One issue that comes up all the time is stress over the looming conversation when I’m speaking with people nervous when meeting people for the first time. “I don’t know what to say. What will I talk about?”
Mentally noting a thing or two ahead of time to get the ball rolling or keep a conversation going is one thing, but a fatal error too often made is trying to play out the entire conversation in your head ahead of time. Conversations are always between two or more people, so even in a 1:1 conversation, you’re only 50% responsible for adding to it and keeping things flowing. Playing it all out in your head is robbing the other person of their 50%.
And because you are talking about sentient beings, that it to say dealing with other who have brains of their own, they will undoubtedly contribute things which will take the conversation in places you may not be able to predict ahead of time anyhow. Of course for some this is again another point of stress. I can just hear them saying, “That’s what I’m afraid of! What if I don’t know what they are talking about?!” Being worried about not knowing every something on every subject that might come up is quite unreasonable, for no one does. But I agree if you feel anxious, that feeling is entirely valid for you.
let’s see if I can’t help you reduce that anxiety by looking at some of the things you can do. To prepare for conversations, consider the purpose of the meeting. Is it a social interaction where you will be drifting around a room and meeting a variety of people like at a party? The advantage of this is situation is that you can start-up many conversations with the same content. “Hello, I’m Julie, nice to meet you. My goodness we’ve had some unusual weather of late.”
And before going further, note that I chose the topic of the weather. Weather is often brought up early in a chat because it is – important point here – a shared experience. Finding shared experiences gives you something in common with the person you are speaking with. It rains on both of you, you both experience minus 34 degrees, or you both have to be aware of floods, fires or intense heat waves. So most people will express an opinion on that subject and it’s a safe bet they’ll do so.
Shared experiences can be found by listening to the radio and hearing about news. The Olympics is in the news today for another week, and people either have no interest, some interest or great interest in it. “Are you following the Olympics at all?”, you ask, and you’ve shifted the dialogue to them. Be it the Olympics, some international conflict, a local politician, favourite sports, music, a public figure in the news, all of these are topics you may share knowledge of with others.
Now let’s say it’s a work colleague you want to know better, but don’t know what to talk about. Well again, think of the purpose of the meeting. Why do you want to speak with them? Perhaps your goal is to find out about a project, get noticed or determine their view on some matter. Knowing your goal ahead of time keeps your objective in mind and will give you the cue to wrap up a chat and depart. In this dynamic, your shared experience is the job or employer you both work for. Or if a colleague from another company, maybe you are both from similar departments, and can talk about that.
Of course shared experiences is one side of the coin and then there’s the other side; where you each have little knowledge of the other. So I’m an Employment Counsellor in Social Services working for a Municipality, and I meet a self-employed Nursery Owner who has 400 acres of trees, bushes, shrubs and other plant life. Little in common. I now have the option to open with, “I understand you’re in the Horticulture field, I don’t know much about that I’m afraid. What’s it like?” People love talking about themselves usually, but even if they are modest, they’ll appreciate your interest in them.
Remember that conversations are dynamic; that is they ebb and flow back and forth and you aren’t responsible for it entirely on your own. That other person will contribute to it as well. And like you, they may be thinking, ‘Oh I hate these things! What on earth will we talk about?!” Sometimes, but not always, this is a topic that folks with poorly developed interpersonal skills dread. It seems so easy for others, and they get mad at themselves for being so awkward or clumsy that they can actually develop poor self-esteem. If it progresses, this can in turn lead to avoiding contact with new people, eventual isolation because of it, and then depression.
Bear in mind that everyone – yes everyone – has varying degrees of ease or anxiety in different situations. Someone really good at individual conversations at work may become privately anxious at a social party. A man at a social gathering who is the life of the party may be awkward and anxious when meeting people at work.
Like any other skill, interpersonal interaction; speaking with and listening to others can be learned. And when learning a new skill, you’ll have bumps in the early stages. That makes you normal.