Please raise your hand if you’ve ever felt trapped and awkward in a social conversation. You don’t know what to say, or the lights are too bright, or the sounds are too loud. You’re fine talking one on one, but when two or three people join in, you’re lost. Then there’s all their body language and small talk.
As Stefan Andersson says,
There’s a blindness to and insensitivity of details among neurotypical people, which make them more comfortable with ambiguity and imprecise expressions. Aspies are generally more sensitive to the nuances of verbal language, which make them self-conscious about how they express their thoughts, and confused by the ambiguity of the expressions from others.
Well, there’s good news. Social conversation doesn’t have to permanently difficult and frustrating. With the right attitude and strategies at your disposal, you can learn to relate to other people, including neurotypicals, all without paying for an undergraduate degree in Communications.
Conversation Starters Tips
Develop the Right Attitude
In her article for Wrong Planet, Nanna Juul Lang shared that she struggled with social rejection and mistakes for years during her teens. But she let down her guard and opened up, and was willing to keep trying. She acknowledged how she might be communicating to others with her body language (which was often sending signals of discomfort and caution, which would then signals to others to keep away. She took responsibility to ask friends for feedback about how she was communicating.
Learn Body Language, and Watch for Signs of Comfort and Discomfort
When my father started learning Portuguese as a missionary to Brazil, he took classes, lived with Brazilians, and asked for and received feedback from Brazilians. The process was tedious and frustrating, but paid off. Today, he communicates easily with other Brazilians.
In the same way, commit to learning the nuances of neurotypical language. Be patient with them (as they need to be with you).
Study body language, both to understand how you come across to others, and well as to better understand what they are communicating to you.
Read Dan Wendler’s excellent series of articles about body language.
Take Care of Sensory Overload Before Going to Social Occasions
Sensory stress, including noise sensitivity, can make it very difficult to focus and concentrate as needed in conversations.
Brian King’s 6 Simple Sensory Solutions article and Cynthia Kim’s Sensory Diet article will help you think about how to calm and soothe yourself before entering social situations.
Prepare For Conversations by Memorizing Some Conversation Starters
Bookmark the Conversation Starters website for a list of helpful questions.
One of my favorite acrostics from the site is as follows:
If you’re not sure what to talk about, remember the acronym FORD:
Family – Ask about their siblings, children, parents and/or friends.
Occupation – Ask about their job or school.
Recreation – Ask about what they enjoy doing outside of work/school.
Dreams – Ask about their future aspirations.
Ask Open Ended Questions Rather Than Close Ended Questions
Questions are keys that communicate you care about getting to know another person. The trick is knowing what kinds of questions to ask.
Suggested action step – Read how questions are essentially an Invitation to the person to get to know you better.
For example, you could ask a closed ended question like, “Did you have a good weekend?”
Close ended questions won’t help too much, because the conversation will stop in its tracks after the other person answers the question.
Open ended questions, however, invite the person to talk more about their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
So instead of asking, “Did you have a good weekend?”, you could ask, “What did you do this weekend?”
Use the Answers to the Questions to Decide What to Share About Yourself
Caution – Be careful about sharing too intimate or detailed information about yourself. This is a difficult topic, I can imagine, because you might ask me, “How in the world am I supposed to know what is too personal versus what is just right?”
I don’t have an easy answer, and maybe other readers can chime in under the comments section below.
I recommend you read the Wikipedia article about self disclosure to better understand.
Perhaps this quote from Art of Manliness blog will help as well:
We’ve all met the man who pours out his life story as soon as you meet him. Within two minutes you know why his girlfriend dumped him, how worried he is about losing his hair, and why he’ll never be promoted at work. This instant unburdening reads as desperation and repels people faster than water off a duck’s back. You have to cultivate a little mystery-leave people intrigued and wanting more.
And at the same time, you don’t want to dig too deeply into the personal life of other people either. Respect the privacy of others. To avoid inadvertently touching on a sensitive spot, instead of asking someone about X, volunteer that information about yourself. A person who is comfortable talking about X will typically offer up their own experience in turn. If they don’t respond in kind, change the subject.
Conversation Tips from Aspergians
A couple Aspergian friends kindly contributed these conversation starters tips.
YOU don’t share first. Think about taxi cab conversations…”Where are you from? What do you do? Business or pleasure?” Shift it to “Seen any good movies this week? Planning any vacations this summer? Did you have a vacation? Know any good restaurants?” It’s not what you say–it’s what you ASK. They want to talk about themselves. Two statements from them; one from you. Back and forth. (Anonymous)
In my training on The Connection Process, one of the steps is “How do others perceive my ASD?” I don’t think we often consider or ask this proactively–usually we get this information after a failure or misunderstanding within a negative context. Securing this information from valued friends or family, in a proactive, positive fashion provides us critically needed insights from which we can decide if we want to (1) change (2) adapt (3) disclose. But without the feedback (this is not criticism) we are denied our choice of options.
Summary and Conclusion
You’ve learned that you’re not alone with the challenge of starting conversations. Thousands of others struggle with social awkwardness. Small talk, body language, and sensory sensitivities are challenging, but can be overcome. Develop the right attitude, commit to learning body language, be willing to ask for help. Prepare for social conversations by soothing sensory overload, and by memorizing some helpful open ended conversation starters. Avoid oversharing, but do share information about yourself related to what the other person is saying.
Action Step 1 – Join Dan Wendler’s Improve Your Social Skills community. As a fellow Aspergian, he’s worked hard to become more comfortable with starting conversations and making friends. His community includes conversation coaches who can help you practice your conversation skills.
Action Step 2 – Free! Join the Reddit Social Skills forum to get help from others.
Parting Quote – A Helpful Insight about Social Awkwardness, shared by Invisible Strings
Please share your conversation starters and tips below!
photo credit: flying white via photopin cc