Congratulations, you got the date.
You’ve asked the girl out. You’ve found a place for dinner. You’ve chosen your best outfit. You’ve stared into the mirror and picked and preened and put every loose hair in the proper place.
Now comes the hard part: Keeping the conversation flowing with someone you hardly know.
According to Dr. Bernardo Carducci, an Indiana University Southeast psychology professor and director of the Shyness Research Institute, maintaining a successful conversation boils down to one simple golden rule.
“The idea when engaging in conversation is to make it easier on the other person,” Carducci said. “It’s not about showing how brilliant or sophisticated or funny you are. It’s about making the other person feel comfortable in the conversation.”
The path to success starts by doing your homework.
Notice how celebrities always come across as witty, charming and relaxed on talk shows? That’s because they’ve spent time practicing anecdotes and answers to carefully screened questions.
Similarly, researching and practicing conversation topics in advance eliminates those dreadful lulls in the conversation.
Learn something about where the date is taking place. Perhaps the restaurant used to be a firehouse. Perhaps the previous owners put the building up for sale because they thought it was haunted. Knowing a tidbit of history about the place you’re meeting gives you a way to break the ice.
Read about what’s going on around town. Read about current events. It’s movie award season, so you might brush up on films receiving Oscar buzz. March Madness is on the horizon, so you might mention how badly your bracket bombed last year.
As for the conventional wisdom to avoid talking religion or politics on a first date, Carducci suggests those topics can be navigated as long as the chat doesn’t turn into a debate or an argument.
“Get conversation, not converts,” he said.
The big day is here. You’ve arrived at the restaurant and have an arsenal of current event topics at your disposal. Now it’s time to put your preparation in action.
“Successful conversation is the starting point of all relationships,” Carducci said. “Conversation follows a very specific format.”
Carducci breaks the art of conversation down to a five-step guide.
Step One: Getting Started
“I’ve heard great things about their Pad Thai.”
Start simple. Make an observation about your shared environment. Commenting on a shared experience sets the pace for an easy conversation.
“The mistake people make is that they think their opening line has to be brilliant, that they have to sweep the other person off their feet,” Carducci said. “The problem is, if you start out at that expectation, you have to maintain that expectation.”
Step Two: Personal Introduction
“I’m glad you chose this restaurant. I’ve been looking for a good Thai place.”
Toss out some tidbits of information about yourself. If you mention you’ve been on the hunt for local Thai cuisine since you moved to town, you’re telling your date that that you’re interested in ethnic food and you’re new to the area. Now that your date has an idea of who you are, he can begin searching his memories for ways to relate to you.
“When I meet someone for the first time, I tell them I study shyness,” Carducci said. “When you tell people that, they want to talk about it because either they’re shy or they know someone who is. That gets the conversation going.”
Step Three: Fishing for Topics
“I first tried Thai food during a vacation in San Francisco, and I’ve loved it ever since.”
At this point in the conversation, you’re tossing topics on the table to see where you find common ground. For every topic that comes up, Carducci suggests supporting it either by asking a question or making a comment about it. Not every topic tossed out will be a winner, so keep fishing until you find something you can both relate to.
“Be aware of ‘awkward silences,’” Carducci said. “Typically they aren’t as long as you think they are. Don’t think ‘Oh god, I bombed this.’ What’s going on during those silences is that the person is thinking about what they’re going to say about the topic on the table.”
Step Four: Expanding the Topic
“I’ve been to San Francisco, too! Did you have a chance to visit Alcatraz Island?”
Once you find a topic you can both connect to, the conversation really begins to flow. Continue to build the conversation by associating the topic on the table to other related topics.
Carducci said the ability to hold a flexible conversation involves a degree of divergent thinking – the ability to link ideas with other ideas. A conversation about Thai food in San Francisco can evolve into a discussion about sightseeing in California, vacations in general and other ethnic cuisines you enjoy. From there, the conversation can branch out even further.
He warns to avoid the pitfall of one-upping your date at every turn of the conversation.
“Make sure the comments you make are comments of extension and collaboration,” Carducci said. “Support what they said. ‘Oh, you went to Paris and had this food? I had a similar experience and found it tasteful just as you did!’”
Step Five: Ending the Conversation Graciously
“I’m going to have to leave here in a few minutes. This has been great. Thanks for telling me about that YouTube channel for ethnic cooking tutorials. Can’t wait to check it out!”
Whether it’s been 20 minutes or two hours, when it’s time to go, signal conversation is winding down. Express gratitude for the conversation and summarize some of the major points of your discussion to demonstrate that you were actively listening.
Ending the conversation in this way sets the stage for future meetings.
“Remember that you don’t have to be brilliant, but you do have to be kind,” Carducci said. “Show a willingness to converse and support the efforts by others who do the same.”
Dr. Bernardo J. Carducci is the founder and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. His book, “The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere about Anything,” is an easy-to-use summary of the techniques of mastering the art of conversation.