How to Keep a Conversation Alive
A client asks: “How can I keep a conversation alive (as a matter of choice or necessity) in some situations where it is required, but when the other party is not contributing to continue the conversation?”
Sometimes conversations can be kept alive, and sometimes not. Then again, sometimes they are not worth keeping alive.
Having reluctant conversational partners makes for a difficult time, especially if they are unwilling to talk or to listen. Their behavior could be caused by a severe shyness, or perhaps an episode of self-consciousness, or even depression. Sometimes persons simply want to withdraw from interaction and into their own thoughts instead of engaging in conversation – even if this appears rude.
How to Keep People Engaged
Several suggestions that may help you to engage people:
1. Make adjustments to establish rapport on the nonverbal level. If they are behaving quietly, mirror their behavior. If they are speaking softly, lower your own volume of speech. (Sometimes a lively, friendly, and exuberant manner feels overwhelming to a quiet person.)
2. Be interested in them and very patient. Because everyone has a story to tell, if you ask safe, open questions you will often get them to speak. “What brings you to this event?” and “What do you like best about the program so far?” are examples of how to start. Patience is required to give them time to think before they answer.
3. If they begin to respond to such general questions and you are feeling connected with them, you can ask other questions about their work or personal life. If they are non-responsive to your first questions, even if you have been very attentive and tactful, they are probably signalling that “I don't want to talk now.” Then it's time to politely turn away and move on, maybe saying something like “Perhaps we can talk another time.”
Sometimes people are just in negative or very private moods because something upsetting has happened. They may think that because these concerns are so present in their own minds, everyone else is aware of their inner state and should therefore respect their wish to avoid interaction.
Still others may be un-cooperative because it's a way to control the situation. Some adolescents are legendary for their ability to control others – especially parents – by withdrawing and being sullen.
If you want to engage a reluctant person, apply the suggestions above. As the saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” Conversation is a collaborative event, and it certainly requires two willing people to converse. If you see that they aren't willing to collaborate after a few sincere attempts by you, politely disengage. It's not about you. It's about them.
To keep a conversation alive you need topics of mutual interest and you need to express interest in the other person's talk.. Conversations sometimes die because a mundane topic has been exhausted. (That is why routine small talk expires so quickly. The responses are predictable, and there's not much more to be said.)
For such situations, I recommend preparing a few “mini-interviews” such as “Where did you grow up?” and “What was the neighborhood like?” or “How do you like to spend your vacations?” and “What are your next vacation plans?” Having alternative topics to offer will help you get the conversation unstuck. Dwelling on a topic that has become stale is the main reason a conversation dies.