The Psychology of How to Talk More Confidently to Anyone 

how to speak to anyone
Photo by Keira Burton:

How to Use Neuroscience to Talk Confidently to (Almost) Anyone 

How do you feel about talking to people you don’t know?

Imagine you are at a party and don’t know anyone, or you are arriving at a new workplace. Maybe what comes to mind is speaking to an attractive stranger at the bar.

What thoughts are going through your head?

Are you getting flashbacks to your first day at school? Is your heart beginning to race?

These negative thoughts and feelings are not universal, but they are common. For some people these sorts of situations are not a bother, they just go up and start chatting. But for those of you (like me) who don’t find this natural, I can share some helpful psychology to help you start a conversation with someone new. As an introvert, it has taken time, practice, and the application of neuroscience to become comfortable with initiating conversations with strangers. But it is possible, and you can even learn to enjoy it.

How to approach someone you don’t know

If you want to talk to someone new, the first thing you must do is to approach them. That is (literally) the first step. The approach is all about the 3 Bs: BeliefBreathing and Body Language.

Believe that you can do it

Confidence, according to neuroscientist Professor Ian Robertson, is about the twin beliefs of can do and can happen. In other words, you must believe that you can do something (you have the innate ability) and that it can happen (that the action can take place in the external world). 

When you are threatened by negative speech in your mind, focus on facts. Have you ever spoken to someone you don’t know before? Think of a good example, hold it in mind, this proves you can do. Now think of a good conversation you have had with another person; it could be anyone (not just a stranger). Have you got something in mind? That shows that a good conversation can happen. Even just bringing these examples to mind will help prime your brain for the next time you speak to someone so take time to remember good examples and then visualise how a good meeting might go.  

Take a deep breath

If you find speaking to people daunting, then it is likely that you will feel nervous. This fear triggers the fight or flight response, resulting in an adrenaline release, increased heart rate and sweat. The best way to combat this natural phenomenon is with another one; taking slow deep breaths. You might want to use a breathing technique such as 5:5 breathing (breath in for a count of 5, out of a count of 5) to help you. But, if you are taking some breaths, don’t stand there staring at the person you want to talk to, that could get weird! 

Maintain good body language

Posture is important. If you hold yourself in a confident manner, then you will start to feel more confident. That is because (as psychologist Amy Cuddy expounds) your physiology can override your psychology. So, stand tall, shoulders back, smile and keep your posture open (not crossing arms and legs). Get ready to walk confidently towards the other person. Walk at a relaxed, normal pace, getting ready to look the person in the eyes and smile. Ignore any butterflies in the tummy and keep breathing slowly and deeply. 

Got the 3 Bs sorted? Then you are on the way! Next, we can start the conversation. 

How to enter a conversation

To start talking to someone remember PIP: proximityinquisitiveness, and positivity.

Proxemics: getting the right social proximity

If you want to initiate a conversation, you must get within a socially acceptable distance from the person. This is where the science of proxemics can help us. In Western culture, 18 – 48 inches (45-120 cm) is considered personal space, the sort of zone you are aiming for to have a conversation. Closer to 18 inches and you are in their intimate space, and this can quickly become uncomfortable, so bear this in mind even if you are in a loud bar or crowded room. 

Be inquisitive; ask good questions

Once you have introduced yourself (keep it simple, a salutation and your name are a good start) ask a question. Make it a genuine one, not a cliché such as “Do you come here often?” Think of something you actually want to know. For example, if you are at a gig you can ask them their opinion of the last song, if you are at a party you could ask something about the food or drink. It is worth having an initial question in mind and I will often think of one before I walk over to chat to someone.

Once you have asked a question, stay inquisitive. Concentrate on listening to what the other person has to say. Then ask further questions following their answers. These can be interspersed with your comments and their return questions (you don’t want it to feel like an interrogation), but the important thing is to give your attention to the other person and what they are saying. Don’t try to be smart, just be genuinely interested. This is an under-emphasised part of rapport building. Often cited techniques such as empathy, finding common ground, and mirroring speech and mannerisms are all dependent upon properly listening to someone. So, pay attention!

Be positive

You are now in conversation, well done! The best way to keep things going and to end well is to remain positive, even if the other person is not. The first part of being positive is remaining in that good posture. Keep smiling, retain eye contact and stay tall. 

Don’t fall into the trap of negativity. It is tempting to bond with people by criticising something, in the hope of building common ground, but it is better to focus on the positives. Negative comments and feelings are proven to create strong bonds and you don’t want to associate yourself with these hooks, be that consciously or unconsciously. If someone says something negative, you don’t just have to agree or disagree. Remember, be inquisitive. If you deem a comment to be negative or untrue you might say, “That is interesting, why do you say that?” 

Giving compliments is another way to keep things positive, but as with questions, make sure they are genuine. Be cautious when complimenting someone’s looks or even their outfit. If you are paying attention to what the other person is saying it is easy (and natural) to make complimentary remarks. As conversation flows the other person is likely to share a skill, trait, or experience that you don’t have. These are easy things to compliment in a genuine way. For example, whenever I meet someone who can speak multiple languages or has mastered a musical instrument, I am genuinely in awe, and it is easy to compliment such things. 

How to finish the conversation

Conversations must come to an end. So, similarly to having a question to start a conversation, also have an exit strategy.

Finish well

Try and finish well. Our brains are most likely to remember the beginning and end of something due to what is known as the serial effect and primacy and recency biases. Therefore, try to end on a high. And that is not about ending with a clever remark, it is about how you feel. Emotions shape our memory more strongly than data and people are more likely to remember you if the feelings related to that memory are positive. 

Ending a good discussion

So, keep doing what you have been doing. Be positive, smile, and stay interested in the other person. Just don’t outstay your welcome. If the other person starts to give shorter answers, glances at their watch or away to other parts of the room (such as the exit) then these are all cues that it is time to wrap up. Ideally, you want to finish a conversation before these behaviours manifest, but that can’t always be helped. So, when you do pick up on the signals then get ready to finish. Once again, be nice. You can say – genuinely – how much you enjoyed meeting them and the conversation. 

Getting contact details

If you want to keep in contact with that person, now is the time to ask. It is a judgement call as to how to go about this. A phone number is quite a big deal so think before you ask. An email often feels less intimate, and some social media platforms (such as LinkedIn) are relatively low-pressure ways to stay connected. Hopefully, your conversation will give you some context and clues as to the best way to connect. 

And if they say no, don’t worry and don’t take it personally. Just say “No problem, lovely to meet” or something similar. If someone you have just met does not want to share their details, then don’t feel rejected. If you enjoyed the conversation, then that should be a reward in itself. You should also feel more confident as you have proved that speaking to strangers is something you can do and good discourse can happen

Ending a bad conversation

It does not matter how attractive, rich, famous, intelligent, or successful someone is, if they are rude, negative, or dismissive of you, they are not worth spending time with. If someone is behaving negatively, just end the conversation politely and walk away. Don’t take it personally. Being rude or a bore is the other person’s problem, not yours. Don’t carry their negativity; take confidence from the fact that you were brave enough to try, compliment yourself on remaining civil and then take thanks that you don’t have to spend your time with someone who is an emotional drain. 

The things to remember when speaking to someone you don’t know

Hopefully, you can now see that with the help of a little science, we can all be more confident in speaking to strangers and having good conversations with people we have just met. I can speak from experience, as an introvert, that knowing a little bit of psychology can go a long way and I have gone from being a nervous introvert to enjoying meeting new people. 

Just remember, before you approach someone, have belief in yourself, take a breath and maintain a good body posture

Get to the right proximity to the other person, be inquisitive and remain positive.

Finally, finish well. Be alert to any signs that the conversation needs to end. Don’t outstay your welcome. Be sensitive if you want contact details and don’t take rejection personally. Finally, permit yourself to exit a negative dialogue.

After all, the end of one conversation is just the opportunity to start another. So, what are you waiting for?

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