family systems!” They weren’t listening carefully and thought they heard their own opinion. For better conversations, listen carefully.
6. You give unsolicited advice.
Unless the person specifically asks for advice, don’t give it. Whatever your advice is, if it wasn’t sought, it’s likely to be perceived as criticism.
7. You say “Well, actually …”
This is what I call being “Doctor Actually.” When someone is sharing, don’t jump in to correct and contradict. If they say “I’m thinking about buying an electric car,” don’t be Doctor Actually and say, Well ACTUALLY, electric cars are not all they’re cracked up to be, and ACTUALLY they can be even more harmful to the environment ….
Even if you think you’re right, don’t treat a social conversation like a policy conference. Instead, ask why they are considering the car. Seek to understand — not to be persuaded, but to get to know them. When we get caught up correcting details, we miss the chance to make friends. And for the other party, that’s alienating.
8. You embarrass someone in front of a group.
Correcting and contradicting can embarrass people, and so can sarcasm, abruptly changing the subject, or turning your attention away while someone is talking. Kind people seek ways to help people feel included and appreciated.
9. You leave no space for the other person to talk.
This definitely will happen if you talk non-stop, but it can even happen when you don’t. If you’re extraverted and the other person is introverted, you may think a pause means they’re ready for you to chime in. Pauses might even make you uncomfortable. But some people only share when there’s a pause; try it and see. If you accidentally talk too much, you can apologize and ask for their take.
10. You don’t show your interest and approval.
Assuming you want a conversation to turn into a friendship, you may need to intentionally show approval and interest by keeping eye contact, nodding and saying encouraging things like “I’m so glad you said that!” or “that’s a good point!”
If it feels fake to give this validation, chances are that you really ought to practice this. A lot of us don’t give others enough affirmation, due to past trauma, neurodivergence or just a stoic personality. Remember how helpful it is see that someone is listening, to feel that someone is on your wavelength, and to know that you are appreciated. It’s a kindness to show this, and it will attract more friends than you know what to do with.
If friendship skills are something you’re working to improve, download my free PDF How to Be a Better Friend.
For a deep dive on learning to build better friendships, check out my online course Connection Bootcamp.
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