How to… Start a Conversation

By Heather Campbell

starting lineBy Heather Campbell >>

This is the second in my series of blogs about how to simplify the whole messy area of having conversations at work. In this one we’ll look at how to start a conversation in a way that is focussed, coherent and engaging.

Starting a conversation causes a surprising amount of angst. Small talk or no small talk? If small talk, how much? How do I get to the point without causing offence, and in a way that ensures everyone involved is clear about what the conversation is about?

And it’s surprising how frequently people mess up the start of a conversation. Common errors include talking for too long, waffling around the subject and/or launching into a topic without making it clear to others why you are talking to them about it at all.

I find it surprising because the start of a conversation is so predictable. You know that only one of two people can start it – either you or the other person involved. And you know if you’re going to start it, so the only unknown is whether the other person will begin.

In this blog, I’ll share with you some fail-safe tips for starting conversations yourself – in a way that engages the other person, right from the start, and also ensures that you both understand the point of the conversation.

1. The small-talk problem

Three pointers here. First of all, whether or not you should engage in small talk at all depends on the seriousness of the topic. If it’s serious, get right to the point. There is no way to segue from small talk to a serious topic in a way that isn’t clumsy.

On the other hand, if it’s a lighter topic, small talk is fine – as long as the other person seems to want to engage in it. Follow their lead; notice if they seem to want to get to the point and get on with it. However, if the other party seems comfortable having a bit of a chat, fine – it’s a great ice-breaker and relationship-builder.

2. Get to the point

Whether or not there’s small talk up-front, at some point – hopefully sooner rather than later – you’re going to have to get to the point of the conversation. In one sentence, explain what the subject of the conversation is. The easiest way to do this is to start with the phrase, “Today I want to speak to you about…”.  And let me re-emphasise: outline your topic in one sentence – that’s enough. Now you’ve made it clear to the other person what you want to talk about, you’re ready to move on to the next stage.

3. Explain why you are speaking to them about this topic

Far too often, because the speaker knows why the conversation is taking place, they forget to make sure the other person does too. Instead, they state what they want to talk about and then keep going as if the other person understands the why.

Assume they don’t – because, if you assume they do, they’ll be so busy wondering what the point of the conversation is you won’t have their full attention right from the start. Explain why in two short sentences at the most – one short sentence is better still, as it will stop you rambling on so much that the other person loses track of your point or disengages altogether.

4. Ask a question

And finally, ask a question to get the other person engaged and find out where they stand in relation to the conversation you wish to have. It is common for the individual who starts the conversation to simply assume that the other person wants to engage with them and so they keep on talking. This is pointless. Not only does it irritate the other person, it also means that you don’t know their view on the matter in hand.

Your question should be as general as possible. For example, “What are your initial thoughts about this?”, “What’s your initial response to this?” and “How does this sound to you?” are all good questions, as they leave scope for the other person to share what’s really going on for them.

“Don’t you agree?”, “What do you think we should do about this?” and “Do you think this is a problem?” are not good opening questions because they push the other person down a particular path that they may not want to follow. And that brings problems right from the start.

Here are some good examples of how to start a conversation (assuming the small talk phase has passed or isn’t applicable, and you are ready to get to the point):

    • “What I’d like to talk to you about today is how we approach the next phase of the project. I’d like your opinion on how we will manage the budgets more closely to avoid the overrun we had in Phase Two. What are your initial thoughts about this?”
    • “What I’d like to talk to you about today is the way you handled the meeting yesterday. I was keen to catch up with you about this because I was particularly pleased with the way you managed Mike’s response to the resourcing discussion. What are your views about what happened?”
    • “What I’d like to talk to you about today is the plan for the Christmas party, because we will need to start getting arrangements in place within the next two weeks. What are your initial thoughts about this?”

And some not so good, although common, examples…

    • “How do you think we can manage the budgets more closely in the next phase of the project?”  – leaves the person second-guessing what the purpose of this conversation really is
    • “Mike got a bit wound up in the meeting yesterday didn’t he? Did you see the way he reacted when you asked Sam what he thought about Mike’s suggestion?” – this would be fine as a conversation-starter between two friends having a casual gossip, but not as a way to introduce a serious exploration of the topic
    • “I’d like to talk to you about the plans for the Christmas party. What are your thoughts about this?”  – leaves the other person wondering why you are talking to them about this topic now

Good luck with starting your next conversation!

 Image courtesy of iosphere /

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}