12 ways to avoid awkward small talk and have real conversations

Networking laughingUniversity of Exeter/Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0You can only talk about the weather for so long.

Small talk exists for a reason.

When you first meet someone at a conference or a holiday party, you might seem a little strange if you launch right into, “What’s your favourite childhood memory?”

That said, you don’t want to get stuck talking about the fact that it’s raining hard forever. At some point, you’ll want to hear a person’s real story — why they chose to go into their current line of work or what they love about being a dad.

To help you have more meaningful conversations, we checked out some relevant Quora threads along with other advice.

Read on to find out what you should (and shouldn’t) say to spark substantive dialogue.

1. Have some ‘deep’ conversation starters on hand

Don’t expect substantive topics to instantly spring to mind. Instead, says Tracy Chou, a software engineer at Pinterest, you should approach any interaction with a few deep conversation starters ready to go.

Chou suggests reading some books on behavioural economics and pop psychology and talking about them, “since those subjects are fundamentally about people — and everyone is a person, has to interact with other people, and has opinions about their own behaviour and other people’s behaviour.”

She also recommends watching a few TED Talks — “another great source of cool ideas about the world.” We suggest starting with some TED Talks that will make you smarter about business.

2. Ask questions about topics the other person is interested in

Multiple Quora users indicated that one of the best ways to start an interesting conversation is to find something the other person is excited about. Show that you want to learn more about the topic by asking a series of questions about it.

Says Tatiana Esteves: “Try picking a topic that they are really interested in and start with a normal ‘shallow conversation.’ Then ask quite probing question[s] even if the subject isn’t that serious.”

For example, Esteves says, “if they like celebrity news, ask them if they think that the ‘celebrity culture’ is making people less happy with their lives.”

3. Find out what makes the other person special

Whatever you say, writes Joshua Evans, “avoid the awful opening phrase, ‘What do you do?'” You’ll put your conversation partner in a box where all he can talk about is his job.

Instead, Evans says you should ask, “What makes you a badass? That will induce a chuckle over drinks.”

You might even find out something crazy; perhaps they are a lawyer by day and a rock musician by night.

Raining umbrellaFlickr/Luca BoldriniWeather is like ‘the black hole of shallow conversation.’

4. Avoid discussing the weather

So it’s three degrees colder than average for December. Big deal.

“Avoid [talking about the weather] like the plague. It’s like the black hole of shallow conversation,” says Ambra Benjamin, an engineering recruiter at Facebook.

5. Assume the other person has deep thoughts

“If you assume that there is any possibility that the other person might be dull or will talk stupid, maybe you won’t ask things that draw them out in the right way and YOU will ruin the discussion by making it dull,” writes Tobias C. Brown.

In other words, assume the other person is just as eager to have meaningful conversations as you are.

6. Don’t push people to see your perspective

If you approach every conversation as an opportunity to convert people to your values and beliefs, you’ll probably have a hard time getting anyone to stick around. After all, no one likes to feel like they’re being proselytized.

“Don’t have too much of an investment in being right or persuading people to adopt your point of view,” says Joel Postman.

Instead, be open to hearing about your partner’s ideas and at least trying to understand her perspective.

7. Reveal something slightly personal

“Reveal something about yourself, and discuss how it felt and what you learned from it,” writes Jan Leadbetter. “This invariably leads to disclosures from other people. They don’t have to be massive secrets or anything like that, just something personal.”

Leadbetter’s theory is supported by science: Psychologists say that when you disclose something about yourself, other people feel inclined to do the same.

Just be careful not to get too personal. For example, you can mention how you discovered a new favourite musical artist this week — not that you’re having a clandestine affair with your coworker.

8. Talk about something specific you’re working on

When someone asks you what you do for a living, don’t simply say you’re a writer or a doctor. According to Lifehacker, you can liven up the conversation by adding a few details about something you accomplished that week.

Similarly, when you’re asked what you do for fun, talk about a recent experience you had doing your hobby, whether that’s knitting wool scarves or jogging in the park.

9. Ask for stories, not answers

It can be tempting to try breaking the ice with an innocuous question like, “How was your weekend?” or, “What’s up?”

But as Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker write on TED.com, you can elicit some more detail by asking, “What was the best part of your weekend?” or “What are you looking forward to this week?”

That way, your conversation partner can tell a story that allows you to learn more about him and what makes him tick.

10. Be less selfish

If you’re consumed with panic about how you’re coming off, it might be time to adopt a new mindset and think about how your conversation partner is feeling instead.

Writes Pham Tien Hiep:

“We view people through a selfish lens, thinking ‘What can they do for me?’ while really we should think of how we can be of service to other people.

“When we get out of our own heads and think of others, all of a sudden the right things to say come easy to us. Once we’re available for other people, we’re more available for ourselves and don’t have to think of what to say.”

11. Come up with ‘conversational sparks’

It’s fine to browse the news for potential conversation topics — as long as you take it one step further.

Jeff Callahan suggests: “For each current topic, create one ‘Conversational Spark’ to add at the end of your blurb.” His examples include: “… what do you guys think? Would you rather A or B?” and “… If you got paid $1,000 would you do XYZ?”

12. Don’t stick to a script

Public radio correspondent Celeste Headlee gave a TEDx Talk in which she distilled everything she’s learned from interviewing sources into tips for having more productive conversations. One of those tips — applicable to journalists and everyone else — is “go with the flow.”

In other words, it’s ok if your conversation doesn’t go exactly according to plan, as long as it’s interesting.

Headlee said:

“We’ve heard interviews often in which a guest is talking for several minutes and then the host comes back in and asks a question which seems like it comes out of nowhere, or it’s already been answered. That means the host probably stopped listening two minutes ago because he thought of this really clever question, and he was just bound and determined to say that.

“And we do the exact same thing. … Stories and ideas are going to come to you. You need to let them come and let them go.”

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