- Conversation with strangers comes easily for some. For others, it can be an excruciating task.
- Small talk is a necessary skill for making connections and forming both personal and professional relationships.
- If you’re looking to improve your small-talk skills, here’s an expert take on the best tips for making conversation.
Small talk is excruciating for many people.
Unfortunately, it is a necessary evil if you want to make connections, both personal and professional.
“Small talk is the appetizer for any relationship,” Debra Fine, a internationally recognised expert on communication skills and bestselling author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk,” told Business Insider.
If you’re looking to improve your small-talk skills, here are Fine’s best tips for making conversation.
1. Prepare some conversation topics based on the setting
Starting a conversation with a stranger can be daunting. How do you break the ice?
Fine suggested preparing a few conversation topics in advance.
“The best icebreaker you can use is one based on the free information about the occasion or location,” she said.
If you are at an event or party, for example, Fine recommended trying something like, “What is your connection to this event?” or, “How do you know the host?”
At an industry conference or function, you can try something like, “What do you know about the speaker?”
For a more general icebreaker, Fine said one of her go-tos is, “What keeps you busy?”
2. Be an active listener
Make sure to listen carefully when someone else is talking, Fine said. This not only makes people feel important, but also helps you listen for cues to keep the conversation going and bridge the gaps between topics.
To keep people engaged in conversation, Fine recommended actively showing the other person that you are listening through body language and verbal cues.
“Your body language is critical. You have to look like you’re listening,” Fine said. Not making eye contact, fidgeting, playing with your hair, and having a defensive posture can make youseem uncomfortable or uninterested. “That can end a conversation pretty quickly,” she said.
Another trick is to verbally express that you are listening by periodically reacting with things like, “Uh-huh,” “Right,” “OK,” “Mm-hm,” “I see,” “Oh wow,” etc., while a person speaks, along with non-verbal cues like nodding or smiling when appropriate.
“Some quieter people are so polite, they do not want to interrupt,” Fine said. “If you don’t say anything at all, you don’t encourage people to keep talking.”
3. Ask questions, but don’t interrogate people
Asking people questions about themselves is a great way to initiate small talk, but it’s important to ask the right kinds of questions.
“I would never ask ‘Are you married?’ [or] ‘Do you have any kids?'” Fine said. Not only are these questions personal, she said, but they are yes or no questions that can lead to a dead end. “What if they say no? Where are we headed in this conversation?” Fine said.
Another thing to avoid is bombarding someone with several questions like, “Where are you from?” or, “What do you do?”
“You’ve now become an FBI agent,” Fine said.
She also warns against asking questions that might put someone on the spot.
“Don’t ask questions you don’t know the answer to that might become awkward,” she said. For example, say you run into an acquaintance who was working at a particular company the last time you saw them. Fine advises not to ask anything like, “How’s your job at ____?”
“What if that person just got fired or laid off?” she said. Instead, she recommended asking something like, “What’s new with work since I last saw you?”
“It’s a very specific question that allows you to tell me what you want me to know,” Fine said. It invites detail, but doesn’t put the person on the spot.
4. Set goals and practice
Small talk, like most things in life, can getter better with practice. In fact, Fine said she was once shy and timid herself in these types of conversations.
“I hated small talk, too,” she said.She recommends setting small, attainable goals to hone your small-talk skills.
“Turn it into a task,” she advised. “Tell yourself ‘I’m going to meet three new people this week …’ Or, if you are going to a networking event, make it a goal to talk to two people.”
She compares it to training for a marathon. If you turn it into smaller goals, it will be less overwhelming, she said.
Ultimately, mastering the art of small talk will help you learn how to build relationships with people in both personal and professional settings. With good small talk skills, you can turn every conversation or networking event into an opportunity for success.
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