How to Initiate a Conversation

When the space shuttle used to launch, it burned up 90% of its fuel in the first few minutes to escape the earth’s gravity.  After that, it’s just a fraction.

For many people, starting a conversation is the hardest part of communication.  It seems to take 90% of our energy just to make the initial contact:

  • We don’t know how to start the conversation.
  • We don’t know what to say first.
  • We’re not sure the other person will want to talk to us.
  • We don’t know how to approach someone.

Bags on headBut once the conversation has started, maintaining the momentum is easier than getting it going in the first place.

An effective conversation begins before the first word is spoken.  Both people go through an unconscious dialogue about each other.  We read their facial expressions and body language, using those visual cues to decide if it’s safe to connect with them.

If the signals look positive, we go ahead.  If the signals look negative, we assume they won’t be interested.

But often, those assumptions are inaccurate.  It’s important to separate what we observe (facts) from our interpretation of those facts.

There are two ways to start a conversation:

  1. Wait for someone to approach you.
  2. Approach them.

The first option seems safe, because we assume a person wouldn’t approach us if they weren’t interested.  But that approach has some inherent problems:

  • If nobody approaches, we feel even worse.
  • We focus our attention on ourselves instead of them.
  • We don’t have control over the outcome.
  • The whole process can be painful.

The second option works for extroverts, but is scary for introverts – so they don’t consider it.  But that fear is based on certain assumptions:

  1. “I don’t want to intrude.” (But they’re probably waiting for someone to approach them, too.)
  2. “They might not like me or think I’m interesting.” (That’s assuming that we’re boring – bad perspective.)
  3. “They’re more confident than I am.” (Most people try to appear more confident than they really are, including the other person.)
  4. “They’re standing alone because they prefer it.” (They’re using option #1.  If they didn’t want to interact, they would have stayed home.)
  5. “I don’t know them, so I don’t know what they would like to talk about.” (Huge advantage – you don’t have to know a lot.  Just start exploring and follow the trail.)
  6. “I’ll feel like a failure if we don’t have a great conversation.” (That puts all the responsibility on you.)

The purpose of conversation isn’t to show how clever we are.  It’s to make a connection between two people.

The biggest advantage of being the one to initiate a conversation?  You get to pick who you spend time with.


(These ideas are adapted from the upcoming “How to Communicate With Confidence” – hitting bookstores on July 15.  More in the next couple of posts . . . )

Senior Consultant at FranklinCovey; Speaker, Author of 5 books – including “People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them the Keys,” “I Wish He Had Come With Instructions,” and “Dealing With the Elephant in the Room.” (See Book page)