How often do you find yourself in a small-talk conversation? Whether it’s standing in line at the grocery store, in the church foyer after Mass, or catching up with a co-worker about their weekend, it happens to all of us all the time.
Small talk can get a bad rap. How many times can you comment on the weather, after all? But small talk doesn’t have to be painful or awkward. We asked Mikayla Douglas, whose degree focuses on media, public relations and psychology, for advice on how to stop stressing over small talk and how to start quality conversations. During her time as an undergraduate student, Mikayla served as the public relations director for the student government association at Washburn University. She also interned in community relations with Blue Cross Blue Shield, and is now a consulting analyst at Cerner.
Small talk lets us connect with all kinds of people, from the strangers in the supermarket to family members at the annual reunion. But we often take small talk for granted, and forget that small talk is something that we have to practice. If you’re ready to break away from boring small talk and start having great, intentional conversations (even with strangers!), try these six tips on how to connect with new people:
1. Learn how to read a situation
During any conversation, it is important to be able to adapt to people and situations. Someone’s body language, their tone of voice, and the subject being discussed are all verbal and non-verbal hints. After all, studies show that only 7 percent of our communication is verbal!
The rest is body language and tone. Mikayla mentions that being able read a situation is her first and foremost tip for how to become better at small talk. She said, “If you are able to read the situation effectively, you will be able to get a feel for what one in that situation may want to talk about. “
2. Be interested in someone else’s life
Are you unsure of how to start a conversation with a stranger, or afraid that you don’t have anything in common? Don’t worry. “A rule of thumb is that people love to talk about themselves,” says Mikayla. “If you ever get in a bind, don’t know what to say or are just plain curious, ask them where they’re from, their background, where they work, if they like their job, etc.” Finding a common interest or topic is helpful in any small talk situation you find yourself in.
3. Be an active listener
A small talk conversation shouldn’t feel like a crime scene interrogation. Be sure to channel your curiosity during the small-talk conversation so that the person you’re talking to doesn’t feel like they’re in an interview. Mikayla said, “When you ask a question, actively and patiently listen for their answer. Don’t bombard someone with too many questions or ask them too quickly. Be calm, cool, and collected in small talk type situations and a good listener, and you will be good to go.” By being an active listener, you stop listening to respond and start actively listening and caring about the other person. By showing active interest in what the other person is saying, you make them feel valued and important in the conversation.
4. Don’t ask yes-or-no questions
Nothing shuts down small talk faster than a yes-or-no question. In her book, The Small Talk Handbook: Easy Instructions on How to Make Small Talk in Any Situation,
author Melissa Wadsworth recommends to ask questions that “elicit interesting information. If you don’t want to find yourself faced with a ‘yes’ man or a ‘no’ woman, be sure to ask questions that need more than a one syllable answer.” Wadsworth says that one-word responses can create what she calls a “stop/start dynamic.” So, instead of asking someone if they like the speakers at the conference you are both at, ask them who their favorite speaker was so far. Instead of asking someone if they had a good weekend, ask what the favorite part of their weekend was.
5. Talk about your passions
When you’re having initial conversations with people you don’t know very well, your own life, hobbies, and passions may come up in those first conversations. An article in Psychology Today
advises to ask yourself the question: “How interesting am I?: If you’re looking for ways to improve your small-talk skills, it could be a good time to become interested in your own life as well. Explore new restaurants in town, listen to new music, or watch a new movie. You can also learn interesting information to use in small talk. Listen to the news, read a new book, or watch an intriguing documentary. Your new experiences will be fun to talk about with friends and strangers alike. You’ll have lots of nifty facts and information stored up for the next time you need them.
6. Don’t be afraid to let small talk evolve into friendship
You don’t always have to be stuck in the small-talk phase with everyone. Like all areas of growth, cultivating friendships requires deliberate action. “Over time and with regular communication, whether that be a matter of minutes, days, or months, friendships evolve; thus, conversations deepen,” Mikayla said. “I believe if you are an active communicator and listener to someone consistently, your conversations will progress and in turn, will strengthen a blossoming friendship.” Relationships take time, but the small talk phase can be maneuvered through gracefully. In a world of direct tweets and Facebook messages, we’re not used to talking to each other face to face. Small talk (and the deeper conversation that can follow) is a great way to start connecting with strangers and friends in our everyday lives off a screen.