Pay a compliment
Why is it so easy to forget someone’s name within seconds of meeting them? Because, you weren’t really listening—you were too busy thinking about what to say next. One easy way to skirt that natural selfishness and propel any conversation forward is to open with flattery. When you meet someone for the first time, “Pay that person a compliment when repeating their name, thus helping to anchor and embed it even deeper into your memory,” says professional mentalist Oz Pearlman, who sometimes has to remember the names of hundreds of people he just met for his act. If you compliment Alyssa on her necklace, you instantly prime your brain to recall her name the next time you see that necklace, Pearlman says. “As a bonus, everyone enjoys flattery, so that compliment can go a long way toward you being remembered as well.”
Ask lots of questions—good questions
Research shows that in conversations with unfamiliar people, we tend to rate the experience based on our own performance, not theirs. What’s more: the experience of talking about ourselves can be more pleasurable than food or money. So, how do you give your conversation partner the pleasure of a good conversation? Ask them questions—a lot of questions, and ones that call for more than vague one-word answers (a good rule is, if your question can be answered with “fine,” don’t ask it). Avoid work if you can; instead, ask about play—”What keeps you busy outside of work?” is a good place to start. According to Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, one question pretty much guaranteed to put someone in a positive mindset and open doors to their personality: “What has the highlight of your year been so far?” This allows the person to show you her best self and, if her highlight includes a topic you’re interested in too, may lay the groundwork for a true friendship.
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Make a game out of small talk
If you keep feeding a person questions and they keep giving you nothing back, go for the jugular and make it a game. According to Jeanne Martinet, author of The Art of Mingling, small talk should be playful like a game of tennis, not serious like a job interview. Her go-to game? “I’ll say something like, ‘Tell me three things about your company, and I’ll guess what company it is.’ Or, ‘What’s that you’re drinking? Wait—let me guess.’ Get them into the spirit.”
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Try to make their day better
If your conversation partner still isn’t biting, make things even easier for them by asking games researcher Jane McGonigal’s favourite question: “On a scale of one to ten, how was your day?” Anyone can think of a number between one and ten, McGonigal says, and they’re likely to elaborate on their answer as they go. But it gets even better. After they respond, ask them this: “Is there anything I can do to move you from a six to a seven (or a three to a four, etc.)?” You’d be surprised how happy this little gesture will make someone.
Play the sympathy card
Ready for a cheater’s way to advance a conversation? Memorize three magic words: “that sounds hard.” “Nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult,” entrepreneur Paul Ford wrote in his viral essay, “How to Be Polite.” “I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson.”
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Seek their opinion
This tip has been tested by perhaps our most tactful founding father, Benjamin Franklin. In his memoir, Franklin describes an “old maxim” that helped him along in his political career: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” In other words, if you ask someone for advice or a favour and they oblige you, they will be psychologically primed to like you and help you again (today this phenomenon is know as The Ben Franklin effect). So, if you truly want to endear yourself to a stranger and show them you value their mind, ask for their advice on something. If they give it to you, they get to feel important and valued—and you might just learn something in the process.
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When your conversation reaches a natural conclusion, pull the trigger by saying “I won’t keep you” or “Give my regards to [mutual acquaintance]” before making your escape. Adam Dachis, coauthor of The Awkward Human Survival Guide, adds that context can provide you the perfect exit strategy. “If you’re at a party, excuse yourself to get a drink; if you’re at work, you can leave to get some coffee. You can also say, ‘It’s nice talking to you, but I have to talk to someone before they leave.’”
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Originally published as 7 Magic Phrases That Can Save an Awkward Conversation on ReadersDigest.com.