How to make conversation: A semi-informative guide

How to make conversation

How to make conversation is a fairly big deal in both the personal and professional context. Unless you’re chasing a life as a mute living in some type of cave (which admittedly feels preferable to the 2016 election some days), you need to understand how to make conversation. This applies personally — in that it helps you develop friendships and even romance — and it applies professionally. You ever hit the hotel bar at a conference? You best know how to make conversation down there, because a good conversation peppered with a few anecdotes could be a major lead for you. (Job-hopping stigma be damned!)

Here’s the issue, though. A surprisingly small number of people actually know how to make conversation. Most people do a variation on the following:

  • Excessive small talk that leads absolutely nowhere
  • 92% of the conversation focused entirely on themselves
  • Repeated instances where it feels like you just said something and they heard something totally different
  • Off-task, out-of-context stories

That’s all just the personal side of how to make conversation. (And, well, the “focused entirely on themselves” aspect is sadly also part of professional networking.) Here’s a few of the “how to make conversation” mistakes on the professional side:

  • Managers who don’t make conversation and hide behind e-mail instead
  • Screeching, yelping, bellowing, and hollering and thinking that’s “accountability” or “good management”
  • Instantly perceiving a new idea as a threat that must be batted down like a Hail Mary pass
  • Constantly interrupting your employee with “Well, but…” or “Based on my experience…”

So this is the most amazing thing of all: we’re all (mostly) human beings. We are social animals. Information is conveyed verbally to a large extent. And yet, there’s a ton of people walking around out there — some of them very successful in conventional terms — who have no idea how to make conversation.

Let’s try and fix this.

How to make conversation: The game of catch idea

I got this from a post on TED’s Ideas page. You likely understand the analogy, but if not, here goes. A game of catch is all about back and forth. You don’t get the ball and keep it for yourself — because if you did that, semantically you’re no longer playing catch. You’re just now holding a ball yourself. It’s less fun. And yet, this happens all the time in different conversations.

Here’s the important part to remember about perception within conversation:

There’s a great study out of Harvard in which researchers discovered that talking about yourself actually activates the same pleasure centers in your brain as sex and cocaine. That means it’s very pleasurable to us to talk about ourselves and what we like. You could walk away from a conversation like that and feel fantastic about it. But remember — talking about yourself makes you feel fantastic. So you may have just walked away from a conversation in which you talked about yourself — that was awesome! — and the other person is walking away going, “Good god, that person would not stop talking about themselves.” It’s a totally different perception, so you’ve got to remember you’re playing catch — find the balance.

So, here’s the net-net. When you talk about yourself a lot, it’s like you just got laid. Good! But to the other person, they feel like they just slept off a big night next to the toilet. Bad! This is the inherent yin-yang about how to make conversation.

In a game of catch, the ratio is ideally 50-50. That’s almost impossible in conversation, and many people recommend 80/20. (The 80 is the other person talking, mind you.) I’d say most Type-A target-chasers are 80/20 the other way, which sucks. But we’ve all been in those conversations and we know the dance. Namely, you tune out about 1.5 minutes in.

How to make conversation: Why is it personally hard?

In short: people are nervous. Conversations are tough. Small talk ain’t going anywhere. It feels useless in the moment, but it’s a comfort to our brains. All that said, many people aren’t good at it or have no tolerance for it, and that makes the early part of how to make conversation with them pretty awkward.

The truth is, a lot of people spend their time worried about their (a) relevance and (b) competence in front of others. A conversation exposes both of those fears right out in the open. If you’re stammering or making a bunch of no-context bullshit points, the other person’s facial cues will tell you. Then you get more nervous. I’ve been in dozens of these conversations, usually if I’m drunk. Even drunk, you can read that face. How to make conversation? Not this way. I’m bombing, baby!

How to make conversation: Why is it professionally hard?

In short: most managers aren’t good at their jobs. The way we set up work, in general, goes something like this:

If you follow that bouncing ball, here’s the deal. How to make conversation at work is incredibly hard, because oftentimes, real conversations don’t even happen. It’s all “sense of urgency” e-mails and hair-on-fire meetings that no one prepared for.


Well, that … and then you’ve got this other problem. Feedback is largely absent in most white-collar cubicle work, and most managers confuse “accountability” with “scaring the shit out of someone who makes less money than I do.”

All these aspects create a situation where how to make conversation is almost a non-issue. Conversation, and effective communication, really aren’t happening at most places.

How to make conversation: The “professionalism” argument

I might go off the rails on this one, but let me try to set it up for you.

Whenever there’s a business interaction, essentially each side has an agenda. If the meeting is manager-employee, the manager has a set agenda and the employee has one too. (Ironically, they’re often not the same.) If it’s a sales deal or potential partnership, each side has an agenda. One side is probably looking to keep costs down, and the other side is looking to get the benefit of the bigger brand. Something like that.

Now think for a second about how men (and some women) are often trained to think about work. Hit targets! Make money! Eat what you kill! A numbers game! Look at the financials!

So in many professional conversational contexts, one side is essentially trying to “win.” They want the end benefit or perk, and they want to get that somewhat at the expense of the other person. You’ve probably been in hundreds of these conversations. Your boss is essentially heaping work on your plate; you’re trying to defer that work. How to make conversation in this context becomes a battle. It’s a tug of war. The whole thing becomes fraught and complex.

This brings me to a broader argument about professionalism. We often think of it as “He dresses nice” or “He/she says the right thing to the power core.” How ridiculous is that? Most of the time, people are trying to get one over on each other at work. Or there’s some dude in the corner saying “Capital Knockers!” at the new HR girl. Because he has a nice suit, though, he’s “professional.”

How to make conversation in the workplace — a complex dance and battle — shows what professionalism is really about, which is code-switching.

How to make conversation: One funny story to end on

I know this dude. Social media influencer guy. “Thought leader!”  He’s always talking about these issues. How to make conversation, how to “look people in the eye digitally,” etc. You ready for the punchline? He probably has about 19 different social media accounts. All of them are automated to the hilt.

You see why this is funny? “How to make conversation!” “How to build relationships!” “Driving people forward!” And in the end … complete and total automation.

Anything else you’d add on how to make conversation?

Ted Bauer


  1. This has great relevance to online dating, too. Online dating is a great way to make yourself a) feel amazing about your conversational skills, and b) feel like you’re constantly waking up next to a toilet.
    I don’t know if you think telephone skills are any different from in-person skills, but I wonder about that too. Does anyone talk on the phone anymore? Remember when we were kids and sometimes you had to call someone to get, like, a homework assignment or something, or ask if they could come over to play, and you would just have to call the house line? You had literally no idea who would pick up. You could be talking to some kid’s parent for like 3 minutes. Man, that was a rehearsal for life.
    Alright, well. This has been my semi-monthly comment on your blog.

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