A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

9 Magic Phrases That Can Save Awkward Conversations

A compliment, a question, and a game can get anyone to like you. Memorize them.

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Pay a compliment

Why is it so easy to forget someone’s name within seconds of meeting them? Because, you weren’t really listening—you were too busy thinking about what to say next. One easy way to skirt that natural selfishness and propel awkward conversations forward is to open with flattery. When you meet someone for the first time, “Pay that person a compliment when repeating their name, thus helping to anchor and embed it even deeper into your memory,” says professional mentalist Oz Pearlman, who sometimes has to remember the names of hundreds of people he just met for his act. If you compliment Alyssa on her necklace, you instantly prime your brain to recall her name the next time you see that necklace, Pearlman says. “As a bonus, everyone enjoys flattery, so that compliment can go a long way toward you being remembered as well.” Check out these other 15 ways to avoid a severely awkward situation.

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Ask lots of questions—good questions

Research shows that in conversations with unfamiliar people, we tend to rate the experience based on our own performance, not theirs. What’s more: the experience of talking about ourselves can be more pleasurable than food or money. So, how do you give your conversation partner the pleasure of a good conversation? Ask them questions—a lot of questions, and ones that call for more than vague one-word answers (a good rule is, if your question can be answered with “fine,” don’t ask it). Avoid work if you can; instead, ask about play—”What keeps you busy outside of work?” is a good place to start. According to Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, one question pretty much guaranteed to put someone in a positive mindset and open doors to their personality: “What has the highlight of your year been so far?” This allows the person to show you her best self and, if her highlight includes a topic you’re interested in too, may lay the groundwork for a true friendship. Use these other tricks to stop awkward silence on a first date.

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Make a game out of small talk

If you keep feeding a person questions and they keep giving you nothing back, go for the jugular and make it a game. According to Jeanne Martinet, author of  The Art of Mingling, small talk should be playful like a game of tennis, not serious like a job interview. Her go-to game? “I’ll say something like, ‘Tell me three things about your company, and I’ll guess what company it is.’ Or, ‘What’s that you’re drinking? Wait—let me guess.’ Get them into the spirit.” Start awkward conversations on the right note with these conversation starters that instantly make you more interesting.

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Try to make their day better

If your conversation partner still isn’t biting, make things even easier for them by asking games researcher Jane McGonigal’s favorite question: “On a scale of one to ten, how was your day?” Anyone can think of a number between one and ten, McGonigal says, and they’re likely to elaborate on their answer as they go. But it gets even better. After they respond, ask them this: “Is there anything I can do to move you from a six to a seven (or a three to a four, etc.)?” You’d be surprised how happy this little gesture will make someone. Try these other things good listeners do in daily conversations.

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Play the sympathy card

Ready for a cheater’s way to advance awkward conversations? Memorize three magic words: “that sounds hard.” “Nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult,” entrepreneur Paul Ford wrote in his viral essay, “How to Be Polite.” “I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson.”

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Seek their opinion

This tip has been tested by perhaps our most tactful founding father, Benjamin Franklin. In his memoir, Franklin describes an “old maxim” that helped him along in his political career: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” In other words, if you ask someone for advice or a favor and they oblige you, they will be psychologically primed to like you and help you again (today this phenomenon is known as The Ben Franklin effect). So, if you truly want to endear yourself to a stranger and show them you value their mind, ask for their advice on something. If they give it to you, they get to feel important and valued—and you might just learn something in the process. Steal these other 16 secrets of naturally charming people.

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Pass the topic to someone else

Not everyone is going to be fascinated by that documentary you’re obsessed with. If the conversation has been “flowing” for 20 minutes because you can’t stop talking, it’s not really flowing at all. “When [people] dominate the conversation, they are talking at someone, not with someone,” small talk expert Bernardo Carducci, PhD, tells HuffPost. Avoid falling into that trap by making a point of letting other people contribute to the conversation, he recommends. If they change the topic when given the chance, let it go.

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Repetition is key

Yes, it’s possible to switch topics without letting the other person know how bored you are. Start by repeating the last thing the person said to sum up their point, suggests Anna Sale, creator of the podcast Death, Sex & Money. “That’s very effective because you’re saying, ‘I’ve been listening to you. I hear what you’ve been trying to tell me. Now let’s move on to something else,’” she tells Real Simple. When you do shift away, the other person will still feel like they got their point across.

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Exit gracefully

When your conversation reaches a natural conclusion, pull the trigger by saying “I won’t keep you” or “Give my regards to [mutual acquaintance]” before making your escape. Adam Dachis, a coauthor of The Awkward Human Survival Guide, adds that context can provide you the perfect exit strategy. “If you’re at a party, excuse yourself to get a drink; if you’re at work, you can leave to get some coffee. You can also say, ‘It’s nice talking to you, but I have to talk to someone before they leave.’” Learn 11 more small talk tips that will make you less awkward.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest