As we move into the season of new — new classes, new meetings, new opportunities — there’s also that looming feeling that we’re going to have to make it: small talk. And our stomach tightens and our toes curl … just a little bit.
Regardless of how extroverted or people-oriented someone might be, there’s always some skepticism surrounding small talk, I’ve found. So today, I’m showing you how to help turn skepticism into rich soil for quality conversation.
We like things large. For instance, we talk about the benefits of having a big heart. We love people with larger-than-life personalities. We are told to dream big. And subsequently, the idea of making it big becomes all the more appealing. Small, on the other hand, isn’t a quality we actively seek because there is a connotation that small is somehow less than. But that’s not true.
With most things in life you have to start small. Like small talk. It is the daily seed we plant that has the potential to bloom. But no seed becomes a flower overnight.
Good things come in small packages, and small talk is one small step in the right direction — the path of real, deep connection that can bring us hope, confidence and happiness.
We happen across these interactions daily — at the bank, the movies, when we get into an Uber ride. We ask first-tier, easy come, easy go questions and as such have conversations in passing. The kind we don’t expect to have consequence. The ones we can move through without giving anything of ourselves. These conversations have some value, seeing that it is always better to be polite. You never know when a simple smile or brief conversation might drastically change the course of a stranger’s day.
Then there are second-tier talks. The chitchat we have on first dates or coffee with new friends: What’s your relationship like with your family? How long was your last relationship? Ever been to a Taylor Swift concert? These are handshake-before-the-hug conversations, a testing of the waters. If it’s warm we might be compelled to jump in — if it’s cold, we back out slowly.
Finally, there is third-tier talk. Big talk. Real talk. The unexpected conversations that stick with us, alter the course of our afternoons, and allow us to develop our insides. We can’t expect to get to these big conversations without wading through the small waters first. Yet most of us try to avoid the introductory interactions. Just “chatting” makes us uncomfortable. We often mumble and stutter our way through these awkward early dialogues and nod along, when what we really want to do is run away. But why should such a necessary part of life be something that gives the majority of people a general sense of unease? Why the butterflies that arise during the compulsory work cocktail hour where you don’t know anyone, or the trepidation when you sit down next to a stranger at a dinner party?
But why should such a necessary part of life be something that gives the majority of people a general sense of unease?
Some of us, aware of our great fear, might even go so far as to practice in the bathroom mirror what we might say to someone over a simple coffee (been there), and as such try to come up with solutions to “surviving” small talk.
However, “surviving” small talk implies that it doesn’t matter — that we should walk away from conversations unharmed, unaffected, but let’s stop thinking of small talk as a means to an end. Let’s make it a beginning. How do we do that? We practice the art of small talk until we become our very own Picasso.
1. Once you get past the basics, get creative.
Ask a question that you would want someone to ask you. For instance, what part of your childhood did you like the best? Or if they would rather be a fly on a wall or a wall that could talk. Start with where you are comfortable — a question that you wouldn’t mind answering — and let a mutual discussion grow from there.
2. Don’t be afraid to be honest.
It is incredibly easy to feel disconnected and misunderstood — especially given the pace of social media. Honesty requires that we slow down. We must allow our thoughts the space they need to be voiced. If someone asks you about your day, they’ve given you that gift in asking. If you have the ability to be honest, the conversation that could follow might just change your whole day, week or month. Whether it is because you form an exciting new bond or because this person has a unique take on something you’re dealing with, honesty allows space for fresh perspectives. Don’t run from this.
Honesty requires that we slow down. We must allow our thoughts the space they need to be voiced.
3. Be a good listener.
To be a good talker, you have to be able to be quiet and tune into what someone else is saying. We can allow ourselves to get so worried about awkward silences that we spend half of the conversation thinking about what we are going to say next.
The art of small talk lies in our ability to be present. What you are listening for is common ground, a way to build an unexpected bridge. You will find that if you’re actively listening, it makes it easier for the conversation to ebb and flow naturally. Don’t plan; participate.
4. Focus on non-verbal communication.
This can sometimes be more important than your words. You want your body language to be open, leaning in, your eye contact strong. The more welcoming your body is to another person, the more you can get out of a chat. Everyone likes to feel safe. We talk with our bodies without knowing so. Make sure yours is open.
5. Take your time.
Don’t rattle off questions you think someone wants to be asked, or get caught in the anxiety in your head. The art of small talk lies in our ability to be present, and each conversation should be unique to that person. It is important to stop, think and ask pertinent questions. Where did you grow up is a fine place to start, but base the next question on the individual answer. For example, I love San Francisco. What made you decide to leave there?
In short, to excel at small talk you have to think about what is directly in front of you: a real person looking to connect. Don’t move mindlessly by. Conversation that is slow like honey leaves the sweetest taste. So let small become big, and big become a beginning. Because in life, one conversation may unveil another, but you’ll never know until you give the first one a shot.