Try these 40 conversation starters to improve your communication with people who seem closed off to conversation.
Reasons People May Not Be Open to Conversation
- They are private and don’t like sharing personal information.
- They have an avoidant attachment style.
- Past relationships have made them wary of communicating openly.
- They are socially awkward and aren’t sure how to respond to conversation.
- It’s just been a bad day.
Please don’t take it personally when people are closed off or reserved! Everyone wants to be heard, even if they put up barriers that close off communication. So, if you want people to open up, be patient and don’t absorb rejection if the other person comes off as cold or rude… keep trying to ask great questions.
Some other rules of thumb:
- Try to avoid asking questions that produce one-word answers. If you ask a one-word question, ensure you’re setting the conversation up for a follow-up question that will prompt a more extended response.
- Ask about learning, reading, and what’s interesting or exciting. These are easy ways to get people to open up.
- Don’t ask anything too personal too quickly–that can scare people off.
- Have a good answer yourself! If they aren’t sure of the solution, you can go first.
4 Questions That Build Belonging
Studies continue to show that belonging and connection are at the top of our hierarchy of needs. Even, or perhaps especially, for individuals who are closed off, belonging is necessary for well-being. You can foster a sense of belonging by creating a safe environment of acceptance where people feel included.
- I’d love to hear more about ____ (recent trip or event in their life). What was your favorite part/best thing that happened? People often say, “I can’t wait to hear more!” or “I’d love to hear more about that sometime!” While it sounds friendly on the surface, these comments shut down communication. Asking a specific question makes it easier for the other person to talk about their experience, and it shows you’re not just being polite but that you care.
- What do you love? This open-ended question would probably be best prefaced by, “Here’s an interesting question someone asked me….”
- What can I help you with this week? Know of anything specific this person is dealing with or working on? If so, offer to help with that thing.
- It seems like you’ve been going through a lot lately. I know how hard it is to be resilient in difficult times. Do you want to talk about it? Don’t ask this question unless you already have a relationship of trust. If they say no, affirm that you’re there whenever they want to talk. If they say yes, ask them to share what’s been the most challenging part about what they have been facing.
Building Connection with People Who Have an Avoidant Attachment Style
People with an avoidant attachment style often shut down emotionally and withdraw when they feel unsafe.
Vulnerability can be an active death threat to those with an avoidant attachment style. It might sound melodramatic, but it’s not.
Their body and emotions are responding to the present based on trauma from the past.
The good news is that healing is possible, and a healthy relationship can help the avoidant person learn new responses and behavior.
Important things to remember:
- Avoid criticism
- Be consistent
- Give them space
- Don’t take their behavior as a personal rejection of you
- Remember that while you can help, you aren’t responsible for their healing
What’s your attachment style? Check out the video from Vanessa Van Edwards and take the quiz.
- What does your name mean? Take it slow, and start small! This question usually has a bit of family history or information about their personality.
- Can we schedule a time to talk and catch up? The avoidant person doesn’t do well with having serious questions sprung on them unexpectedly. Set aside a time of their choosing to talk. Set a time limit, and respect their need to disconnect if it becomes too much for them emotionally. Make sure they know it’s not bad news. You want quality time with them.
- Want to go for a walk? Walking is a great conversation starter. Several studies, like this one and this one, show that walking and talking improve cognitive function. Anecdotally, walking and talking can calm an avoidant style and encourage connection with the person they are walking with.
- How do you feel about ____? Don’t wait for your friend or partner to bring up the difficult things in their life. Instead, ask them directly how they are feeling about it. Watch for their nonverbals, and don’t push them to talk if you see them withdrawing.
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Questions that Build Connection
Connection requires vulnerability from both parties. But when you’re communicating with someone who is closed off, the temptation might be to withdraw.
Resist this reaction, and instead, continue to reach out with vulnerability.
Disclaimer: There’s a difference between a toxic relationship and interacting with someone struggling to connect. We do NOT encourage you to be vulnerable to toxic people. The bottom line, use your intuition to determine when and where vulnerability is safe and appropriate.
Check out this interview with Vanessa Van Edwards and John Howard on the science of connection.
- Where did you grow up, and what did you like about it? Many people ask, “Where are you from?” which can be a complicated question for many people. Instead, asking where they grew up feels easier to answer and sets the conversation up for sharing stories.
- What do you do for fun? This question may be too broad for some people, so try prefacing it by volunteering what you like to do and then asking them if they want a similar activity.
- Did you have a pet growing up? Tell me about it. Most people have a childhood memory that includes animals, and sharing that memory can lead to a heartwarming conversation. Follow up by discussing your memories with pets and asking if they have a pet now.
- It seems like you love ____. What is it you love about it? Have you noticed that this person enjoys a specific task or activity? Ask them to tell you more.
- I remember you said you like to ____. Tell me more about that. Show you’ve been listening and invite more sharing.
Transform Small Talk to Connect With Strangers
There’s something powerful about a kind smile, an encouraging word, or a well-placed compliment from a stranger.
While we expect our friends and loved ones to provide a form of emotional connection, we don’t usually expect that from strangers.
Maybe that’s why unexpected kindness is so meaningful.
- Do you know any best-kept secrets in the area? Whenever I google things to do in the area, every website has the same list of restaurants and activities. Asking for local recommendations is a great way to start a conversation.
- It’s such a beautiful day. It makes me feel so thankful for ___. What are you grateful for today? Again with the weather… it’s an easy intro to talk about other things.
- Tell me, what does your generation value the most? If you’ve spotted someone from a different generation, make an emotional connection with this question that positions you to listen to their perspective.
- Can you believe the weather we’ve been having? Most of the time, talking about the weather is more of a situational life raft than a conversation starter. Shift this to a conversation starter by using it as a jumping-off point. For example, if you grew up in a different climate, you can talk about how different the weather is. This can open the conversation to discussing other places you’ve lived or been, and you might discover a geographical connection. Or maybe the weather interrupts a hobby you like, such as boating or hiking. Comment on how you’ve been dying to go out for a hike, but the rain makes it impossible. Ask them what their favorite rainy day activity is.
- What is an important lesson you wish you’d learned at my age? If you’re younger, ask this of older strangers. Like the above question, you’re taking a position of humility and asking a stranger to give you their perspective. This is an excellent way to connect.
Connect Over Opinions and Advice
When someone is closed off and not interested in having a conversation, the last thing they’ll want to answer is probing questions about their family, childhood, or deep feelings. Instead, get the conversation going by asking for opinions and advice. Just stay clear of any topics that could be contentious or that you can’t discuss calmly. Use these debate topics to spark a conversation.
- Which is better? The East Coast or West Coast? (Or replace with other geographical comparisons)
- I have a very important question. Should you start with the left or right foot when putting on socks?
- What’s your opinion on using virtual reality for children’s education?
- Do you think celebrities get away with more crime than non-celebrities?
- What do you think about celebrities that get angry with the paparazzi?
- Do you think animal cloning is ethical?
- Do you think graffiti is harmful or positive?
- I’ve been trying to decide ____. What do you think I should do?
- What makes a better pet—cats or dogs?
- Thin crust pizza or thick?
Connecting Via Text Messaging
Sending a text is a great way to connect with people who have difficulty being open. It reduces the stress of the interaction, and many people are more comfortable expressing their feelings through digital communication rather than face-to-face.
- I had ____ happen, and I had to tell you!
- Thank you for ____ (insert excellent quality about the other person). How can I be a better friend/boyfriend/girlfriend?
- Remember when _____ ? It meant a lot that you were there for me.
- Who would win? Dinosaur-sized cat or a cat-sized dinosaur? 🦖🦖
- It’s refreshing to be around someone who _____ (insert positive quality). What qualities do you value in other people?
- I enjoy spending time with you. What’s something you’ve wanted to do?
- Do you know what I admire about you? You are ____. Examples: You are so ambitious, and I think it’s impressive the way you go after the things you want; I’m overwhelmed by just how kind you are—it’s made me feel supported, and I know your kindness makes other people feel better; You have a way of seeing the big picture in a way that amazes me. It’s a gift. While this might not spark a conversation, it will help you build trust and connections that can lay the foundation for later discussions.
- I’m feeling (insert emoji 🤔😒). You? Skip the words and go straight for emojis to express feelings.
- Let’s plan an imaginary adventure. Where would you start? 🛵
- If you had to compare yourself to fruit, what would you be? 🍊🤷🏽🥥
- I’m trying to decide what to read next on my book list. Which would you choose?
- I saw ___ that reminded me of you. Do you still like ____ (insert a hobby or activity you know they are interested in)? Example: I saw a boba tea truck that reminded me of you. Do you still love boba? What’s your favorite place to get boba?
Looking for more conversation starters? Check out 57 Killer Conversation Starters So You Can Start A Conversation With Anyone, Anytime