Tips to help you talk to just about anyone

Talking to people you don't know (or don't know well — yet) can be an intimidating experience — even for otherwise outgoing and adventurous people. It can be scary, frankly. You want the other person to like you, and you want to connect with them and form some sort of relationship, no matter how brief the interaction. 

You might think the trick lies in what you should do while talking: what you should say, how you should look, nonverbal communication, and the like. Actually, it has more to do with listening.

Regardless of whether you think you've got this whole interpersonal communication thing down or not, these tips will not only improve your exchanges with the other people you come across every single day — even if only for a moment — but they will also help you form relationships. And a the end of the day, that's what everyone is searching for.

Make it about them

People love to talk about themselves, no matter how much they say they don't like to do it. Take an interest in them, their lives, and the things that they find important. 

"A lot of times, we think we need to be in the spotlight to impress the other party with whom we're communicating, but people actually think you are a lot less interesting when you just focus on yourself," as therapist Thai-An Truong, LPC, LADC, told me in an email. "Paradoxically, they think you are more interesting when you show an interest in them." Ask them questions about their hobbies, kids, family members, signifiant others, job, and anything else that might get them talking.

Match their style

A good way to approach a conversation with a person you don't know well is to match their tone, inflection, and formality, as speech language pathologist Keri Vandongen, R.SLP, told me. Simply modify your conversational style in order to match theirs, if they're initially mismatched, and it'll be easier for the two of you to connect.

Make an appointment

Be conscientious and courteous when considering starting a conversation with someone, or when bringing up an important topic with someone in your life. Simply check in with someone and ask if they have time to talk before diving in, as Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a licensed clinical professional counselor and co-founder of The Marriage Restoration Project, told me via email. Not only is it respectful of the other person's time, it also clues them in that there's something important coming that they need to listen to closely.

Ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions require more than just a simple yes or no answer. These types of inquiries facilitate conversation, while fixed questions limit engagement. 

Dr. Frances Walfish, Psy.D, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and former panelist on WE tv's Sex Box, told me that indulging in your curiosities and asking questions that allow the other person to open up will help encourage conversations and relationships, rather than stop them in their tracks.

Put yourself in the other person's shoes

When getting ready to have a conversation with someone, especially one that's of a more serious nature, start mentally preparing ahead of time by considering who you'll be speaking with, what your relationship with that person is like, and what the purpose of the conversation is, in order to most effectively communicate with them, says Vandongen. That's how you'll know which way of communicating is most likely to be successful.

Offer sincere compliments

Compliments are key because people like to hear how great you think they are. That being said, if you can't deliver them with sincerity, skip them. 

"People can see through it when you're being phony. Find something you genuinely like about the other person and let them know," says Truong. "Usually compliments on their values [are] more meaningful than their appearance, but that doesn't hurt either."

Agree with them

Everyone likes to hear that they're right and other people admit it. "Find something that you agree with and express it," Truong says. "Even if you don't agree with a lot of what this person has to say, find a grain of truth in what they're saying and agree." Agreements help form connections, which is really what you're after.

Be authentic

Be wary of being too bubblegum when interacting with others. Walfish says that people can tell when you're being insincere or fake. Don't try to be too charming. It'll come off as forced, which is exactly what you don't want (even if you are operating under the "fake it 'til you make it" mantra).

Drop your agenda

While, of course, there are times when you have a conversation in which you have to ask for something of the other person, one thing that'll help you communicate more easily with others is to put whatever you might need aside and have an authentic conversation with the other person — at least to start. 

"Our interactions with people are often transactional, meaning we're more concerned with ourselves and the hidden agendas we bring into conversations than genuinely connecting with people," as psychotherapist Tamika Lewis, MSW, LCSW told me in an email exchange. "Whether it's a first date, or meeting with a high-power investor, try leading with a few questions that reflect your sincere curiosity."

Don't think about what to say next

Some people spend a lot of time during conversations thinking about what what they should say next, how they should respond, and what kind of advice they should give. 

As Lynn Rossy, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, told me, "You don't have to defend or deny what's being said. You don't have to take care of the person, even if they are having a difficult time. You don't have to relate your story that is similar to what is being said. You don't have to give advice." Don't focus so much on what you think you're going to have to say next.

Embrace active listening

"Actively listen for what someone says, what they mean and how they feel," Vandongen says. Focus on really hearing what the person is saying. That takes some effort on your part, it won't just happen (while you scroll through your Instagram feed). Get keyed in to the conversation. 

Sometimes, all the other person needs is to talk something out, themselves. They don't need your opinion, advice, or anything else. "Take it all in like you would a good movie and let the speaker have the stage," Rossy says.

Take your skills for a spin

As it turns out, actually talking may not be the most important part of interacting with someone. Listening — especially that of the active variety — is extremely important when it comes to effectively communicating with another person, whether you know them quite well or they're a virtual stranger.

Being authentically and genuinely yourself helps the person with whom you're speaking recognize that you're invested in the conversation, conveying that you're curious and really do care. Focusing your attention on that other person, rather than going on and on about yourself, can also make them feel valued. Honing skills like these might feel like it takes more work, but one day these skills will become second nature. And they'll definitely make conversation a breeze — with anyone.