in: People, Podcast, Social Skills

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #548: How to Start and Sustain Conversations

Whether sitting next to someone on the subway, mingling at a wedding, or chatting around the water cooler, chances to make conversation and new friends abound in our lives. But how do you meet and talk to people without being awkward about it?

My guest today has spent over three decades teaching people from all walks of life how to make small talk and socialize. His name is Don Gabor, and he’s the author of several books, including the one we’re talking about today, How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends

We begin our conversation discussing where Don sees people have the most problems with starting and sustaining conversations, as well as whether these issues have or haven’t changed over the last thirty years. Don then walks us through how you can make yourself more approachable for small talk, why body language is so key in this area, and the best way to give a handshake. We then discuss how to break the ice with someone you’ve just made contact with, how to handle rejection, and how to remember people’s names after you meet them. Don then shares how to keep the conversation going by offering up and homing in on certain keywords. We end our conversation, with how to end a conversation. 

Show Highlights

  • Why we think too much when it comes to conversations
  • How to hone your skills even if you’re a natural talker
  • How things have changed in the 30 years Don has been doing this
  • Making yourself more approachable 
  • Shaking hands the right way 
  • How do you break the ice in a natural way?
  • Why you should interact with the people in your neighborhood 
  • Making introductions and remembering people’s names
  • What to do when you don’t anyone at an event
  • Easy ways to keep the conversation going 
  • Ending a conversation the right way 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

"How to start a conversation and make friends" by don Gabor book cover.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Whether sitting next to someone on the subway, mingling at a wedding, or chatting around the water cooler, chances to make conversation and new friends are bound in our lives. But, how do you meet and talk to people without being awkward about it? My guest today has spent over three decades teaching people from all walks of life, how to make small talk and socialize. His name is Don Gabor, and he’s the author of several books, including the one we’re talking about today, How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends. We begin our conversation discussing where Don sees people have the most problems with starting and sustaining conversations, as well as whether these issues have or haven’t changed over the last 30 years.

Don then walks us through how you can make yourself more approachable for small talk, why body language is so key in this area, and the best way to give a handshake. We then discuss how to break the ice with someone you’ve just made contact with, how to handle rejection, how to remember people’s names after you meet them. Don then shares how to keep the conversation going by offering up and homing in on certain keywords, and we end our conversation with how to end a conversation. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right, Don Gabor, welcome to the show.

Don Gabor: Well, I’m happy to be here.

Brett McKay: So, you are an expert on social skills, you made your career teaching individuals to be better conversationalist, how to network, how to make friends. I’m curious, how did you get started in the world of social skills?

Don Gabor: I moved to New York in 1979 after having a career in teaching, and I started teaching a workshop called How to Start a Conversation. It became clear that a lot of people were having difficulty just doing what I thought came natural. And so, my career as a communications trainer and author, really started way back when I started with that workshop and it’s just grown from there.

Brett McKay: So, where do you see people having the most trouble with starting and carrying on conversations?

Don Gabor: I think there’s some nuance to that question, because, in some situations, some people are very good with their conversations, and then, the same person in a different situation, can feel awkward and uncomfortable and just really ill at ease. And so, by that, to give you an example, there are some professionals where people speak for a living, like professional speakers, actors, attorneys, entertainers, and in various fields. But, you take them out of that structured environment, and many of them feel very uncomfortable. So, that example illustrates that people can feel comfortable speaking in one situation, and uncomfortable in another, really based around what’s expected of them and kind of their roles.

And so, where I think people have the greatest difficulty, is, they’re sometimes really not sure exactly how to go about bridging the gap between a situation where they’re good at communicating, and one that they’re not so good. And this is one of the ways that, over the years, as I’ve been teaching and writing about the subject, one of the ways that I figured out that it’s really pretty easy for people to master the skill, is to identify what they’re doing where they’re communicating confidently, and then, apply that with some adjustments to the situations where they don’t feel as confident. And then, that way, they can master some of the skills or bring up some of the levels of their skills that they’re good in, in one situation, and needs some improvement in another.

So, I think that another answer to your question, Brett, is that, a lot of times, people, I think, are focusing in the wrong direction, when they’re trying to communicate with people. And so, a lot of times, they’re focusing inward and they’re worried about what people are going to think of them, and if they’re going to say the right thing, and so on. And, I mean, I’m not saying to not think about what you say, but, if you worry too much and thinking way too much, no matter what situation you’re in, the communication’s probably not going to be particularly effective.

Brett McKay: That’s like anything in life, in sports, where they tell sports psychologists to tell golfers like, “Don’t think about what you’re doing too much, because then, you’ll just choke.”

Don Gabor: Yeah. I mean, that’s sort of the mentality, I think, of muscle memory, and if you practice enough, then, let your abilities just take over. And I think that’s a good point, and it’s a good analogy for communication skills. And that’s one of the things that I tell people, who, they say, “Well, I’m kind of shy, and I don’t really like to talk to people that much. And I’m not really sure what to say, and I don’t want to say the wrong thing.” I say, look, there’s a lot of opportunities to practice interacting with people, where, there’s no risk. It’s not like you’re in a business meeting, or you’re in a job interview, or you’re out on a first date, and you really do want to make a good impression. I mean, there’s no question about that.

But, there’s a lot of opportunities that almost everyone has during the course of a day or a week, where, you have opportunity to interact with people, practice eye contact, practice opening a conversation, starting it from scratch without anybody initiating it, or sending out a signal that says it’s okay to talk. So, if you practice some of these, the basic skills, and these are basic skills, some people just pick them up naturally, or they learned them from somebody in their home or a teacher or friends, and other people, it doesn’t come natural. I mean, some people are natural athletes, and some people are natural musicians, and so on, but they still have to learn the skills to support that natural ability. And I believe that communication skills are similar in that way. So, practice like in a sport’s analogy, applies to the conversation skills as well.

Brett McKay: So, you’ve been at this since 1979. The first book you published was in 1983, it’s How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends. I mean, has anything changed since then? Have you noticed new issues pop up that people are experiencing? New concerns people have about starting conversations? Or, are they pretty much the same?

Don Gabor: It’s a great question and I am asked that a lot. And over the years, I have revised my book, in fact, it’s gone through to complete revisions. And so, the answer to your question is kind of twofold. Some things just don’t change, people’s nature just don’t change. Maybe they do over a couple million years, but not within the last 30 years that I’ve been working at this subject. But, what has changed, our technology certainly has changed, and that’s made a big change in how people communicate. And I think people’s expectations have changed, and social norms have changed, what’s acceptable and what’s not.

So, what I think people need to understand, and I think, what I try to communicate when I’m doing a workshop, or doing an interview like this, or writing a book, is that, people really, I think, are looking for a couple of things from one another. One is, they want your attention, and they want your approval. And in the article I read on your website, which I thought was very good about narcissism in conversation, people do want attention. The problem is, if they only want their own attention, and then they’re talking too much, then, that’s not good, which is what your article, the article on your website points out. But, we do seek other people’s attention, we do seek other people’s approval.

So, in face-to-face communication, body language plays a very big role in approval, smiling and eye contact and the tone of your voice, and those kinds of body language characteristics that are part of a conversation. But, in online communication, through texting, and emails, and any kind of electronic communication, other than if it’s a visual, body language is absent, and sometimes, voice is absent. So, people have to make adjustments for that.

Another thing that, a big change between how we communicate now, and it’s probably going to change again in the next five minutes or five years or shorter, is that, if we’re having a conversation, you and I are in a club or a meeting, a business meeting or just at a party, and we say something to one another, somebody says something, and it’s kind of like off the wall, or maybe it’s confusing, our face will kind of go [inaudible 00:09:24], make a little comment or some signal will be sent that something didn’t quite land right, or maybe some confusion. And then, we would correct it, “Oh, well, maybe let me rephrase that.”

But, in electronic communication, and I’m using that as the example of how things are different between when I started this, on this path, this career path, and now, we really don’t get that. So, a lot of times what happens is, you write something in an email or a text, and maybe it’s clear, more often it’s not, because of the speed that we’re writing, but we never have an opportunity to see how the other person is influenced by it, or how they are receiving that message. So, if it’s unclear, or inappropriate, or any number of other maybe not effective kinds of the responses that we’re looking for, we don’t have an opportunity to correct it. So, miscommunication. So, I would say, those are a couple of things that, the differences between now and then, communication-wise, that people need to be aware of.

Brett McKay: Have you noticed people being more socially anxious lately, than, say, maybe back in 1979? Or, is about the same?

Don Gabor: I think it’s normal to have some anxiety when you walk into a room full of people that you don’t know. It’s just normal. It’s normal to have a little bit of anxiety going out on a date, there’s probably plenty of anxiety there. Or, going for a job interview. Or, sometimes just going out with friends, people will feel a little bit uncomfortable. So, anxiety is normal. Is it more now than it used to be? I’m not a psychologist or somebody who can really comment on the anxiety of society. I know I’m feeling pretty anxious at times, but it’s not so much of about talking to people, it’s just on what’s going on in the world. And I think that’s a kind of a point that we also need to take into consideration when we’re chatting with people.

Some people just feel comfortable walking into a room full of strangers, or more comfortable. I’m like that, it doesn’t bother me that much, although, I have a little bit of anxiety. But, I know other people are very anxious. So, part of my goal, when I do talk to people in that kind of situation, is to bring the anxiety level down. And the way I do that is by keeping the conversation light, not getting too deep into any particular topic right away, and try and make a little light humor of what’s going on around, just so that people know it’s not a big deal to have a conversation. And that seems to work for me in most of the situations, and it can work for most other people too.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about starting conversations, and the first thing you recommend, if you want more conversations to happen, is you have to make yourself more approachable. So, what can people do to make themselves more approachable?

Don Gabor: This is one of the really important parts of communication. And what I like to observe when I’m out talking to people, are, who’s sending the first signal to communicate? I’m the kind of person I usually will take the initiative, just because my nature is a little bit more outgoing. But, I’m not always the first one to send the signal, I’m looking for signals. And so, to make yourself more approachable, you want to do two things, you want to send a signal, and we’re talking now, in a situation where people can see you. So, it could be at the gym, or at a social event, or at work, any of those. Or, in the family situation, and those signals really are body language. So, eye contact, smiling is the most important thing.

Now, not a big ear to ear grin like the cat who just ate the canary, but just a gentle, friendly smile. And eye contact, I believe, is almost precedes that. And if you watch people, in which I do, and we’re walking down the street, it’s eye contact that seems to be the very beginning way to send the signal that you’re willing to communicate. So, you want to look for those signals. And men, I think that those signals are coming to them, and they’re missing them. Many men miss the signals that women send to them, that say, “Please approach me.” The women have been taught, and this has changed, that’s another thing, that’s changed over the years, women are a little more assertive when it comes to approaching men.

But, many are still going to hang back, but they are going to send a signal, eye contact, a subtle smile, and men need to look for that. But, the men need to send the signals as well. So, body language is really your first line of approach, to be more approachable. And I will say, categorically, crossed arms send the opposite signal. So, if your arms are crossed, folded in front of your chest, that says, body language-wise, and you may not feel this way, or people may not feel this way when they’re doing this, but the signal is clearly interpreted as, “Please, I’m really not interested.” So, unfold your arms and put them anywhere except in front of you, folded across your chest, and you’ll have a more approachable body language signal.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you talk about this acronym, SOFTEN, which help you think about those things, like smile, you talked about that, open posture, no closed arms. A forward lean, I guess, indicates you’re interested. I think, the T is touch, and E is eye contact. And then, N is nod, right?

Don Gabor: Right. Forward lean is something that I wanted to just touch on very briefly. And what that means is just to lean a little bit towards the other person. And what that shows is, it shows that you’re listening. So, I go back to what people want from you, they want your attention, they want your approval. So, if you show, and then you’re demonstrating physically that you’re interested in what he or she has to say, then, the person can feel more comfortable. However, if you move too close, then it could feel like you’re encroaching on that space. There’s also cultural elements to softening and body language, which people need to be aware of, men and women. Some cultures prefer a little more distance between speakers. Some cultures prefer, or are more comfortable with closer proximity. So, you want to be sensitive to that. But, leaning forward slightly shows that you’re interested.

And touch is another one of those elements that have a cultural application with shaking hands. And some cultures, shaking hands is part of the culture. Other cultures, shaking hands is less comfortable, particularly between men and women. But, here’s what I encourage people to do, and I think this is pretty much standard practice in the United States and in most western countries, is to offer your hand in handshake, and shake hands web-to-web. And that means to shake hands, there’s a place between your forefinger and your thumb, that little area is called the web of your hand, the web between those two digits, and you want to focus on getting the other person’s hand web-to-web. And the way you do that is just as you’re getting ready to make contact to shake hands, and you’ve got eye contact with the person, just glance down at his or her hand, and aim your hand at the web of your hand and at the web of the other person’s hand. And chances are, you will shake hands web-to-web.

Don’t squeeze too hard, but don’t do the bone crusher, and don’t do the limp, wet fish kind of handshake, either. So, a moderate handshake strength with handshake grip, web-to-web, get the initiation of your conversation, or very close to the beginning. And at the end, is another important way to send signals that you’re open.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, you’ve made contact with somebody, now, this is the awkward part, how do you break the ice with someone, to get the conversation going?

Don Gabor: The easiest way to break the ice, and the most natural way to break the ice, is to focus on your surroundings, where you are, and comment or ask a question on something that both of you can relate to, in your immediate surroundings. So, for example, if you’re at a business event, and you’re networking, and you’re sitting down, or you’re waiting for a workshop to start, or you’re waiting for the speaker to begin, you turn to the other person, and then, use just a completely typical greeting, “Good morning, how are you this morning?” You can introduce yourself, in a business situation, you can introduce yourself right away, there’s just no problem with that. And then, ask, “Are you a member of this organization? Or, “Have you seen this speaker before?”

Or, you can say, “This meeting is really… I’ve been a member of this organization for da, da, da, and this speaker, I’m really looking forward.” So, you can make a comment, or ask a question. And introducing yourself early on, in any situation, is usually best. In a business situation, you can do it right away. In a social situation, where the rules are more flexible, and the people are going to probably be coming from maybe different businesses or backgrounds, or you’re going to have a little broader demographic of people there, you can still do the same thing, but you want to do it in a little less direct way.

So, if you’re at a party, for example, and what I do when I go to a party, as I gravitate towards the food table, because I like food, and I like to nibble, and I like to cook, and so, it’s a topic that I can talk about, and many people feel the same way. So, I will say, “I wonder how this guacamole is, have you tried it?” Or, and then I might say, so, we might take a little bit, “Yeah, this is pretty good. Oh, by the way, who do you know here at the party? Or, how did you know the host?” Because, most people, if they’re invited to a party, they get invited by somebody, usually, a host. And so, that’s another way. These are very typical and common ways to start the conversation.

And I encourage you to use those kinds of icebreakers, as opposed to, “Hey, do you want to hear a funny joke about a…” Or, try to make some kind of corny, awkward comment that is supposed to be funny, but falls flat. So, using the situation that you’re in, if you’re in your neighborhood, you’re walking around, maybe looking for a place to eat, a restaurant, and you see, you’re looking at a menu in the window, and somebody comes out of the restaurant, say, “Excuse me, I’m curious, how was your meal? I’ve never eaten here before.” So, there’s a hundred examples I could give of these kinds of ways to break the ice.

The main point is, ask a question, or make a comment about something that the people that you’re trying to communicate with can also react to. And with good body language and a smile, and a nice, friendly tone to your voice, the conversation’s probably going to, at least, get started.

Brett McKay: No, I think that’s great advice. An example from my life, where, this is someone who was, started a conversation with me, because they were noticing the common environment. I was at my son’s jiu-jitsu practice, whatever, and I was sitting there, and this woman was sitting next to me, and I was reading the Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. And she looked over and she says, “Are you reading that for fun or for school?” And I’m not in school anymore, I was like, “Well, I’m reading this for fun, believe it or not.” And she’s like, “Wow, that’s interesting, I’ve wanted to go back and read some of those things I read in college.” And we had this conversation about great books you read in college and reading philosophy, even after you’re done with college. And it all started with that question that she noticed I was reading the Nicomachean Ethics at Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Don Gabor: Well, that’s a perfect example. And that example, I think, it applies to T-shirts and tennis rackets and hats and different kinds of clothing. I mean, it just, it goes on and on. You see, once again, what do people want from you? They want your attention and they want your approval. So, what that woman did, in your case, Brett, was, she showed interest in what you were doing. You were reading a book, now, this was a convenient way for her to break the ice. It was very natural, it was easy, and you responded really, really well. It also gave her an opportunity to tell you that what she thought you were doing was good. Like she said, “Are you reading that for fun? Or, for school?”

And when you said, “Well, I’m not in school anymore, for fun.” And she said, “Yeah, I think it’s good to. I want to go back and read some other things too.” So, this was a way of signaling a form of approval about what you were doing. It’s so easy to do. And let me just point one more thing out about this whole topic, and why I think it’s so important. And one of the things that you had brought up, I think, in the beginning, and we might discuss a little bit more about how things have changed conversationally, is that, in days past maybe 10, 15, 20 years ago, maybe more, people had more opportunities to interact with one another. And today, it seems like there’s a lot more people that are isolated by choice, and sometimes, just by circumstance.

But, in your neighborhood where you live, there’re so many opportunities to connect with people. But, more often than not, people will just walk down the street and go into their apartment or house or wherever they live, or drive into their garage and go in through the back door, and just hide out. And I think what I try to encourage people to do, is to interact with the people in their neighborhood for a variety of reasons. Not in a forced way, but in a natural way. So, if you see somebody walking down the street and you know that they live in your general area, you send out a friendly signal. Start with, “Hello, how are you today?” And just start from there.

And then, after you see that person a couple times, then say, “You live right down the street, is that right?” “Yeah.” “Oh, hey, by the way, my name’s Don.” Or, “My name…” You introduce yourself. And it’s important. What that does is, it creates the beginning of a social interaction that can lead to more friendship, it can lead to more contact within the neighborhood, and it can make you feel more comfortable where you live, by knowing who’s around you. And so, conversation has, I think, a major role to play in fighting the isolation that a lot of people complain about in their lives today. They feel lonely, they think the internet is an option for them, and it can be. But, in my view, it really doesn’t replace face-to-face communication and what you actually can get from that communication, the connections that you make with people.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s say you reach out to someone, try the icebreaker, you ask something, notice something in the common environment, you try to strike a conversation, but there’s some rejection, they’re obviously not interested, how do you handle that? So, like this one, I think, that’s one thing that holds a lot of people back from even making the attempt to like, “Well, what if they reject me and it becomes awkward?”

Don Gabor: Well, you’re absolutely right, rejection is a big fear that people have and nobody likes to get rejected. And people say they don’t take it personally, well, we do take it personally. I take it personally, and I think that’s just a normal reaction. However, if you let the fear of rejection prevent you from reaching out to people, then, this is where I say to people, I say, “Look, what do you have to lose?” If you approach people the right way, chances are, they’re going to respond. Not everyone will. I mean, that’s just the reality. And the reason you think, “Well, they’re rejecting me,” but they’re not. That might not be the exact reason why people don’t respond the way you think.

And let me give you a couple of quick examples. Sometimes, people are just very fearful in general, and there are people who are afraid to interact with strangers for any number of reasons, and some of them are very good. And I certainly wouldn’t suggest for anybody to do anything that makes them feel like they’re in danger. So, sometimes people just are told, “Don’t talk to strangers,” and you’re a stranger, and I’m not going to talk to you. Okay. So, that’s their frame of mind, let’s put it that way. Sometimes, people actually don’t hear you, or maybe there’s some element that you have sent out a signal, you said, “Hello,” the person didn’t respond. But, you didn’t really realize that maybe they didn’t hear what you were saying, he or she didn’t hear what you were saying, or maybe there’s a language issue.

Or, more often than not, I don’t know about where you live, but where I live, half of the people are walking down the street with earbuds, which I don’t think is a great thing. Because, that’s a signal that says, “Don’t talk to me.” So, take your earbuds out, folks, if you want to talk to people. Because, earbuds are telling other people that you’re not available for conversation, which is, of course, just the opposite of what I encourage you to do. And finally, sometimes it takes a couple times to approach people, to let them feel that you’re okay to talk to. But, in the end, if somebody really doesn’t want to talk to you, and there are people that are just, they don’t want to talk to anybody.

Okay, so, what are you going to do? You’re going to twist their arm? “You’re going to talk to me or I’ll break your arm.” I mean, you just have to live with that. That’s just the way some people are, and move on, and don’t let that prevent you from reaching out to others.

Brett McKay: So, during this initial ice breaking phase, you’re probably going to learn the person’s name, or hear it, how do you remember someone’s name after they’ve introduced themselves? Because, that’s the problem that a lot of people have. Like, in the middle of the conversation, they’re like, “Oh, man, I just forgot this guy’s name, he told me five minutes ago.”

Don Gabor: Right. Well, remembering names is a big part. Well, introductions are a big part of conversation. And that’s why I say, do it early in the conversation. Here’s, and I didn’t make this up, but I use these techniques. And I’m not perfect at it, that’s for sure, but they do work in most cases. First of all, don’t say to yourself, “Oh, I’m never going to remember the person’s name, so, I’m not going to bother.” Think of the person as the most important person in the room or at that moment in your life, and focus on the moment of introduction. Don’t think about what you’re going to say next. This is where, most people, the problem lies, is they’re not listening to what the person is saying, when he or she says his or her name, they’re thinking, what are they going to say next?

So, don’t think about what you’re going to say next. Repeat the person’s name. If the person has an unusual name, or, a name that is easy to misinterpret, ask them to clarify or spell the name. Or, “Is it Marie or Maria.” And so, by repeating the name, you hear the name, you repeat the name, you’re sending a couple signals. One is, you care enough to want to remember the person’s name by repeating it. So, that makes the person feel good about the exchange. You have more likelihood of remembering the name by repeating it, because your brain has arched a little pathway up there, and then, you actually hear yourself say the name. So, you have three inputs, the person’s saying his or her name, you repeating the name, and you hearing the name. So, you’ve got three repetitions, and memory and repetition come together.

Now, that’s pretty standard stuff. And another trick, technique that I use, is, and this works a good seven to 10, out of 10 times, about 70 to 80%, is, I think of somebody I know with the same name. And the person that I think of, it could be a celebrity, it could be a sports figure, it could be a good friend, a member of the family, a kid that I grew up with and haven’t seen in 25 years. Now, the reason that this works, I don’t know. But, for example, if I met you, Brett, at a party, the first person that comes to my mind is a baseball player whose first name starts with Brett. So, that’s who I might think of. And you may not look anything like this.

If I meet somebody named Fred, I think of my father, because that was my father’s name. If I meet somebody named Sophie, I think of a cat that I used to have named Sophie. Now, I don’t tell the person, “Oh, I’m going to remember your name, because I had a cat named Sophie.” But, this technique, it’s strange, but it works because there are a lot of people with common first names. And it doesn’t always work, but oftentimes, it does. And one last thing, you want to repeat the name in the conversation, not over and over and over. But, once again, it’s sending the signal, “I remember your name,” it’s helping you remember it. But, what happens when you don’t remember the person’s name, and it just flies by and you didn’t grab it that first two seconds?

You say, “How do you spell your name again? Tell me your name one more time, please.” So, again, it’s kind of admitting that you didn’t get it the first time, but, it’s okay. Because they’ll say, “Well, it’s Don.” And if somebody calls you by the wrong name, you want to correct them. It’s okay, that’s a little bit uncomfortable. Some times, people will… my name is Don, but they’ll say Dan, or Dom, short for Dominic, then I say, “No, Don like Don Juan DeMarco, or the dawn of time, but not spelled that way.” So, those are techniques that I use that work, and they can work for just about anybody.

Brett McKay: So, a lot of times when you go to a party, or an event, one thing that people do to ease their way into conversation, they’ll find someone they know, and then start talking to them, and then use that person as a way to springboard into other conversations with people they don’t know. But, sometimes, you go to an event or a party where you know no one. So, what’s the advice there to get a conversation going when you don’t know anybody at the place you’re at?

Don Gabor: Well, that’s a question that I get asked a lot. And the way I answer that is, I do a little bit of homework, and depending on the situation, if it’s a business event, usually, I will go and make contact. I will introduce myself to the people who are responsible for the event. More often than not, they’re the ones that you’re going to be greeting at the door, so, you’re going to have an opportunity to meet people right away, if it’s a more formal event. If it’s a social event, there’s somebody who presumably invited you to the event. Although, not necessarily, maybe you signed up on an event site and it’s a meetup and you just really don’t know anybody.

So, what I do is, I look for a friendly face. So, I’m always looking for those signals of openness. And you can spot them, they’re really easy to spot if you’re looking. And those are the people that I will go up and approach. And, I mean, I will walk right up. But, if I see a group of people talking, that’s okay too. But, I’m going to observe, and I’m going to watch, if there’s two or three people chatting together, and I’m going to watch if there’s a real tight unit there. In other words, they’re very close together, and there’s no space for a person to join that conversation. I probably will look for another either individual or a group to join. Because, that close conversation, maybe they’re talking about some personal topic or work-related, or gossiping or something, and I probably might not want to get into that conversation, anyway.

So, I’m looking for openness, and then, I just, it’s like going fishing, you’ve got to cast out and see if you get a bite. I’m going to go to where there are people. I will not go to where there are no people, because, who are you going to talk to if there’s nobody there? Plus, here’s another tip, if you approach people and just start a simple conversation, not monopolizing the conversation, and this is a big problem, but just interacting with questions and comments, balancing the conversation between talking and listening, and balance is the key here.

What’s more important, or equally important, is that, the shy person, who is hanging back and looking to see who to talk to, he or she will see you communicating with other people, he or she will see you moving from an individual to a group, to another individual. So, by you demonstrating your openness and your desire to communicate, other people see that, and they will feel more comfortable talking to you, if you approach them, or they might even feel more comfortable approaching you. So, once again, when you walk into that room full of strangers, look for people who want to communicate, and simply say, “You look like a friendly guy, how’s it going tonight? Are you here for the workshop? Are you here for the food? Are you here for the music?” Whatever it is.

Brett McKay: And I love the idea with the group thing, look for the people who are showing that they’re open to new person, and just say, “Hey, what brings you here?” And then, join the conversation.

Don Gabor: Exactly. People who want to interact, we’re social animals. Now, it’s granted, some people are more open than others, and some people are more outgoing than others, and that’s all true. And that’s something that we all have to, if you want to be a good communicator, you have to be able to communicate with all types of individuals, not just people who communicate like you do, which is usually the kind of people that we like to communicate with. So, when you see people at a party, here’s what I do at a party, or at a networking event, and I’m with a group of people, talking, maybe two or three or something like that.

And look, we’re chatting about business or whatever the topic of the event is, that’s what we’re chatting about in our group. But, I’m also looking around, outside the group, and I’m looking to see if there’s somebody who’s looking at the group, sending that signal that said, “I would like to join, but I don’t want to butt in.” Because, that’s how a lot of people feel. And what I do is, I establish eye contact with that person, I smile, and then I take a very subtle step back from the group, to open up a little bit of a space. And this is body language, it’s all body language. I’m not saying, “Hey, pal, come on over, the water’s fine.” But I’m sending the signal that says, “If you want to come on over and join us, you’re welcome.”

And, once again, more often than not, people pick up that signal, and they will then be heading into the conversation. And that’s what we want to do, particularly at a networking event. That’s what it’s all about.

Brett McKay: So, let’s say you start the conversation, how do you keep the conversation going once it’s started? Because there’s only so much you can say about the weather or whatever. Any idea, any tips on keeping the conversation going?

Don Gabor: Oh, sure, that’s really easy, although, a lot of people think that’s the hardest thing. Well, they think breaking the ice is the hardest thing. Keeping the conversation going is easy if you’re listening. If all you’re doing is talking, then, it’s not really a conversation, it’s a monologue, and people are going to start looking for ways to exit. They’re looking for the door. So, what you want to listen for are keywords, and keywords are words that are nouns and verbs, words that paint pictures of people doing things or working on things, for example, projects or vacations, or, like your book was a keyword, the title of your book, anything that you can see a picture of it, or relates to some kind of action that people are doing.

The reason that you want to listen for these things, while you’re talking about, let’s just say subject A, the event or the host of the party or the music or whatever it might be, you want to listen for the other words that are being communicated in a conversation. And you want to drop those words from your side into the conversation, that will lead to additional topics. For example, let’s say you’re going to an event, a music event, I’m going to a jazz club tonight with my wife. And we’re going to see a jazz group at a club in New York City. And we’re going to be sitting down next to some people who we have no idea who they are. And we’ll probably say, “Hello,” before the show starts, and we’ll have a little bit of chat about the music.

But, what I’ll also probably just drop into the conversation, is that, I met the piano player, who’s in this group tonight, at the gym. And [inaudible 00:42:00] say now, “Oh, gym, where do you go to the gym? Well, we live in Brooklyn.” See, so, all these words that are part of the conversation about the music, or the venue that we’re at, which is in the basement of a barbecue restaurant, see, all those words, basement, restaurant, barbecue, Brooklyn, gym, these are all called keywords, and they’ll all be part of a conversation. So, then, the way you changed the topic, is, you say, “By the way, I heard you mention earlier, that, ta, ta, ta, ta.” And now, the conversation just takes a little bit of a turn, and then, you’re on to topic B or topic C, and you do the same thing.

And pretty soon, what are you looking for? Are you looking just to fill space and time? Or, do you have another goal in this conversation? And my view is, I have goals in my conversations. I want to find out if I have anything in common with the person or people I’m talking to. Sometimes, I do. More often than not, I do. Sometimes, I don’t, but, usually, I can find a topic of common interest. So, by referring to a topic that you heard earlier in the conversation, what are you doing? You’re sending in that signal again that said, “I’m listening, I’m paying attention to what you told me, because I remembered something that you said, and I’m curious about that particular topic.”

Now, it could be a topic where you have a particular goal in mind. Maybe you’re looking for a job, or maybe you’re looking for gigs for more work, or maybe you’re looking for a new place to live, or maybe you’re looking for a great place to take a vacation. These are all goals that most people have at one time or another. And by talking to people and listening when these topics come up, you can then move your conversation to those topics, and then, it says to the person, “I really appreciate what you’ve told me.” So, that’s, they’re looking for your appreciation, and your attention. And so, you’re fulfilling a variety of goals, by just having a simple conversation.

Brett McKay: So, here’s a recap, you’re going to listen for keywords that the person you’re talking to is saying, so you can go back to, but you’re also, at the same time, sending out signals of your own keywords, so that, you’re giving them a chance to pick up on something.

Don Gabor: Right. And by you referring some of the keywords, while you’re dropping in some of the keywords into the conversation, it tells the other person indirectly, what you want to talk about. This is very important, it goes back to one of your questions about when people feel uncomfortable in conversations because they don’t know what to talk about. So, if you’ve dropped in a keyword about, I don’t know, food or gardening or whatever it might be, it’s a pretty clear signal that that’s a topic that you’re probably willing to chat about a little bit. And maybe you have a common interest, maybe you are a gardener too, I mean, you’re growing tomatoes like I am. And we might say, well, how was your tomato crop this year?”

And so, this makes other people feel comfortable when they’re talking to you. And you want to remember these details, so that, if you see the person again, then you can make a reference to them. Maybe you’re not going to see them again. More people say, “Oh, I’m never going to see this person again, so, why should I bother with all this stuff?” That’s the biggest mistake you can make, as far as I’m concerned. So, this is the way to keep the conversation going, it’s the way to feel that the conversation wasn’t a waste of time in just filling space before an event. And it gives you practice on how to interact with people in a way that makes them feel good about you, and makes them feel good about themselves, so that, maybe the next time you meet, it’s going to be easier, and you’ve established some of the foundations of building some kind of a relationship, which is what all this can lead to, and goes back to how many people feel isolated in their lives today.

Brett McKay: What do you do if you’re in a conversation where you’re sending out those keywords to the person, but they’re not asking any questions about you, and you’re just asking all the questions? And it’s not that they’re rejecting you, they’re actually enjoying talking, they’ll answer any question you have for them, but they’re not taking part in that back and forth, where, they’re not asking you any questions. Any advice there? Should you just be like, “Okay, well, this person is not going to ask me any questions”?

Don Gabor: Well, this kind of goes back to the article on your website with the narcissism in conversations, and that is a problem. And there’re some people that are just, they’re just so wrapped up in themselves that they just don’t get it. And you can’t… I mean, you can, but it’s not going to do you any good. You can’t say, “Oh, God, you could ask me a question, and I’d love this…” So, you can’t be that overt, because that’s a chide and people usually don’t take kindly to being criticize that way. So, what do you do? Well, you have a couple choices, you can just grin and bear it, which sometimes you have to do with friends. Because, there’re just some friends that, and I’ve got a couple friends like that, they just very rarely ask what’s going on, and they just talk about this and their lives.

But, you can also counter that by saying, “Well, look, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you about what I’ve been doing lately, and I…” And so, then, you can interject some topic into the conversation. But, you’ve got to be able to talk a little bit about it and why it’s important to you and what it is that you want them to know about it. And be careful about asking them an open-ended question in response to something that you’re doing, because, then, the ball will just bounce back into their court. An open-ended question is a question that evokes a more detailed response. So, you can say something like, “Hey, have I told you about the new book I’m working on?” They say, “No, but I don’t really care.” Some people will say.

Or, “Have you seen that new movie that’s out?” Or, “Have you heard this?” So, those are closed-ended questions, that are going to get a short answer. And then, say, “Well, it was really pretty interesting. But, I’m not going to tell you the whole thing, but here’s what it’s about.” And they might say, “What is it about?” So, you have to counter that non-stop talker. You have to take the initiative and just share a little bit more information. And if the person interrupts you, you say, “Wait a second, wait a second, I’m not quite finished yet.” But, don’t make your story so long, that the other person is going to begin to lose interest. Because, they’re not going to have that much interest in what you have to say, anyway, because they want to talk about themselves. So, that’s just the way some people are.

The reality is, you can’t change other people, but you can change how you interact with them.

Brett McKay: All right, so, we’ve successfully broken the ice, you’ve kept the conversation going by asking follow-up questions, listening to those keywords, but, now, you’ve got to exit the conversation. That’s another way people get awkward about things like, “Well, it’s going to be awkward if I mess up the exit.” So, any advice on exiting a conversation with grace?

Don Gabor: Sure. And exiting the conversation is as important as entering it. You want to do it the right way. The wrong way is to say, “Oh, well, I’ve got to go, bye.” Because, then, the person is saying, “Oh…” So, how does that leave the other person? “I must have said the wrong thing, I’m boring. The other person, he doesn’t like me. Forget it, I don’t like him either.” So, you don’t want that to happen. So, here’s how you end the conversation the right way. First of all, you restate something that the person told you briefly. You restate it in a way that shows him or her that, A, you were listening and that you enjoyed the conversation.

For example, “That was really interesting hearing about your new business. I think it’s a great idea, and I’d love to hear more about it. Maybe sometime, the next meeting, you can tell me how things are going.” So, what that’s doing is, by recapping the conversation briefly in a sentence or two, you’re, A, showing the person that you were listening. B, that you appreciate what he or she said. And, three, most importantly, to end the conversation, is, you’re sending what’s called a closing signal. So, people can accept that you can end the conversation. What they don’t like is when it’s ended abruptly, that’s what leaves them uncomfortable. So, that closing signal is, gives that person saying, “Oh, okay, I think this conversation is about to close.”

Then, you use the person’s name, say, “Brett, it’s really been a pleasure talking to you, I’m really glad we got a chance to meet. There’s a couple of other people I want to say hello to before the speaker start, so, I’m sure we’ll get a chance to chat again soon.” And you use his or her name, and a nice, friendly, warm handshake, good eye contact, a smile, and off you go.

Brett McKay: Perfect. Well, Don, speaking of Don, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work? Oh, not the book, do you have multiple books?

Don Gabor: Yeah, I’ve written a bunch of books on the topic, and you can see them all at my website,, that’s, And some workshops that I’ve done over the years. And also, a lot of my books are published in foreign languages, and so, they’re all up on the website too. But, you can also just go online to any of your online, favorite online bookstores, or go to a real bookstore, or a library, and look for How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends. Or, just Google my name, Don Gabor, and you’ll find me.

Brett McKay: Well, Don Gabor, thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Don Gabor: Thank you, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Don Gabor. He’s the author of several books, including, the one we talked about today, How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Also, check out more information about Don’s work at his website, Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years on things like social skills. We’ve got a whole series on social skills, so, go check that out. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The Art of Manliness podcast, you can do so only on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, use code, manliness, to sign up for Stitcher Premium, to get a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and start enjoying ad-free episodes of The Art of Manliness podcast.

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