Anatomy of a Conversation Part 3: Threading

This is part three of four in a series for the ‘socially challenged’ called The Anatomy of a Conversation. It aims to shed light on what a ‘typical’ conversation with a stranger is like. Also check out the IntroductionPart Two: Opening, and Part Four: Closing.

So the typical “How are you?”s and other introductory statements are finished. Fueled by your new-found conversational energy and a natural inquisitiveness, you have successfully started chatting with  a stranger.

But unless there was a clearly defined purpose for the conversation (e.g., finding a place to eat), how can you decide where to take the dialogue next?

One concept I like to think about is called threading.

Depending on your own and the other person’s comfort level with each other, it could take two ‘exchanges’ to get to the meat of the conversation, or twenty.

However, this idea can start being utilized in conversation as early as the opener, and when listening to the other person speaking–and I mean actually listening and not being so worried about what you are going to say next–this will allow you to keep conversations rolling for a near-infinite amount of time.

Conversational threading is basically picking out a word or topic that the other person says, then relating to it through an anecdote, offering up an opinion or comment, or asking a pertinent question. See just how many conversational opportunities lie in one possible answer to a typical opening question:

[Upon asking someone where they are from:]

“I am originally from Nebraska, but I went to school at Louisville and have lived in Chicago ever since.”

If I wanted to talk more about the person’s childhood or college football (the latter being basically all I know about Nebraska), I would choose to go down the red “path”: “Where in Nebraska are you from? I spent some time in Lincoln for a football weekend and loved it.”

If I wanted to steer the conversation towards college experiences (as it’s a safe bet I’d be asked back at some point where I went to school), I’d choose blue here: “Louisville? I took two college visits there and loved the campus. Why did you end up going there?”

And if I wanted to talk about the Windy City and our favorite places there, I would go green and ask something along the lines of: “Where in Chicago do you live? My brother lived in the Wrigleyville/Lakeview area for several years.”

While many of these example responses are indeed questions, again, the key to a good conversation is a balance between questions, comments, and anecdotes. Too many questions and after a while the person will feel like they are being interrogated—although up until that point, which takes longer to reach than you would think, rapport is usually established if the questions are genuine and well-thought out. Like I said in Part 2, if you want a 99.9% guarantee that someone is going to give you more than a one word answer to a question, ask about themselves. 

The above would  be an extremely fortunate scenario for me, as I have been to all three places mentioned, but what about a less-obvious example of threading opportunities:

[Upon asking someone what they did over the weekend:]

“Oh, I went hiking on Saturday and then cleaned out my garage on Sunday.”

The obvious progression for purple would be to ask “Where did you go hiking?”; for orange, there is a number of directions the conversation could be taken in: “Find anything interesting you forgot about?”, “Are you planning a move/garage sale/making space for something?”, and so on. A certain element of creativity comes into play with all of this, and it gets exciting to see what kind of threads you can ‘spin’ the conversation into off of seemingly mundane subjects.

I recently read an article (that I can’t find again) that likened conversations in the United States to a game of ping-pong—and while everything is dependent on the personality types in the conversation (e.g., an introvert talking to an extrovert will probably do a smaller percentage of the talking than the latter), the best conversations (in my mind) typically have a structure like this:

A: Question

B: Answer, Question

A: Answer, Anecdote

B: Opinion, Question

A: Opinion

And so on.

Without saying, this is one of the major benefits of being a consistent learner–be it through books, newspapers, Twitter, whatever–the more you learn, the more possible conversation threads are going to present themselves to you. Going out and collecting more life experiences inevitably gives you that much more to talk about as well.

And perhaps counter-intuitively, becoming a great conversationalist is more about becoming a skillful listener than an artful orator. Paying attention to the details in the other person’s body language, emotions, and words offers up infinite opportunity to talk for just about ever.

‘Hanging on to every word’ is more than just an idiom–it’s also extremely practical life advice.

So the conversation is flowing, but now it’s time to part ways with your new friend–check back next week for the final segment, Part 4: Closing.


Anatomy of a Conversation Part 2: Opening

This is part two of four in a series for the ‘socially challenged’ called The Anatomy of a Conversation. It aims to shed light on what a ‘typical’ conversation with a stranger is like. Also check out the IntroductionPart Three: Threading, and Part Four: Closing.

If you have ever struggled with starting conversations, you can likely relate to the following:

1. You are near a cute guy or girl, someone influential in your office you’d like to connect with, or are otherwise in a situation where it could be awkward if nobody talks (e.g., an elevator).

2. You get the gist that the other person isn’t going to make the first move, so you open your mouth to say something, and. . .you freeze.

3. All you can think to yourself is, “. . .what the hell should I say?” 

4. While you are struggling to find the perfect opening words, the person walks away, and the opportunity is lost.

5. Feelings of guilt and shame follow–you’re convinced they now think you’re awkward and unsociable.

For me, the secret to becoming more socially successful was getting that word ‘should’ out of my head and realizing that there was no ‘supposed to’ in social situations.

Trying to figure out the ‘right’ thing to say was paralyzing to me for a long time. I admired people who could go up to anyone and say anything–I was convinced they had some sort of social secret they weren’t letting me in on or were born with a gene that I didn’t possess.

While one could argue that each of these scenarios has a set of ‘social norms’ that are and aren’t acceptable, I believe the scope of acceptability is much broader than most people think. I would also argue that, within reason, pushing the boundaries of these norms is often more beneficial than detrimental.

Thankfully, at some point I learned that much more important than the first sentence or question that came out of my mouth was the energy and intent behind it.

I discovered that when I committed to starting a conversation and had a friendly, open, and unhesitating disposition, the other person would almost always reciprocate in the conversation, regardless of what I said (within reason). And if they didn’t, it was never worth beating myself up over–for all I knew, they could be going through a breakup, didn’t feel like talking, or might simply be caught off guard:

Think about how many times you’ve been standing in line at the store (or wherever) and someone has tried to start a conversation with you. You didn’t necessarily mind, but because it was unexpected and you were deep in thought, you were unable to catch your mental ‘balance’ or think of anything to say. It’s not that you were annoyed with that person, you were just unable to think of a reply besides ‘yeah’. You may even have kicked yourself for not having anything to say back. It happens to everyone.

Be that person that sometimes catches others off guard.

Starting good conversations is almost entirely contextual–there is no real one-size-fits-all conversation opener. Learning what is effective when simply comes with practice, but once you learn to get out of your head and observe the world around you, the possibilities are infinite.

A t-shirt with the name of a city is an invite to inquire if that’s where they’re from; a pair of unique sneakers the perfect opportunity to ask where they were purchased; an uncommon piece of produce a chance to ask what they do with it in the kitchen.

And if nothing observable interests me, another thing that I like to do is simply refer back to what day of the week it is:

Monday: What did you do this weekend?

Tuesday: What’s your week like?

Wednesday: What have you had going on this week?

Thursday: Ready for the weekend? Big plans?

Friday: What are you getting into this weekend?

Saturday: What have you been up to this weekend?

Sunday: What did you do this weekend?

Notice that all of these require an actual answer—none of them are yes/no questions. While ‘How are you’ is always a nice preface to any conversation, it has become social conditioning in our society to answer this with merely “Good” and nothing else, regardless of how the person is feeling. ‘How are you?’ is akin to ringing a conversational doorbell with someone, and then being invited ‘in’ once they reply. 99% of the time that invite will come.

There is a fine line between being creepy and just being a naturally inquisitive person (again, most of this has to do with the energy and inner confidence you are projecting). You never want to seem like you are interviewing someone, but never forget that everyone’s favorite subject is themselves.

To quote Dale Carnegie:

You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.

Other than learning to observe the world around you and to keep in mind that it’s all contextual, I am not going to get into any more specific openers in lieu of this post turning into 5,000 words. For some ideas of what I used in different scenarios to successfully complete the 90 Strangers in 30 Days project, check out the accompanying spreadsheet in this post. A quick search also yields countless helpful resources elsewhere online.

After some consistent practice, starting conversations becomes effortless the less you think and more you just live in the moment (I realize the irony of saying this in an overly-analytical post about something most probably never think about).

Many conversations (but certainly not all) are hollow–a way to past the time or serve the purpose of discovering if there is a connection between you and the other person. Get it out of your head that every conversation should feel like one with an old friend. They won’t, and the truth is more of the population than you would think is uncomfortable with starting conversations.

Essentially, other people are waiting for you to talk first. And it doesn’t matter so much what you say, but how you say it.

So you’ve successfully started a conversation. . .now what? Check back next week for Part 3: Threading.

Anatomy of a Conversation Part 1

This is part three of four in a series for the ‘socially challenged’ called The Anatomy of a Conversation. It aims to shed light on what a ‘typical’ conversation with a stranger is like. Also check out Part Two: OpeningPart Three: Threading, and Part Four: Closing.

Person A: “Who was that you were just talking to?”

Person B: “Dunno, just met them.”

Exchanges like this used to be extremely common in my life. 99.9% of the time I was person A, completely perplexed as to how a friend or family member could converse with random strangers like they were old acquaintances.

It’s already well-documented that I struggled with shyness growing up. I had no idea how to talk to people that I hadn’t been around for a significant period of time.

And while I wanted more than anything to be that person that could start conversations with anyone, anywhere, and at anytime, I had a major mental block: “What the hell do I talk about?”

Some of this stemmed from the limiting belief that I was a boring person with nothing to offer and just generally not finding the world to be an interesting place, but that is another post for another day.

Thankfully, after obsessively consuming material on the subject, becoming much more observant of the world around me, and just generally pushing myself to get better at the skill, I now often find myself as person B in conversations like the above.

While ultimately this obstacle could only be overcome by myself, I wish long ago that someone had explained to me what most conversations consisted of, what a ‘normal’ one was like, and how to start, carry, and finish them.

Although it’s not necessarily something I think about in the moment, once I started reflecting on what went well and what went poorly in my interactions, in my head I was able to break down the majority of conversations I was having into three sizable chunks:

Conversation=  Opening–> Exchange of Questions, Comments, Opinions, and Anecdotes (aka Threading)–> Closing

Attempting to simplify conversations is not necessarily a new idea by any means. It’s also fairly possible that had I been paying attention, one of my college Communication (my major) classes may have covered it.

But through the lens of someone that once felt like he was ‘on the outside’ and completely clueless as to what exactly went on in dialogues with unfamiliar people, over the next few posts I am going to break down what I consider to be the Anatomy of a Conversation.

I hope that my ‘rags to riches’ story with this skillset can offer a bit of a different (and less academic) viewpoint on the subject. It is my goal to ensure those that are struggling that there isn’t some sort of social secret or gene that they don’t possess, and that this is something that really can be learned by anyone.

Check back next week for the part two in this mini-series.

Mind your body language

My junior year of college, I learned that the majority of communication is non-verbal.

But it was none of my communication classes that taught me this. My teacher, instead, was beer.

One night, my roommate and I were returning from a run to the local convenience store, I carrying a six pack.

Seemingly out of nowhere, he  looked at me with contempt and said, “Ugh, will you hold that like a man?”

At first I was completely befuddled, if not insulted. There was a ‘manly’ way to hold something? Seriously?

Looking down, I noticed I had the beers cradled to my chest, like I was ready to strike the Heisman pose at any moment. Think about how the nerdier and more effeminate boys in high school carried their trapper keepers and books. That was me with the beer.

My roommate, an extremely confident and outgoing individual, took the cans from me for the final block of our walk, holding them with one hand down at his side, fingers locked through the plastic rings.

The idea he was communicating to me (non-verbally ironically enough) wouldn’t truly click until sometime later. However, it was my first clue that how I carried myself actually meant something and made a difference in not only how I was perceived by others, but how I perceived myself.

Fast forward to later on in college, when I was starting to realize I actually had some semblance of control over my life and that I could actually become the type of self-assured person that I had always wanted to be.

A major a-ha in my development towards this goal involved body language; specifically, sitting, standing, and walking. Sounds simple and like things that would be impossible to do ‘wrong’, but most of my life my unconscious default sitting position was to shrink, take up as little space as possible, and hunch over. Standing, my arms would often be crossed and my feet narrow enough to balance on a small platform. My walk as well was ‘small’ and lacked any kind of backbone.

I began to notice how males that put out ‘strong’ and ‘masculine’ vibes, be it classmates in lecture or actors in a movie, positioned themselves when they sat, stood, walked, or did pretty much anything. Subscribing fully to the school of ‘fake it til you make it’, I began to mimic these individuals:

When sitting, I started to take up more space with my legs, opening my body up more by letting my arms rest away from my torso, and just relaxing more overall, yet still in a strong manner.  For standing, I also widened my base, and ceased jamming my hands in my pockets or wrapping my arms across my chest. And my walk now had purpose, like I was on a mission to save the world. 

Overall, I slowed all of my movements down as well, as if I were moving through molasses. No longer was I in a rush to do everything as fast as possible, as if people were always impatiently waiting for me to be done and out of the way–a major insecurity I once had. And if people actually were, they never said anything now because I projected that I was a strong and confident person.

I started doing all of this merely because I had seen it suggested multiple places, and had little expectation for it to make any kind of difference in anything. But not long after, I realized why it was so effective.

The brain follows the body. Simply by changing the position and posture in which I was sitting, I began to feel so much more confident in class, waiting at the doctor’s office, wherever.

No longer did I merely wish to be ‘alpha’, for the first time in my life I actually felt like it.

Similar to when I first learned the power of eye contact, the world started responding to me differently when I learned all of this, and I finally began to experience what true, core, confidence meant and felt like. All because of, really, shifting my body a few inches here and there.

Summer before senior year I had an internship interview with a 6’3” PR boss whose nickname was “The Rock”. Normally, I would have been extremely intimidated talking to a person like him, but I made a conscious effort to keep my body language relaxed, open, and strong during the interview. Despite not having much interview practice and wanting the position an insane amount, I felt completely comfortable speaking to him in his office, and ended up getting the internship.

Recent research has confirmed this idea of the mind following the body, going as far to say that strong poses can change a person’s chemistry:

“Merely practicing a “power pose” for a few minutes in private—such as standing tall and leaning slightly forward with hands at one’s side, or leaning forward over a desk with hands planted firmly on its surface—led to higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in study participants. These physiological changes are linked to better performance and more confident, assertive behavior. . .”

I have used this idea as a ‘hack’ many times: sneaking off to the bathroom to strike over-exaggerated poses in the mirror when insecurity starts to rear its ugly head. Hey, if it’s stupid and it works, it isn’t stupid.

Movies are fantastic learning tools in regards to body language. James Bond is a master of commanding the space around him and emitting a domineering energy from the way he positions and maneuvers his body. Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love is another prime example of countless possible ones.

Once self-awareness is gained towards your own body language, not only do movies become that much more interesting, so too does the entire world. You can begin to make extremely educated and accurate reads about someone’s mood, motives, and thoughts without ever talking to them, simply by observing the physical signals they are sending.

Extremely fast rapport and connections can be established by learning to recognize these signals. And people-watching in bars and other public settings quickly becomes absolutely enthralling.

The irony of it all is that, in many instances, the key to maintaining a strong and confident mind starts with a strategically positioned and slow-moving body.

So, start paying some mind to it, and it will pay you plenty in return.

What’s a situation where body language has helped you remain confident and calm?

Agree and amplify

We’ve all been insulted.

Whether it was good-natured or had intent to harm, dealing with verbal disrespect incorrectly can make us look insecure, high-strung, and ungrounded.

The best way I’ve come across to deal with these situations, be it a malicious slam or gentle ribbing from a friend, is to agree and amplify:

First, agree with whatever false claim the other person is putting on you.

The majority of people in this situation are going to go with their first instinct and begin defending themselves. This sub-communicates a fragile ego and that high value is placed in the other person’s opinion.

Just accepting what the other person is saying- because it ultimately means nothing- throws the insulter off hard and disarms them. If their words were meant to create discomfort, agreeing gives a completely unexpected result and neutralizes any social status they might have perceived to have over you.

Second, amplify. Take whatever their claim was, and then exaggerate it to absurd levels. This throws it back in their face and makes the whole conversation seem ridiculous. It’s also a lot of fun.

Some examples:

Them: Do you always sit around and watch TV all day like this?

Me: Nah, usually I go a week at a time. Can you go grab my bedpan?

Them: You’re strange.

Me: The strangest. I actually won Strangest in Show at the county fair once.

Them: You have big ears.

Me: I know, I am a great listener.

Not the best examples, but do you see what I am getting at? With a little snark or playful sarcasm thrown in, the effect is paralyzing.

The offender’s conditioning has them expecting the comment to be ignored before ever being agreed upon. While maybe not bad advice for grade-schoolers, I think we all can agree that silence in response to an insult can often come off as weakness.

That last one is also a marketing tactic that many companies employ- featuring their own flaw. Consider Listerine’s biting, stinging sensation that most despise. Their advertising firm knew there was no sense in ignoring this, so the brand’s slogan for a while was “The taste you love to hate (twice a day).”

Again, this strategy is also applicable if it was just harmless teasing from a friend, and can add even more humor to a lighthearted situation.

When you accept your own flaws, they can’t ever be used against you, and it’s an extremely liberating feeling knowing that you have nothing to hide.

What’s your favorite way to diffuse an insult?