How to Talk to Pretty Much Anyone: 18 Genius Tips from Expert Communicators
These tips from the pros will teach you how to talk to anyone you encounter, from your family to your co-workers to the barista who makes your morning cup of Joe
What do a snake charmer, an FBI negotiator and a parent of a toddler have in common? They all better be excellent communicators or risk inciting a dangerous incident. (And yes, missing naptime qualifies!) Conversations are incredibly important in everyday life. Learning how to talk to anyone—from small talk with your barista to networking at work and having meaningful conversations with friends, spouses and kids—is a vital life skill.
Here’s the thing: Talking comes naturally to most people. But really communicating? That’s different. Thankfully, it’s a skill you can learn and improve.
Want to know how to be smart and sound like it? It’s not a matter of picking the right conversation starters. The difference between talking and communicating is what you get out of the conversation at the end. As Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Charles Duhigg says in his forthcoming book, Supercommunicators, “the goal, for the most meaningful discussions, should be to have a ‘learning conversation.’ Specifically, we want to learn how the people around us see the world and help them understand our perspectives in return.”
Keep reading for tips from Duhigg and communication expert Sarita Maybin that’ll help you carry a conversation with anyone, anytime, anywhere.
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The three types of conversations you’re having
All conversations can be grouped into one of three basic categories, according to Duhigg.
- Practical, decision-making conversations focus on questions like “What’s this really about?”
- Emotional conversations tend to ask, “How do we feel?”
- Social conversations explore questions like “Who are we?”
Duhigg’s No. 1 tip for becoming a better communicator? Learn to recognize which type of conversation is happening and match your responses to it. While you may move in and out of all three types of conversations in a single interaction, the important part is to make sure you’re having the same kind of conversation as your partner at the same time. Let’s say you’re trying to have a practical conversation, but your spouse wants an emotional one. Well, you’re not going to be able to connect or communicate well, he explains.
So how do you navigate any type of conversation with any type of person? Knowing how to read people is a good place to start. From there, you can follow the advice of expert communicators to learn not only how to initiate a conversation but also how to keep a conversation going.
It pays to know how to talk to people
If you want to have any type of relationship with people, then learning good communication skills is a must.
“There is no replacement for ongoing, in-person communication to create real relationships,” says Maybin, who’s the author of If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You Say? She explains that a conversation is a tool to build intimacy, trust and a feeling of safety, deepening bonds and creating a positive cycle of more effective communication.
And the benefits go beyond fostering effective communication in the future. By cultivating relationships, good conversations give us the tools we need when times are tough. “Having real, strong relationships helps us feel better about ourselves and helps us get through difficult times,” she says.
Plus, being a good communicator makes you more likable, makes you appear smarter, and helps you increase successes in your career, find romantic partners and build a network of resources and support, according to Duhigg.
How to talk to anyone
Knowing how to have a conversation is about more than avoiding rude conversation habits (though that’s the bare minimum). But to make deeper connections, take it to the next level with these tips from our experts. They will help you talk to literally anyone, not only those you know but also random people you encounter, like your Uber driver, a waiter, your sister’s new boyfriend, a dinner party guest you’ve never met before, a customer service rep—you name it.
Prepare for the conversation
Some conversations happen on the fly, but you can anticipate many others—and it’s worth putting in a little bit of prep work. People who took a few moments to prepare themselves for the conversation say they experienced fewer awkward pauses, less anxiety and felt more engaged afterward, Duhigg reports. So in the moments before a conversation starts, he advises asking yourself:
- What are two topics you might discuss? (Being general is OK, so go ahead and chitchat about last night’s ball game, TV shows you like or a new hobby you’ve picked up.)
- What is one thing you hope to say?
- What is one question you will ask?
“The benefit of this exercise is that, even if you never talk about these topics, you have them in your back pocket if you hit a lull,” he writes in Supercommunicators. “And simply by anticipating what you’ll discuss, you’re likely to feel more confident.”
Listen to understand
Want to know how to talk to anyone without being totally awkward? Repeat after us: Don’t just wait your turn to talk. This is communication 101, yet sometimes we all need a reminder to listen.
Of course, this doesn’t mean simply waiting for the pause that signals it’s your turn. The key to better conversations is actively listening, paying attention to both the content of what the person is saying and how they are saying it, Maybin says. Learn how to focus and then give the other person your full attention.
Make eye contact
“Nothing makes a person feel more special and heard than receiving undivided attention,” Maybin says. “I know that sounds obvious, but in our high-tech times, so many people are looking at their devices during a conversation, and you lose that personal connection that makes conversations so valuable.”
Need further incentive to keep your phone in your pocket when someone’s talking to you? Being aware of a person’s body language can also help you tell if someone is lying.
Smile and nod your head
A warm smile says “I am so happy to see you!” And what feels better than that?
Face it: Some people just have a resting angry face, and that isn’t a character flaw. But if that’s you, it’s even more important to remember to smile, nod your head and keep open body language. “A smile shows that you’re open, friendly and approachable,” Maybin says. “This is especially important when meeting someone new, but it can reinforce a positive connection with those you do know.”
Watch their body language
Duhigg advises paying attention to whether the other person is leaning in toward you and showing interest or looking away and being passive—and adjusting what you’re saying based on that information. Listen to your gut instinct: If someone appears distracted or disinterested, then you either need to end the conversation, change topics or ask them more questions.
Use their name
This is a simple trick, but both our communication experts swear by it. It’s a human need to feel seen, heard and remembered, and using a person’s name (and remembering it the next time you see them!) is a powerful tool to do just that. Feel like you’re not a natural at remembering names? Good news: It’s a skill, and you can learn how to remember things better with a little practice.
Give and take equally
You’ve likely been in a conversation with someone who did all the talking, making it all about themselves. And you’ve probably been in the opposite type of conversation, where the other person asks questions about you without offering anything of their own. Both types of conversations are extremely uncomfortable. This is why you should share something about you and then ask the other person about them.
Creating this natural give-and-take will further the conversation and make it more successful, according to Duhigg. He adds that this is particularly true when talking about feelings. You don’t have to share anything you’re not comfortable with, but if someone says they are really struggling with their kids right now, sharing a struggle or two with your own children can go a long way toward deepening the conversation and your bond with the other person, he explains.
Offer a sincere compliment
“People love being acknowledged and noticed in a positive way,” Maybin says, adding that giving a compliment is also an excellent conversation starter. Just steer clear of compliments about someone’s body—instead, stick to complimenting something they choose or control. For instance, instead of complimenting how thin they are, say that you love their shoes. Even better, compliment something they did or said.
Find ways to agree
Yes, it’s possible to have civil conversations with people you disagree with. Even in contentious conversations, you can generally come up with at least a few things you agree with. These moments build connection and understanding, and they will make the other person more likely to continue the discussion.
“Look for places where you can say ‘I agree with you’ or ‘I think you’re right that …'” Duhigg writes in his book. “These remind everyone that, though we may have differences, we want to be aligned.”
Reflect their words back to them
Maybin says it’s important to acknowledge the other person’s comment before sharing your thoughts. And you can do this with a response that acknowledges what they’ve just said. For example, if someone is sharing vacation stories, respond by saying, “Sounds like you had a lot of fun on your road trip.” Then you can move on and add a story about your own recent trip.
This is especially crucial when having emotional conversations. (Here’s where having high emotional intelligence is clutch.) Saying “I hear you explaining that you are feeling really upset and frustrated right now with your job” goes a long way toward getting the person to open up more, allowing the conversation to go deeper.
Validate and empathize
The next step after reflecting their words back to them is to validate and empathize with their concerns, Maybin says. For instance, if a co-worker is nervous about an upcoming presentation, instead of saying, “Oh, you’ll do fine,” empathize by saying, “I know it can be a bit intimidating to present to your work colleagues.” Doing this will help people feel truly heard and safer sharing their concerns with you.
Check in during the conversation
In longer conversations, it’s a good idea to occasionally check in with the other person and ask questions to make sure you’re understanding what they’re saying, Duhigg says. “It’s called looping for understanding,” he says.
Here’s how it works: Ask questions to make sure you understand what someone has said. Repeat back, in your own words, what you heard. Ask if you got it right. Continue until everyone agrees they understand. This tip nips miscommunication in the bud, clearing up misunderstandings before they cause serious problems.
Use criticism wisely
Criticism or feedback can be tricky in conversations—nothing ends a conversation faster than pointing out everything the other person did wrong—but there are conversations in which it is necessary. Focus on giving feedback in a “compliment sandwich” by offering a positive comment, then the negative feedback, followed by a positive statement.
If you’re on the receiving end, resist the instinct to get defensive or make excuses, Maybin says. “I find it helps to validate their concern and then ask something like, ‘How can I make it right?’ or ‘Tell me more about what happened.'”
Expect mistakes—and let them go
No conversation is going to be perfect, and giving yourself and the other person some grace will go a long way in improving communication. “Acknowledge, and keep acknowledging, that discomfort is natural—and useful,” Duhigg writes. “We will misspeak. We will ask naive questions. We will say things we didn’t realize were offensive. When these discomforts emerge, rather than shutting down, we should use them as opportunities to learn.”
And don’t be too hard on yourself. Chances are, your conversation partner liked you a whole lot more than you think. And that’s a scientific fact. A study published in Psychological Science found that people regularly underestimate how much others liked them and enjoyed their company during a conversation, what the study’s authors call the “liking gap.”
How to keep a conversation going
Liudmila Chernetska/getty images
You’ve done the hardest part and gotten the conversation started. But you don’t want to end the conversation just yet! So how do you keep it going and take it to a deeper, more connected level?
Respect the silence
“Personally, I struggle with this one,” Maybin confesses. “When there’s a long pause, I want to race to fill the void.” Instead, she says her favorite way to segue out of an awkward silence is to say “I was just pondering ______. What are your thoughts on that?”
Invite the person to share their opinion
One way to take a conversation to the next level is by asking an open-ended question starting with who, what, when, where or how, Maybin says. Most people have plenty of opinions and enjoy sharing them when given the opportunity. So instead of saying “Did you enjoy that conference?” ask “How do you feel about that new policy, and how will it affect your team?”
In a social setting, instead of saying “Did you have a fun trip?” deepen the conversation by asking, “Where do you hope to travel on your next vacation? What is your dream vacation?”
Find out their favorites
It can be tempting to say “Tell me about yourself” when you’re trying to get to know someone on a deeper level, but these types of general questions aren’t often productive. Instead, Maybin recommends keeping the conversation moving in a positive direction by asking about their favorite things: What’s their favorite Mexican restaurant? Their favorite book? How about their favorite thing to do as soon as they get home from work?
Not only will asking these sorts of questions help you learn something new about a person, but it’ll also help you develop an acquaintance into a friend or potential romantic partner.
Ask a deep question
A deep question gets into someone’s values, beliefs, judgments or experiences rather than just facts. These questions can take a conversation from small talk to deep talk.
“Deep questions are particularly good at creating intimacy because they ask people to describe their beliefs, values, feelings and experiences in ways that can reveal something vulnerable,” Duhigg says in Supercommunicators. “And vulnerability sparks emotional contagion, which makes us more aligned.”
So if you not only want to know how to talk to anyone you meet but also how to create deep relationships, practice some deep questions before launching into chitchat. Asking “What is your biggest regret?” or “What do you think is your purpose in life?” or “What’s made you so happy today” won’t just keep a conversation going but will strengthen your relationship as well.
About the expert
- Sarita Maybin is a communication expert, a TEDx speaker and the author of If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You Say? and Say What You Mean in a Nice Way. A former college dean, she now works as an international speaker, teaching people how to transform uncomfortable conversations into constructive communication.
- Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection: A book about conversations by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Charles Duhigg, out Feb. 20, 2024
- Psychological Science: “The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People Like Us More Than We Think?”