A conversation has specific phases that it goes through. These include starting the conversation, elaborating on a topic, inviting a longer conversation, changing the topic, and closing the conversation.
When talking to someone one-on-one, you’ll find it helpful to look at each phase and figure out your approach for the phase. Here’s a specific structure you can follow:
Phase 1: Starting the Conversation
The best way to start up a conversation with someone you don’t know is to ask a question that's not too personal. Here are some examples of polite questions you can ask to get things going:
“Excuse me, do you have the time?” or “Do you know what time it is?”
“Hi. Is this seat taken?” if the answer is “no”, then you can follow up with “Do you mind if I sit here?”
“Pardon me. Do you know what time this place closes?” (assuming you are in a place of business, where “place” can be replaced with “restaurant” or “cafe” or “store”).
Even better, start a conversation by noticing something about the other person and commenting on it in a nice way. Here are some examples:
Note: whatever you see in [brackets] can be substituted for something specific to your conversation.
“That is a really nice [hat]. Can I ask where you got it?”
“I really like your [shoes]. Did you get them near here?”
“That’s a cool looking [phone]. Is it easy to use?”
Phase 2: Elaborating on a Topic
Now that you’ve started talking, you will need to elaborate on the established topic and continue talking.
If they answered your question, you can ask one or two follow up questions to get more details, such as:
“Is that store near here?”
“Was it good value?” (Try to avoid asking for specific monetary amounts of items like “How much did it cost?” as that can be considered rude)
“Do they have other colours available?”
Next, provide some context to why you asked them the question in the first place. Here are some examples:
“The reason I asked is because I’ve been thinking about replacing my phone.”
“I’ve been looking for a hat like that to give to my friend.”
“Yeah, the shoes I have are getting worn out. It’s time to get a new pair.”
And, as always, if someone is being helpful, don’t forget to thank them!
“Thanks for the suggestion.”
“I appreciate the information.”
“Thank you. That was really helpful.”
Phase 3: Extending the Conversation with More Questions
You can usually tell when a person is losing interest in a conversation. If you reach that point, then excuse yourself and be on your way.
However, if you feel like the person may be receptive to a longer conversation, then why not talk a bit more and get to know them better? Here are some more general questions you can ask to keep the conversation going.
“Are you from this area?”
“So, what do you do for a living?”
“What brings you here today?”
“Do you come here a lot?”
Each of these questions can be used to extend the conversation and learn more about the other person. The idea here is to find common points of interest. When they mention something that relates to you and your life, this gives you an opportunity to explore that topic more fully.
Phase 4: Exploring a Topic Further
When your conversation arrives at a topic that you’re comfortable speaking about in English, then this is your chance to discuss it in more depth.
As an example, let’s say that you discovered your conversation partner has a cat. You have a cat too. Time to show some photos of your cat on your smartphone!
Or, if the person mentions they are a vegetarian and you happen to be vegetarian, now you have something in common. Why not ask about their favourite vegetarian recipes?
Here are some sentences and phrases that may come in handy to dive in deeper with a topic:
“Really? I’m a [vegetarian] too! What made you decide to [stop eating meat]?”
“I love [cats]! In fact I [have two]. What type of [cats] do you have?”
“[Football] is my favourite sport! What team do you support?”
“You’re kidding! I [drive a motorcycle] as well. What type of [bike] do you have?”
The idea here is to let them know you share a common interest, then ask them to share more details.
Remember to talk about the other person more than yourself. For example, instead of going off on a long tangent about your favorite recipes, ask them for theirs. It shows that you are truly interested in getting to know them and they will be more open to continuing the conversation.
Phase 5: Asking for Opinions
Everyone has an opinion on something, and many people like to share them with others. Here are some questions you can ask to get the other person’s view on a situation or topic:
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“Has that been your experience too?”
“Has that ever happened to you?”
“Why do you think that is (the case)?”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
Once people start sharing their opinions, you open up the door for a whole new area of conversation. Just be careful not to probe too far into sensitive topics such as politics or religion.
Phase 6: Changing the Topic
Sometimes a conversation can start to fade and you find things are winding down. If you sense your conversation partner is losing interest in talking about your impressive collection of snowglobes, it’s probably time to change the topic!
Here are some ways you can switch to other topics:
Or, if you want to make a more abrupt change, you can just say it directly with:
“Okay, I’m totally changing the topic now, but I was wondering …”
“Not to go off topic, but I recently heard that …”
Phase 7: Closing the Conversation
Part of being a good conversationalist is knowing when to stop talking. When the conversation ends, find a way for them to get in touch with you in the future. If you feel like they might want to chat again, you can give them an opportunity with some of these phrases:
“Well, if you ever want to chat again, I’m usually here [every Monday afternoon].”
“Let me give you my email address. If you’re ever in the area again it’d be great to meet up.”
“Feel free to call me if you want to hang out. Here, I’ll give you my number.”
And remember to make them feel appreciated too!
“I really enjoyed our chat. Thanks so much.”
“It was really nice meeting you.”
“I had a great time talking with you. Hope to see you again soon.”
I hope these tips helped. If you want to practice these phases, sign up for a trial lesson so that we can come up with a unique plan for you to be able to feel comfortable having conversations. I look forward to meeting you!