Small talk is necessary—some might say a necessary evil—for association professionals looking to expand their networks. Though you may never learn to love small talk, you can learn to use it more effectively. Start with these five tips.
“Hot enough for you?” “So, what do you do?” “Are you from around here?”
If these questions make you cringe, you’re not alone. Plenty of people dislike small talk.
At its worst, small talk is dull and uninspired, grinding conversations to a halt before they’ve even begun. “It’s going to feel like death,” says Joe Keohane, author of The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World.
To avoid this trap, Keohane says you must recognize that small talk is only a means to an end. “It’s a way to get comfortable in the company of someone else,” he says. “It’s a way to establish that you’re both experiencing something—that could be the weather or what you do.”
Small talk opens the door to deeper conversations, and that’s the stuff that spawns fruitful business connections or personal friendships and makes you feel happier. But enough chitchat. Here’s how to get better at small talk.
If you’ve ever learned how to play the guitar or speak a new language, you know this: To develop a skill, you need to practice. The same goes for small talk.
“Train yourself to make eye contact, to listen, to ask questions, and be mindful of how you present yourself in the company of someone else—these are all really valuable things that you get better at with practice,” Keohane says.
Find opportunities to practice in your daily life. Chat up a stranger in line for coffee, on the sideline of your kid’s soccer game, or sitting beside you on the plane.
With practice, you’ll also start to overcome the fear of rejection, which Keohane says is a major barrier keeping us from engaging with strangers.
“Our preoccupation with being rejected is palpable,” he says. “Yet research shows the possibility of rejection is low. When you do it a few times, you’ll find that it’s going to go pretty well, and it comes pretty naturally.”
2. Change Your Mindset
Having a crummy attitude about small talk can sap the energy from a conversation right from the get-go.
“Mindset is everything,” Keohane says. “You have to go into it with a bit of optimism. You can’t dread disaster or expect abysmal failure.”
In his book, Keohane introduces readers to English historian Theodore Zeldin, who views conversations with strangers as exploration, not unlike traveling to new places.
“When you think about it that way, you don’t think of it as an obligation,” Keohane says. In fact, with that attitude, small talk can be fun.
3. Talk Less, Listen More
Actor Benjamin Mathes, who started a project to harness the power of listening, has what he calls the 80/20 rule: Early in a conversation with someone, let the other person talk 80 percent of the time, and you talk 20 percent.
“Only talk about yourself to the extent that you can demonstrate that you’re interested, that maybe you have something in common,” says Keohane, who spent a day with Mathes practicing “free listening” in Los Angeles. “It’s remarkably effective in the early stages of a conversation. It forces you to listen. But it also helps them feel respected and paid attention to, and that’s really important when you’re first trying to foster a connection with somebody.”
4. Say Something Unexpected
Small talk may begin with what you do for a living, but it’s more interesting to “break the script,” says Georgie Nightingall, whom Keohane connected with while doing research for The Power of Strangers.
“Instead of asking a canned question like, ‘What do you do?’ you can ask someone what they’d like to do more of. You can ask them what they’d like to do less of,” Keohane says. “It’s a sincere question, and when they answer it, they’ll reveal a little bit about themselves that they wouldn’t have revealed if you had just asked the standard small-talk questions.”
When asked how she’s doing, Nightingall will say she’s a 7.5 out of 10 rather than simply replying “fine.” Keohane writes in his book: “If you say something generic, they will say something generic. If you say something specific, they are likely to as well. … This specificity creates a light atmosphere and … instantly demonstrates complexity, feeling, and humor.”
5. Let the Conversation Flow
One mistake many people make with small talk is steering the conversation into areas they’re comfortable with so they can talk about things they’re already interested in.
“That’s the opposite of what you want to do in these sorts of interactions,” Keohane says. “You want it to go somewhere that you’re unfamiliar with. You want it to go somewhere that might challenge your assumptions or teach you something new.”
Open-ended questions let the person you’re talking to decide the direction. “Ask about not only what they do but how they do it, why they do it,” Keohane explains. “Then let them talk, and really listen to what they say. That’s the doorway to a better conversation.”